Labour restiveness is an expression of vulnerability

Sat, Jun 16, 2012, 01:00

Labour’s young TDs have most to lose from the recent collapse in support for the party

AT SOME point in the early 1980s, as the Labour Party held another in a series of crisis meetings about coalition or some other internally divisive issue, its leader Frank Cluskey enquired why now President Michael D Higgins was absent. Hearing that Higgins was on an emergency visit to the Middle East, Cluskey quipped: “Trust Michael D to take the easy option. He chose saving the world over saving the Labour party.”

This week Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, was on a visit to Georgia and neighbouring countries. As a result he missed the Labour Party parliamentary party meeting at which the first open suggestions emerged of discontent within his backbenches. It would be overstating it to suggest Gilmore took the easy option visiting the unstable former Russian republics but he will have to deal with some Labour Party instability on his return.

The Labour Party’s attitude to coalition and indeed to the need for internal party discipline has matured since the 1980s. In the latter part of that decade they re-entered coalition with Fine Gael and although disagreements over budgetary strategy saw the Garret FitzGerald-Dick Spring government come to a precipitous end, it was not acrimonious.

During that time the late Jim Kemmy, then party chairman, carved out a useful role as a public spokesman for the party itself as distinct from the Labour ministers. The colourful Limerick deputy made regular appearances before cameras and microphones on the Leinster House plinth to voice concern on behalf of the Labour Party at particular government proposals and to warn that Fine Gael colleagues should not take his party for granted. More often than not Kemmy did so with the quiet encouragement of Labour ministers.

Michael McDowell – then outside the Dáil – played a similar role as chairman of the Progressive Democrats during the 1989-1991 Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government. McDowell proved a particular irritant for minister for finance Albert Reynolds who took to issuing public statements through Fianna Fáil headquarters responding to McDowell’s comments on tax and spending policy.

The role of the chairman of the minor coalition partner, running interference for his party when it felt its position threatened, was well established, therefore, before Dan Boyle stepped into the position for the Greens in the Bertie Ahern-led 2007-2009 government and, more prominently, during the Brian Cowen-led 2009-2011 government.

Boyle brought a particular edginess to the task by reason of his personality and his prolific and, at times, acerbic use of Twitter. In his recently published account of politics in those years, Without Power or Glory, Boyle gives a fascinating insight into relations between Fianna Fáil and the Greens as their government struck economic and then political disaster.

It was once said that memoirs by lower-order politicians or political advisers can be summed up in one sentence: “The party always did the right things except on the few occasions when it didn’t do as I advised.” There is an element of this in Boyle’s book: he attributes almost everything good that government did to Green Party efforts while all wrongs were somebody else’s doing.

Their position outside Cabinet affords party chairmen greater freedom to assert their party position. However, they are also often not fully apprised of facts and are not as central to decision-making as they might like to suggest.

When, at last autumn’s conference, the Labour Party elected new backbencher Colm Keaveney as its chairman, it was apparent that the grassroots wanted a more outspoken advocate of the party’s position. They may have got even more than they bargained for.

Some months ago, when Fine Gael party chairman Charlie Flanagan wondered on twitter whether Joan Burton might have a coalition death wish, Keaveney accused him of cyber-bullying. This week Keaveney called for a ballot of Labour Party members before any second bailout deal was entered into by the Government. He followed this up in interviews in which he suggested that because Labour had chosen to take the big-spending ministries, Fine Gael ministers were somehow insulated from the harshness of the cuts and had a certain degree of comfort with the austerity insisted on by Brussels.

It was an extraordinary intervention on several levels. Ministers, in particular Eamon Gilmore at Foreign Affairs and Brendan Howlin at Public Expenditure, have been at pains to play down any talk at this stage of Ireland needing a second bailout. It is not clear why Labour Party members should have a ballot on a second bailout and not also on, for example, the dramatic spending and taxation decisions which Labour in government will have to make in next December’s budget.

Keaveney suggested that Labour Ministers need a fresh mandate from party members before they could sign up to another bailout. Following that logic it could be argued that the Labour Ministers and the Government generally should have a fresh mandate from the electorate if and when it comes to a second bailout. Why should Labour Party members have the only veto on its terms?

Labour knows its situation is vulnerable. Most of the Labour Ministers are men on the last laps of their political careers. They are focused on what they see as the national objective in tackling the fiscal crisis. Their younger, newer backbenchers have more to fear from the collapse in Labour support suggested by recent polls.

This is the context for attempts by Keaveney and others to assert the party’s independence within the coalition and to seek to tighten the hold which Labour Party deputies and members have over their Ministers. Their approach comes with considerable risks for the cohesion of the Labour Party itself and of the Coalition.

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