Labour will have to prove it left country a better place
Of course Labour will have a problem whether a deal is agreed or, in the event of failure, a solution is imposed. The vocal minority who lose most will blame the party while those who emerge relatively unscathed will probably remain unaware of who protected their interests.
The same applies in social welfare, another major area of concern for Labour. Much-needed reform of the system is long overdue but it will inevitably provoke opposition from those who lose out while Labour’s achievement in protecting basic social welfare rates at a time of austerity may be taken for granted.
It is the classic problem of any party in government but it particularly applies to Labour. The public remains unaware of all the effort that goes into avoiding a range of disasters but is only too well aware of the negative consequences of government action that affects them individually.
Where Labour and its Coalition partner made the big political error was in not taking decisive action immediately after taking power. Spring 2011 was the time to cut public service pay, introduce a property tax and reform the welfare system.
At that stage the public was still in shock from the way a decade of Fianna Fáil economic mismanagement had led to the EU-IMF bailout and would have been prepared to blame the previous government.
Of course we will never know the social consequences that would have followed immediate and drastic action in the early months of the Coalition but politically it could hardly have been worse in the long run than the impact of constant grinding cuts and tax increases.
Another problem is that Labour’s behaviour in opposition in the two years leading up to the election didn’t prepare its supporters for the kinds of action it would have to take in government. Whether that was due to short-term political opportunism or a failure to appreciate the scale of the crisis doesn’t much matter at this stage. What does matter is that too many of the people who voted Labour expected something different.
The bottom line for the party, though, will be whether it leaves the country a better place than it found it and already all the indications are that it will deliver on that core objective.
The deal on the promissory notes put the seal on two years of achievement in getting the national finances back in order. Over the next two to three years the party will have to show what that means in terms of improving the lives and, more crucially, the long-term prospects for ordinary citizens.
Continuing reform of the tax and welfare systems will inevitably make a lot of people feel aggrieved but the critical thing will be whether people are feeling more optimistic about the future by the time the next election comes around. If they are, Labour might defy the prophets of doom as it has done in the past.