Labour's volatility has reached level of serious threat to Coalition's future
The Labour Party has had many splits in its history. In the 1950s it divided into two parties. In later decades, its involvement in coalitions gave rise to monumental internal struggles and, in the early 1980s, even led to the defection of a Labour Party leader to Fine Gael.
The current divisions in the Labour Party are, however, the biggest threat to party cohesion for decades. The volatility in Labour and its environs is also a significant threat to the cohesion of the Government itself. The odds are shortening on the lifespan of this Coalition.
Tommy Broughan’s loss of the party whip was not surprising. Willie Penrose’s resignation as a minister of state arose from a particular constituency issue. Patrick Nulty was only a couple of months in Dáil Éireann when he jumped ship but even during the byelection he had been semi-detached from party policy.
The two more recent resignations are of an entirely different order. Róisín Shortall was a contender for a Cabinet position when Labour went back into the Government in February 2011.
Instead she struggled for 18 months as minister of state in the Department of Health seeking to implement Labour policy in primary care. When Minister for Health James Reilly undermined her, she got little support from her Cabinet-level colleagues and ultimately resigned.
In so doing, she gave up her ministerial pay, abandoned additional pension entitlements and refused to take up the out-of-office payment. Freedom of Information requests since Shortall resigned have more than confirmed her version of how the reordering of primary care centres was driven by Reilly’s political and constituency considerations.
Colm Keaveney surprised many by voting against the harsher provisions of the Social Welfare Bill. Once, if a deputy wished to oppose a budget they voted against measures on budget night itself.
When Keaveney did not do so he was taunted on Twitter and elsewhere for talking tough on social protection but not following through. On Wednesday night, he was largely silent and it seemed the Government had got the budget through without defections. The next day when it came to the precise provisions about respite care and child benefit, Keaveney voted with the Opposition.
Keaveney cannot be dismissed as one of the usual hotheads. He is a thoughtful, if intense, politician. He engaged extensively with Labour Ministers about the budget, at one stage, according to reports, producing spreadsheets showing the adverse effect of some of the proposals. When his representations to Joan Burton did not lead to changes in the Social Welfare Bill, he voted against it.
Keaveney also holds a significant position within the party as chairman. Like the leader and deputy leader, he is directly elected to that position by the party membership, in his case at party conference. He won the position despite the opposition of the party hierarchy, who would have preferred either Derek Keating or Brian O’Shea.
Keaveney, if he stays as chairman, will continue to preside over meetings of the Labour Party’s executive council.
He will also chair meetings of the central council and will, of course, chair the party’s next conference. The next Labour Party conference was scheduled for April but has been postponed to the autumn because of the Irish presidency of the European Union.
Some argue that Keaveney’s actions were motivated by his precarious constituency position. He holds what is perhaps the most marginal Labour seat. He polled less than a third of a quota on the first count in Galway East, then a four-seater, in February 2011.
His running mate, Lorraine Higgins, a favourite of party HQ who has since been nominated to Seanad Éireann, polled another third of a quota and Keaveney was elected to the last seat when she was eliminated. Since then, Galway East has been reduced to a three-seater and a large chunk of Keaveney’s base has been redrawn into Roscommon. The additional profile from his dissent this week may assist him locally, but it’s not clear that it will necessarily ensure his survival.
Instead of containing the impact of Keaveney’s resignation, Eamon Gilmore and his Ministers have made it worse. The best approach is to express regret at the loss of a fine colleague but tactfully beg to differ with him on his policy stance.
Instead, yesterday, Labour deployed its biggest media beast, Pat Rabbitte, to deliver a vicious volley at Keaveney and the other Labour malcontents. On Morning Ireland, Rabbitte characterised the dissidents as selfish and politically narcissistic and (in a remark clearly directed at Róisín Shortall) accused them of spouting calculated venom. He suggested they were all behaving like attention-seeking ballet dancers.
Rabbitte’s outburst may have been provoked by the earlier contribution of former general secretary Ray Kavanagh to the same programme. He said he hoped Keaveney would stay in the party and use his influence to change aspects of Labour Party government. It is clear some old Labour scores are being settled in public.
Later the same day, party whip Emmet Stagg, a man who knows of old how the position of party chairman can be used to undermine a Labour leader, described Keaveney’s continuation as untenable. Meanwhile, Nessa Childers MEP and Senator John White continue to make dissident noises off stage.
On current poll figures Labour will lose at least half of its seats in the next election. If they keep these shenanigans up for much longer their losses will be greater, and that election will come sooner.