A litany of broken promises, public rebellions and embarrassing cock-ups have left the Labour Party in disarray. Conor McGlynn questions whether Labour will be able to turn around their fortunes and avert catastrophe before electoral wipeout.
In June 2010, an MRBI/Irish Times poll caused an upset in the political landscape, a landscape that was at the time no stranger to shocks. For the first time in the history of the State, Labour was the biggest party in Ireland. They had polled an impressive 32%, beating out a second place Fine Gael by a margin of 4 points. When the general election came around in February 2011, they received a more modest yet still record breaking 19% of the popular vote. They entered government with more seats than Labour had ever had, in a government that held an overwhelming majority in the Dáil, and with as strong a mandate from the electorate as any party could hope to have. Earlier this month, a little over three years since their high-water mark, an MRBI/Irish Times poll caused another, perhaps not so great, upset in a still turbulent political landscape. An embattled Labour Party polled at 6%, a full 16 points behind third-place Fianna Fáil. This poll represented a 26-point decrease from 2010. What went wrong? Why has Labour felt the brunt of the backlash against the Government while Fine Gael (although they have fallen a number of points since the election) are still the most popular party in the country? The answer, I think, lies both in their actions in Government, and the promises they made prior to the election.
What makes Labour unique, and what has made them so detestable to the electorate, is the arrogant and brazen way they went about it. They didn’t just make promises they didn’t keep; they made promises they knew they would be unable to keep. Reckless promising was a policy, one that they tried to justify by claims that they were saving the country from an even worse fate in the hands of Fianna Fáil. The actions of Labour in Government have alienated not only large sections of the electorate, but also many members of the party.
Let’s first look at pre-election promises. It is a fact that basically every political party will tell lies and half-truths to ensure their own election. Where Labour fell down, however, is that they don’t seem to have been very good at this. Almost every student will remember Ruairí Quinn, future Minister for Education, standing outside Front Arch signing a pledge not to increase fees. Parents will remember a “red line” being drawn on child-benefit. The infamous ‘It’s Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ wasn’t exactly an untruth – it was indeed Frankfurt’s way. Broken pre-election promises are not a new development in politics, and Labour is not alone in having done this. What makes Labour unique, and what has made them so detestable to the electorate, is the arrogant and brazen way they went about it. They didn’t just make promises they didn’t keep; they made promises they knew they would be unable to keep. Reckless promising was a policy, one that they tried to justify by claims that they were saving the country from an even worse fate in the hands of Fianna Fáil. The actions of Labour in Government have alienated not only large sections of the electorate, but also many members of the party. Patrick Nulty, elected as a TD in a by-election in October 2011, lost the party whip less than two months later for voting against a VAT increase in the budget. Colm Keaveney, TD and former Chairman of the Labour Party, lost the whip in 2012 when he voted against a cut to the respite care allowance in the December budget. Perhaps the most dramatic incident occurred in September 2012, when Róisín Shortall resigned the party whip. Shortall spoke out about the slow pace of health reform under James Reilly, as well as the Minister’s interfering with her shortlist of planned primary care centres. The Labour leadership decided not to support Shortall, instead siding with their coalition partners; a move that led to her eventual resignation from the party.
Labour’s unflinching acquiescence to Fine Gael, in the light of some questionable dealings, was an indictment of the leadership and clearly demonstrated the core philosophy of the party: get into power, and retain it at all costs. The public nature of these party feuds, as well as in many cases sympathy for the rebels, has soured public opinion towards the party. Far from setting a high standard of political integrity, Labour has revealed itself to be just as cynical and manipulative as any other party in the Dáil. Labour entered government in a time of almost unprecedented economic hardship. They ran on a platform of recovery, of growth and jobs. They promised to act as a check on the excesses of Fine Gael spending cuts. The reality has been grotesquely different. Instead of acting as a bulwark against austerity, Labour has facilitated budget after budget targeting low and middle income households. Ironically, there have been few governments which have been as harsh on labour as this one.
Historically, Labour has been no stranger to pulling the plug on their coalition partners. No doubt, under different circumstances, Labour would now be tempted to repeat its pulling-the-plug exercise on some pretence of troubled consciences with the actions of Fine Gael. The party leadership has, however, learned from the experience of the Green Party in the last Government. The Greens got cold feet in the face of the scale of the austerity that would have to be imposed, and pulled out before their approval ratings could fall further. They paid for their weak stomach in the election: they got less than 2% of the popular vote, and lost all six of their seats. The Labour hierarchy knows better: if they don’t hang together then they will surely hang separately. The Labour Ministers who are presently in government were, prior to the 2011 General Election, consistently rejected by the electorate for well over a decade. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent economic downturn, in many respects saved the party. It rescued them from their fate as a mediocre opposition and made them relevant once more. Unfortunately, their actions in Government have shown the party to be unworthy of the offices awarded to them. If there was an election in the morning, they would most likely be obliterated. Their only hope now is to hold on, and to pray that things get better before 2016.