Monday 27 August 2007

Labour is Doomed to Subordinate Role

I have bad news for the next Labour leader - only an earthquake in the Irish political landscape will enable Labour to shake off its second tier status. They don't need branding, a new message, a makeover. They need an earthquake.

In order for Labour to fulfil its ambitions it just has to make a break through on the middle ground. This is the only way to grow politically in an Ireland where the middle class is predominant and where traditional Labour territory is shrinking (union power and worker-driven issues). Moving to the middle is exactly what Pat Rabitte tried, with his business-friendly commitment to "maintain a prosperous, enterprising economy". He even pledged to reduce taxes. But pitching for the middle ground was never going to work, for there was never enough space to admit Labour.

The trouble is that the two bigger parties are all-encompassing, flexible, and often populist. Fianna Fáil is the tree frog that instantly changes colour. If you want green, Fianna Fáil are green. If you want red, Bertie is a socialist. If you want enterprise, Fianna Fáil are pro-business. If you want stability, Fianna Fáil are conservative. And Fine Gael are just poor imitations of the same. But above all, both are firmly anchored in the centre.

But Labour Made it In Britain?

That's right. But Labour surged ahead of the Whigs cum Liberals in the early part of the 20th century. This was a time, however, when Britain and Europe were undergoing fundamental change. For decades, the question of the Labour versus Capital had dominated political debate. The tyranny of capital was about to be replaced by the tyranny of planned economy. Britain's empire was beginning to crumble. To paraphrase Tony Blair, the kaleidoscope had been shaken, and the pieces were in flux. When those pieces settled, Labour had moved from 2nd tier to first in British politics.

Their fortunes waxed and waned since then, but once the structure of the system had been altered to admit them to first rank, they'd always be a major player. A notion called "path dependency" would ensure that Labour were likely to remain in contention until the next reconfiguration, which hasn’t happened yet. (What will it be, PR for Britain, Scottish Independence?).

The idea has two levels, both of which are relevant here. First, it essentially means that “history matters”. In other words, now that Labour is first tier in Britain, it was propelled there by historical forces and it doesn't matter now that those forces aren't present. The party is locked in. The second, and related meaning is that institutions tend to be self-reinforcing. They have inertia and a propensity to ensure their own survival, regardless of their original raison d'être.

Labour should be radical?

Only if they crave oblivion. Radical politics is by definition on the fringe and is unlikely to bring electoral success. Ocassionally radical thinking happens to evolve to become mainstream, rather like the way Irish parties raided the PD wardrobe. But the PDs latched on to an historical tide: the rise of neo-liberal thinking in Washington and London. They were clever to spot it and were sufficiently tenacious to ride the wave long enough to see many of their policies being widely adopted. There was, of course, another historical force at play. It goes by the name of Charles J Haughey. A towering but hugely divisive figure, he provided the impetus for the split that gave birth to the PDs. But once both of these tides had washed over, the Party returned to obscurity, where it will surely lie, hoping forlornly for the next big wave.

To conclude, there can be no big break for Labour without that earthquake. And it has to be high on the Richter scale. Even the collapse of Fine Gael in 2002 was insufficient to shake the kaleidoscope. Certainly, a moderate recession - quite likely before the next election - would not provide enough for a Labour breakthrough. Fianna Fáil losses (certain after a recession and minus Bertie) will be shared between Fine Gael, Labour and marginal players. That might be enough to see Labour in power, but it will never be enough to allow them to play anything more than a supporting role.


Carrigaline said...

If you ask me, Rabbitte's tenure of the Labour party leader has been a failure and he simply had to go. Despite the FF/PD government being on the ropes and the guarantee of FG second preferences, Labour actually ended up losing a seat.

Looking forward to the next election, I don't see any of the present leadership candidates being able to take the part into a direction that will win them new seats.

sarah25 said...

Coming after the massive show of strength by the unions during the Irish Ferries dispute, this call succeeded in moving the debate away from workers rights and onto the basest populist nonsense. It pits worker against worker not worker against boss. The strategy of the progressive wing of the labour movement is to recruit the new EU workers into the unions and keep the standards of employment up. “Workers of the world unite” was an old slogan that Pat Rabbitte should remember from his Workers Party days. But when power is the objective principle is an expensive commodity.

Labour is Doomed to Subordinate Role