Labour must show burden of recovery is shared fairly
INSIDE POLITICS:Can Labour continue to support the Croke Park deal while protecting those dependent on social welfare?
AS THEY gather in Galway this weekend for their first national conference since returning to government after a 14-year gap, Labour Party delegates can take some pride in the fact that the party has never been in such a strong position.
Labour is celebrating the centenary of its foundation this year from the vantage point of being the second biggest party in the State. Its 100th birthday present arrived a year early when it achieved this status for the first time in its history in February of last year.
The big question for the party, and the country, is whether Labour can consolidate and build on that position or whether the experience of being in government at a time of such profound austerity will erode much of the hard-won gains.
A minority of members opposed the ideal of going into government at all on the basis that the election result gave Labour the ideal platform to remain in opposition and make a real tilt at becoming the biggest party in the country next time around.
However, the bulk of TDs and ordinary party members felt they had no choice but to join with Fine Gael in offering the country a stable government with a secure majority to try to navigate a way out of the economic morass.
Labour has been in a similar position many times before. The party went into government in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s, usually in times of recession, and paid a political price by losing seats and power to Fianna Fáil every time at subsequent elections.
Whatever happens at the next election history will not repeat itself. Labour may or may not lose seats, but a return to power of a Fianna Fáil-led government after one term in opposition is almost inconceivable.
One of the crucial differences about being in office this time around is that Labour is not being blamed for causing the economic crisis as it was on every occasion in the past. There is no doubt where responsibility for that lies, and the voters will take a long time to forgive Fianna Fáil for what happened.
The judgment that will be made on Labour when the next election comes around is whether the party has been able to help lead the country back to economic health. If Ireland has exited the bailout and sovereignty is restored by 2016 both parties in government will fancy their chances at the next election.
The real question for Labour is whether the party can cope with making the tough decisions that will be required to bring the country to that position. That is where the test of nerve will come over the next couple of years.
Sinn Féin, which has adopted the traditional opposition policy of opposing every cut and suggesting very little in the way of practical alternatives, will attack Labour from one flank, as will an assortment of left-wing groups and Independents, while a weakened Fianna Fáil will come at it from another.
It will take courage on the part of Labour Ministers and TDs to focus on the long-term goal and not be distracted by political or media attacks.
One big advantage the current party has when compared with its predecessors in previous decades is that there are no major ideological or personality splits in the ranks.
In the 1980s Dick Spring as party leader had to withstand opposition to his coalition strategy from leading members of his party like Michael D. Higgins and Emmet Stagg and constant criticism from Joe Higgins, the leader of Militant Tendency, and other left-wing forces in the party.
The open warfare between the pro- and anti-coalition factions turned Labour Party conferences in the 1970s and 1980s into riveting events but didn’t do much for public confidence in the party’s ability to govern. It was only after Spring managed to expel Militant that the party settled down to become a relatively cohesive unit.
That cohesion has survived the first year in office, but it will be tested severely in the next couple of years. The central difficulty will be where to find the huge cuts in public spending that are still required to bring the public finances into balance.
So far the Labour Party has managed to protect the pay and conditions of public servants as defined in the Croke Park agreement but whether it can continue to do that while also protecting the people dependent on social welfare will be one of the challenges in the years ahead.
For most of its history Labour saw its job as representing poorly paid trade union members and people depending on social welfare for survival. In recent decades, with the severe decline in union membership among private sector workers, Labour’s role has been to protect the totally unionised public sector.
The dilemma is that the public sector is now the best-off section of the workforce with better pay and conditions than most of the private sector, allied to total job security and remarkably generous pensions.
The case of Paul Appleby, the director of corporate enforcement who was entitled to retire at the age of 58 with a lump sum of €225,000 and an annual pension of €73,000, is just the latest in a series of pension deals for senior public servants that provide an insight into a system that has astonished outside observers, not least the European Central Bank, which is effectively funding it.
A motion before the Labour conference from the Thomas J O’Connell branch of the party suggests that no public sector pension should exceed the average industrial wage. That reflects a growing awareness that Labour needs to shift its focus to represent the concerns of hard-pressed private sector workers and not just public servants.
Finding a way to do that will be difficult, if not impossible, given the party leadership’s attachment to the Croke Park agreement.
However, if Labour is to have any chance of growing rather than contracting at the next election it will have to find a way of demonstrating that the burden of the recovery is being shared fairly across society and that no groups have special exemptions.