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Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the working class. September 9, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.


It’s always good to see one’s thoughts – and prejudices – supported by some external authority. In this instance I’m talking about Fintan O’Toole who in the Irish Times two weekends ago echoed (entirely unknowingly I’m sure) some of the points I made the previous week about the Labour Party. In particular he noted that both Fianna Fáil, and to a lesser extent Sinn Féin, were able to call upon the support of a significant tranche of the working class. As he notes:

What really marks it out from other mainstream social democratic parties in Europe is that it doesn’t get the support of the old working class. Fianna Fáil and, to a lesser extent, Sinn Féin, occupy too much of Labour’s natural territory. One of the things the party has to do if it is ever to become even the largest party in a coalition government is, oddly enough, to connect with the working class.

This isn’t just a detail. Labour projects itself as the major party of the left in the 26 counties. So if the left is able to get, what, 11 to 12% of the popular vote, and a minority of the working class vote then we have to question the nature of that left.

I’ve mentioned how I always found the vociferously negative attitude of some I knew in the LP, people I would have considerable respect for on almost every axis bar this, to Sinn Féin (but this also carried through to Fianna Fáil) extremely off-putting. And I’ve found it not just off-putting but actually counter productive. Because if one has a contemptuous attitude towards political rivals who are actually (and obviously in the case of SF I’m talking about particular instances, not the generality) more successful than one is in political endeavour then isn’t it plausible to suggest that such an approach might not connect with those very people the electoral rivals are doing so well with. If one maintains an effective pretense – and it is a pretense, because as I know from direct conversations the LP was willing to go into coalition with FF and as we know from the Senate was also willing to work directly with SF – that somehow either FF or SF are somehow more than simple electoral rivals and in some strange fashion embody all the ills of this society then this attitude will be seen as not just a reflection on those parties, but those who vote for them.

I talk to a lot of LP people (indeed I’d count them amongst my friends 🙂 ) and I genuinely think that the discourse some of them use is in political terms bizarre. It may well be that other parties are composed of crooks, or that others are only a step away from terrorism. But in both instances there are parties which the LP has worked with – or subsumed – who could have had similar charges made against.

How does this play in the world beyond pure politics? How does a Labour Party which appears to be unable to deal with Fianna Fáil in even the most basic pragmatic terms – re: government building, and at that building government with one of the most popular administrations of recent history – go to the working class and explain this disdain? How can it propose that it is serious about power, serious about the working class, or even serious about the concerns of a working class which maintains an unfortunate loyalty to the other party?

How then does it engage with another section of the working class (and in truth these may overlap) which supports Sinn Féin? A section which is clearly voting for a left message as well as (or perhaps sometimes in spite of) a Republican message. And I’ve noted previously how a fair chunk of the old DL/WP vote seems to have crossed over to SF – although in fairness another chunk of that vote went with the DL TDs after the merger with the LP – a vote that thankfully was sufficiently concentrated to boost them from their more usual 16 to the 20-22 mark. Handy, no doubt, but hardly a revolutionary step forward.

If the message coming from Labour on the personal level, and on the political level, is one that abhors the choices made by the Irish working class time and again, and refuses even to work with those choices, isn’t it possible that Labour is rendering itself slowly redundant as a party of the left (and this is a dynamic I think we often see with the much smaller left parties – being told one doesn’t get it isn’t the most apposite of tactics for increasing support)?

Again, for me the most bizarre aspect of the Mullingar Accord was not the Accord itself, but the seeming inability of those within the LP to attempt to push post-election for the implementation of a strong social democratic voice in the government of this state. To me that seems not so much a principled position as an incredible failure to recognise responsibility. And while I accept there are arguments regarding various issues are those issues more important than the character this society would reflect – even tangentially – with a strong social democratic voice in government? Because if, as I believe, Labour has even a residual potential to shape this society for the better – and the optimum situation would be the LP working with other progressive forces – then the onus was on it to make an effort to see if it could actually implement aspects of that programme in government. It might have failed in the effort, but in failure it could then turn and say it had taken a principled left stand, rather than stayed true to what should have never been more than a tactical alliance with a right of centre party.

The nature of that alliance, again with a party whose links with the working class and indeed the left appear rather tenuous at best, also calls into question whether there is any understanding of the shape and tenor of our society on the part of those who proposed it. The logic of coalescing in a failed alliance with a party arguably somewhat further to the right of FF escapes me. What great principle is at work here?

This isn’t an argument for falling for the blandishments of FF. Indeed the option of refusing power in such a context might also be instructive to a growing political constituency. But… the point is that at the very least it might convince some elements of those who vote for FF and SF that Labour was willing to engage…and would appear very different from the recent SF tactic of chucking policy ballast over the side of the boat as the election neared if only because there is a distinction between being serious about being politics and appearing simply to try to mould ones political beliefs to the general consensus.

Again we return to a distortion of our political system, one which Labour has happily done it’s inimitable bit to perpetuate, whereby a clear left/right ideological course where parties with a greater political affinity on that axis are somehow transformed into antagonists of the darkest hue rather than parties further right again. There is an argument, and it’s a valid one, that during the 1970s and 1980s the ‘liberal agenda’ necessitated close ties with Fine Gael. I’m perhaps being a bit unfair here, but isn’t it possible that that tilt tended paradoxically to detach Labour from the working class, identifying it as an outrider for FG, even ironically as the society broadly accepted, even quietly welcomed, the social changes? And no one thanks political parties for what they’ve done, it’s what they intend to do that grabs the voter. Social change, the North, neither linked in in any clear way to either the FG/Lab vote or indeed the FF vote. The thing is, other than a proper secularisation of the society (the necessity being something that Wednesday has pointed to recently) and a number of obvious other issues the ‘liberal’ social agenda is close to completion. In that context is it entirely surprising that the most recent version of Fine Gael has, in real terms, been of a rather more centre right hue than the glory days of FitzGerald? So why then did Labour strap itself to the mast in order to avoid the Siren voices of FF, only to see the good ship Mullingar Accord crash to pieces on the rocks of a successful, but really not quite successful enough alliance?

In a way, at this remove, I’m beginning to have a certain admiration for the Green Party. They knew exactly what they wanted, which was government, and once focussed on that goal they did all they had to to ensure they were in power. Of course it helps if one has an issue such as climate change which can pretty well trump all others as the end goal of a political project – what is larger than the fate of the planet? The choice being beetween seeing everyone broiled alive in twenty years as temperatures and sea levels rise across the planet or build a road? Er… well if I’m a GP supporter or member most likely I’ll take the road, and that pesky airport and indeed the shiny new private hospital. Yet, for all the paradoxes implicit in those selections (a very political form of triage) there remains a certain iron rigour – indeed a logic, even if one adopts very different viewpoints on those other issues – in the approach of the GP. But wait, Labour also has an issue, the construction of a truly social democratic (or democratic socialist – and yeah, therein lies another story) Republic of Ireland (incidentally as I write that I’m conscious of the curious fact that of Labour, the GP and SF, only Labour has no clear links north of the Border – how very interesting). That’s no less a project in terms of the impact it would have on Irish people… yet you’d go a long way before you heard any hint of putting real substance to that rhetoric in recent times. That’s as important, perhaps more so, than the sins of commission and omission of Fianna Fáil, a party which even it’s most ardent proponents accept will assume to some extent the character of those it is allied with.

This may appear to be a harsh analysis of Labour. Yet as a party it actually has considerable potential. Fintan O’Toole noted that:

it needs to avoid the temptation to follow the line most often articulated by media commentators who are queuing up to present Labour’s problem as a failure to connect with the values of the Celtic Tiger (and a big hi there to John Waters on Monday). For a start, it is simply not true that Labour’s biggest problem is that it is out of synch with a young, vibrant prosperous Ireland. The RTÉ/Lansdowne exit poll for last May’s general election tells quite a different story. Labour values are not meaningless to the young: Labour did better – at 14 per cent support – with 18- to 29-year-olds than with any other age group. The party has in fact been steadily increasing its appeal to first-time voters over the last decade: 10 per cent of them voted Labour in 1997, 13 per cent in 2002 and 16 per cent in 2007.

Shadowboxing with Fianna Fáil is great craic. Pat Rabbitte made a fine career in the 1990s from it. Dick Spring a somewhat shorter one. And indeed Fine Gael can tell us that, particularly now that they have the luxury of 50 plus TDs and five years to contemplate just how great it is. Being of the ‘one more push’ school perhaps they have high hopes for 2012. I wouldn’t. But by contrast Labour has a real opportunity to rework itself, to establish what it’s aims are and then to engage. Eamon Gilmore has made something of a start by ruling out pre-election alliances. And if they and he are going to stick to that perhaps they should do more than shadowbox and sit down and consider just why is Fianna Fáil more representative of the working class than they are, and just how Sinn Féin reaches the parts they can’t seem to?

Incidentally, is it just me or is Mark Hennessy’s rhetoric in the IT last Tuesday not a bit inappropriate. Apparently we were treated to the prospect that: Labour TD Éamon Gilmore is expected to be crowned leader of the Labour Party on Thursday, following the decision of Dublin North East TD Tommy Broughan last night to rule himself finally out of contention.

Wow. That’s a long way from the old WP line….So that’s why I never sent the application form in… 🙂


1. Craig - September 9, 2007

Good post, WBS. The question of working-class support for Labour and Fianna Fail is always an intruiging one, and should be regardless of one’s personal politics.

“The logic of coalescing in a failed alliance with a party arguably somewhat further to the right of FF escapes me. What great principle is at work here?”

The only principle I can suggest in that case is the principle of history. Some parts of Labour are simply tied to the notion of an anti-FF alliance with the Blueshirts. It’s bizarre from a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, but has become seemingly entrenched…


2. sonofstan - September 9, 2007

There’s a lot in what you say, WBS, and I’d like to go into it in some detail later, but one thing which i think is important on the Lab/ FF thing is this; any time Labour has grown its vote since the 70s, it ghas done so largely by harnassing predominantly middle class anti- FF sentiment. After the Spring tide, I remember an argument with my mother who had just given Labour a first preference for the first time in her long life; she was horrified at the prospect of Spring even talking to FF. I, then a Labour member, had no such problem, once Haughey was out of the way, I didn’t and still don’t see why tweedledum is to be preferred to tweedledee.

The point is that the only territory the Labour vote can grow into is anti FF country; it’s never going to chip off enough votes from FF to make a difference to it’s performance and it never gets transfers from that direction. I think that it would take a virtual collapse of FF – akin to what happened to the Christian Democrats in Italy – before Labour would make any inroads into that section of the electorate.


3. JW - September 17, 2007

Labour does have some links to the North in the form of Mark Langhmmer (cf. BICO posts elsewhere) who performs the amazing task of standing on a republican platform for a Dublin-based party in a loyalist area just outside Belfast while still having both knees intact.


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