Labour leaders keep the party on the road to its own doom
Nothing will change after mock shock at Meath East byelection result
Labour Ministers Joan Burton, Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte.
Who wrote this in February 2011, just after the general election: “The government will become deeply unpopular because promises of real change have not been realised. The smaller party will take the biggest battering, as it always does. Fine Gael will consolidate its position as the party of orthodoxy and ‘responsibility’. Labour will be devoured from two sides, its radical support eaten by Sinn Féin, the ULA and independents and its ‘respectable’ support consumed by Fine Gael. The voters who were ruthless enough to decimate Fianna Fáil will think nothing of decapitating Labour”?
Well, okay, I did. But anyone with an eye to the bloody obvious could have written the same. There were only two possibilities after the 2011 election. One was that Labour would force an immediate renegotiation of the bank bailout and the troika deal. If it failed to get radical change, it would pull out of government and allow Fianna Gael and Fine Fáil (who still had a majority between them) to form their natural coalition. The other was that Labour would take on the task that Pat Rabbitte later eloquently described as “policing the agreement foisted on us by the previous government”. That would be a suicidal betrayal of its own voters. In return for one last spin on the merry-go-round for its ageing leadership, Labour would destroy itself. We know which choice the party made.
The point of returning to what was so obvious two years ago is to put into perspective the party’s apparent shock at its abysmal fifth-place showing in the Meath East byelection last week. It is, surely, mock shock. It is possible that some naive backbenchers didn’t know what they had signed up to. But Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte are not naive. They are hardened politicians and knew what they were doing and what it would mean for their party.
They’ve been ruthless in doing whatever it takes to keep the party on the road to its own doom: knifing Joan Burton, who was too embarrassingly right about the bank bailout to be given an economic ministry; losing the stalwart vote-getter, Willie Penrose; backing James Reilly’s clientilism over Róisín Shortall’s principles; painting the party’s chairman Colm Keaveney as a flaky traitor because he was loyal to the party’s stated policies. If voters needed examples of how to politically assassinate Labour politicians the party’s leadership has shown them the way.
So I don’t believe that the leadership is shocked by last week’s humiliation. It is the consequence of its own decisions. The rest is noise, and a rather familiar noise at that. From the foot soldiers comes the whine that became so familiar in the last days of the Brian Cowen bunker: better communication, blah blah, unfair media, blah blah, tough choices, blah blah.
To take the most painful example from Friday’s Morning Ireland postmortem, Arthur Spring explained that the problem for Labour is that people don’t understand how bad things are: “The magnitude of the problem and the gravitas upon which we found ourselves when we took Government (sic) wasn’t comprehended by media, not to mind people on the doorsteps”. The solution therefore was a larger emphasis on bad news: “You have to get the goodwill of the press to comprehend and convey the magnitude of the problem that the country faces.”
This at least has the virtue of originality. The standard line is that everything is going grand and that the media naysayers are to blame for talking the economy down. The idea that the press has been playing down the scale of the country’s problems and thus damaging Labour’s prospects is intriguing. As a strategy for survival, telling people “on the doorsteps” in estates – where some wouldn’t open their doors because they feared that canvassers might be debt collectors – that they don’t understand “the magnitude of the problem” is certainly bold. Good luck with that one, Arthur, and do please let us know how you get on.
Just as we’ve known for two years that Labour was destroying itself, we also know how the leadership will respond to the byelection debacle. There will be meetings and reviews and they will conclude that it’s all about “perception” and “communication”.
There will be more reassurances that everything is getting better and that a grateful electorate will reward Labour in 2016 for the pain inflicted now. There may even be some political theatre – a review of the programme for government, perhaps. But nothing much will change because the logic of banksterity will grind on. Mass unemployment, unpayable debt, forced emigration, a refusal to transform the system that created the crisis – none of these realities will be altered significantly.
And the leadership will go on saying that the terrible things have to be done because there is no alternative. The inevitable and foreseeable logic of there being no alternative is that there is no need for a Labour party. When you’ve accepted that logic, you can’t pretend to be shocked that voters do too.