Labour will have to prove it left country a better place
Inside Politics:The tensions generated by the current talks on extending the Croke Park agreement have reinforced the cliche that the Labour Party is bound to suffer badly at the next election for taking part in government in a time of austerity.
Only time will tell whether Labour does get a pounding when the voters give their verdict but there is nothing inevitable about it. A lot will depend on whether the Coalition delivers on its pledge to restore the country’s economic sovereignty but even more will hinge on the credit Labour can get for that achievement.
The dilemma facing Labour every time it goes into coalition is whether it is better to take power, exercise a degree of influence over events and implement some of its policies or stay in opposition and fulminate to its heart’s content.
After the last election, which took place at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, there was no other feasible government capable of providing the stability needed for national recovery. A Fine Gael minority administration backed by Independents was never a realistic option as the behaviour of most of the Independents has since demonstrated.
Labour did what was required to give the country a stable government. It was more than simply giving in to the lure of power as its legion of detractors maintain. Many of its TDs recognised that it would have made more sense in terms of pure party self-interest for Labour to stay in opposition and attack those attempting to govern.
That might have kept Sinn Féin at bay and blocked a Fianna Fáil recovery but where would the country be now? The obvious downside of taking power in a time of economic crisis is the inevitable unpopularity that follows. An added difficulty is that the bigger the contribution Labour is able to make to Government policy, the more it is exposed to criticism from those on the left who are addicted to the politics of protest and recoil from the politics of power.
The public service pay talks are an example of the dilemma. The party is not just part of a government that has to reduce the public service pay bill. One of its senior Ministers, Brendan Howlin, is actually in charge of the negotiations.
On one level it would be easier for Labour if a Fine Gael Minister had been entrusted with cutting the pay bill. The party would be less exposed to the fall-out from the trade unions but would have far less influence over the shape of the deal. A Fine Gael-imposed pay cut might also have strained the Coalition to breaking point. As it is, Howlin is in a better position than his Fine Gael colleagues to get a deal with the unions that is well tailored in terms of fairness and equity rather than a crude across-the-board pay cut.
The intensity of the campaign being waged by those who stand to lose a range of premium payments and allowances is a clear indication that the Government negotiators know what they are about.