Rabbitte pins hopes on new 'democratic alliance' to oust FF
Analysis: It's yes to a new rainbow government, no to the citizenship referendum, writes Mark Brennock.
For an event that was not a decision-making conference of the kind Labour holds every two years, the weekend party rally in Dublin - timed to secure publicity before the June elections - produced a lot of politics. The party leader, Mr Pat Rabbitte, laid out more clearly than before his strategy for building an alternative government involving Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party - with Labour, he hopes, in the driving seat.
And in the space of a few hours on Friday night the party moved from a position where its stance in the event of a referendum on citizenship going ahead on June 11th was unclear, to one where it was acknowledged by all in the party that Labour will take a robust "vote No" position if the poll takes place.
On the issue of an alternative government, Mr Rabbitte showed no sign of moving away from his absolute commitment to building an anti-Fianna Fáil coalition, rather than leaving open the option of coalescing with Fianna Fáil should the result of the next election point to such an option.
Since Mr Rabbitte won the party leadership almost two years ago, some within Labour have argued against his well-known electoral strategy. They fear that this ties Labour's prospects of entering government after the next election to a recovery in Fine Gael's support.
In his Saturday night speech, Mr Rabbitte urged Labour voters in June to transfer to other non-Fianna Fáil and non-PD candidates. Fine Gael and the Green Party are expected to do likewise before June 11th. Mr Rabbitte said he would work with "other democratic parties in Dáil Éireann" - a phrase intended to exclude Sinn Féin - to build a movement towards an alternative government. Labour would shape and drive this alliance, which would be committed to "a fair society based on social democratic principles, equal rights, liberty and the rule of law". It would be "a Democratic Alliance", he said.
Later this year, he said, he will publish "a set of radical ideas based on principles of social justice". This is expected to take the form of a book by the party leader which will give a personal account of his own political journey but will concentrate largely on outlining a set of political ideas for the future.
Party sources say they hope this book will attract enough attention and comment to allow them to build a political movement - with the working title Democratic Alliance - involving more than just Labour Party members and with the aim of replacing the government. Fine Gael and the Green Party will hardly join this movement, "but they will feel comfortable with it", said a senior party source.
Through this process Labour hopes to become the dominant force - at least ideologically if not numerically - in the search for an alternative government.
The same old problem remains however: If Fine Gael doesn't stage a significant recovery then the alternative government can't happen. Mr Rabbitte and his strategists hope that by making the concept of an alternative appear real through giving it a clear identity, they will improve the electoral prospects of all three potential coalition partners.
If there are some concerns within Labour about the wisdom of this approach, there was some concern too that the party had not defined itself clearly enough in relation to the proposed citizenship referendum. On Friday at a private joint meeting of Labour's parliamentary party and national executive, some members expressed the concern that the party leadership had not been seen to take an unequivocal position of opposition to the citizenship referendum.
Mr Rabbitte has been to the fore in demanding the deferral of the referendum, scheduled for June 11th. Indeed he opened Friday night's meeting with a speech arguing against the holding of the referendum on June 11th. He was silent, however, on what Labour would do should the poll go ahead on that date.
Over 20 speakers followed him. Some did raise the fear, shared by the leadership, that to call for a No vote would be to facilitate those who wish to exploit the concern in some sections of the electorate over immigration for electoral gain.
This concern appears reasonable. Already a Fianna Fáil candidate in Dublin North West has issued a leaflet pledging support for the referendum, adding that "the parties of the left" want an "open door" approach to immigration.
Expect more such claims on doorsteps as the campaign gets going. However, despite the tactical concern that the referendum is an electoral trap, the large majority of speakers at Friday night's meeting demanded that the party call for a No vote.