Labour’s disastrous election reflects the crisis in European social democracy
Opinion: The major unions’ leaderships likely to suffer reputational damage from the falling rubble of Labour principles
‘Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Joan Burton and the rest made their choice and may never be forgiven.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The collapse of the Labour vote in last week’s elections in the Republic can, of course, be put down to the abject performance of the party in Government, not just in relation to austerity but also to the way Eamon Gilmore and his associates took to power and preferment like ducks to water.
Labour leaders didn’t just embrace the austerity programme but gathered it to their bosoms, basked in the praise of right- wing commentators and Eurocrats and then boasted of their own courage in abandoning both the programme they had been elected on and the general interests of their natural supporters. Their mantra was: we have shown we are willing to take the hard decisions.
In fact, they took the easy option at every turn. The hard choice would have been to eschew government, organise their supporters and appeal to union affiliates to join in active opposition to the troika’s edict. But no chance of that when Cabinet seats were on offer.
All in “the national interest”, of course. That old one.
The party’s approach to the stroke politics and cronyism which it had pledged to eradicate became evident in 2011 when it insisted on Department of Finance secretary general Kevin Cardiff, deeply involved in the bailout debacle, being appointed to a €276,000 position in the European Court of Auditors.
MEP Nessa Childers was roundly abused and driven out of the party when she objected. Naturally, she retained her seat in Dublin.
Among those likely to suffer at least reputational damage from the falling rubble of Labour principles will be the major unions’ leaderships. The Labour Party was founded in 1912 by a union conference in Clonmel, envisaged as the movement’s political wing. Although they have never enjoyed the influence within the party of their counterparts across the water, the connection remains important to Labour and the party is still to some extent seen as the unions’ voice in parliament.
A number of unions, including the largest in the country, Siptu, remain affiliated to the party.
It was mainly out of commitment to Labour that the unions’ anti-austerity strategy – if such it can be called – amounted to little more than marching the members to the top of the hill and then ordering an immediate about-turn and back down again in disciplined order. The argument was that without Labour in government things would be even worse.
The unions’ refusal on this ground to mount serious opposition to troika/ Coalition measures has been the main reason for the much-commented-on absence of mass action on the streets in response to the continuing wave of attacks on the living standards of the less well-off.
None of this is a specifically Irish development. Social democracy has been on a slow retreat in Europe for decades. More recently, as the crisis in capitalism – not just in the banking sector – has deepened, the retreat has become a rout.
Ukip’s success in the UK has somewhat obscured the fact that Labour’s performance marked the first occasion on which the main opposition party at Westminster has failed to top the poll in an EU election. The share of the vote was the lowest since 1984, when the party was in bits under the hapless leadership of Neil Kinnock.
In France, the neo-Nazi-contaminated Front National took just short of a quarter of the poll while President François Hollande’s Socialist Party sank to 14 per cent – against a score of 29 per cent of first preferences in the presidential election just two years ago and 51 per cent in the run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy.
In Greece, the Olive Tree coalition, which includes Pasok, once the dominant political force in the country, polled a miserable 8 per cent, while the anti-austerity, pro-EU Syriza topped the poll with 26 per cent.
Germany alone among major countries bucked the trend, the Social Democrats at 27.6 percent only marginally down since the last European poll. Germany hasn’t escaped unscathed, but has so far come through the crisis in relatively reasonable shape.
In every case, social democrats had implemented austerity programmes and then haemorrhaged support to both the left and the right.
Economic and consequent social change underpins social democracy’s decline. Growth allows for reform and rising living standards without doing damage to the system, which is what social democracy exists to deliver. But when the system slows and seizes up, social democratic parties are incapable of winning reforms to benefit those in the bottom half of society.
They are then faced with a choice: either forget about government and challenge the system at a fundamental level, or betray those who have supported you in order to shore the system up. Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Joan Burton and the rest made their choice and may never be forgiven.
* This article was amended on May 30th, 2014 for clarity.