Diarmaid Ferriter: Labour’s woes rooted in more than an ungrateful electorate

Party punished for abandoning its principles and identity

When elaborating this week on his decision not to contest the next general election for the Labour Party, Pat Rabbitte referred to a problem that has beset his party historically – getting scalded coming out of coalition government. "I share the puzzlement as to why we get 19 per cent of the vote and 90 per cent of the blame."

Given his customary and renowned acerbity in addressing what he sees as the failure of others to face or admit the blindingly obvious, it is ironic that Rabbitte has consistently complained about Labour getting more than its fair share of grief from the electorate.

Labour has previously been punished coming out of government because it was regarded by many of those who voted for it as having buried or sold its soul, whereas Fine Gael has not always fared as badly because it did broadly what its supporters expected and tolerated.

In the interests of fairness, the genuine difficulties associated with the historic and contemporary Labour dilemma should be acknowledged. The preponderance of the “national” question in the first decade of its existence and the polarisation of the Civil War era, often accompanied by intimidation and a deliberate scaremongering about Labour’s credentials and aims, including the “red scare”, diluted its potency.



Nor was it ever going to achieve consensus on whether or not to share power with larger, more conservative parties. It has been difficult in coalition governments to get as much of its priorities addressed as it would like, but nonetheless it has achievements to its credit in government over the decades in relation to workers’ rights, equality and, during difficult decades for this State in its infancy, it contributed handsomely to stability and democracy.

Supporters might also argue that in 2011, at a time when it would have benefited more from staying in opposition, it took a harder course.

But there is also a large measure of self-pity and delusion in Rabbitte’s complaint, and this is where another issue he addressed in talking about his departure from politics is relevant.

He referred to the political “chaos out there”, a fragmentation that “might be interesting to observe” but is “dysfunctional. . . here is no coherence. . . and there is no ability to agree”.


This is not only a patronising putdown favoured by the TINA (There Is No Alternative) school, but a deliberate misreading not just of the Irish political scene at the moment but also of a broader disillusionment with European politics.

This was identified by the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair as a "notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component – democracy without a demos".

As Mair elaborated, “party leaderships retreat into institutions, drawing their terms of reference ever more readily from their roles as governors or public office holders. The traditional world of party democracy – as a zone of engagement in which citizens interacted with their political leaders – is being evacuated.”

Rabbitte, in my view, has exemplified this by prioritising power over principle. The Rabbitte archive of speeches, put-downs and soundbites reveals how he has tied himself in contradictions in justifying the Labour Party’s “retreat into institutions”.

When he resigned as Labour Party leader in 2007 he insisted “the core values of Labour are timeless and immutable” but “we must change in how we relate these values to today’s electorate”.

A year previously, however, he had already identified that this was about the Labour Party wanting to have its cake and eat it: “I believe that there are deep dividing lines in politics … we must blend the best of Boston and Berlin.” Rabbitte’s answer, it seemed, was to seek to merge these “deep dividing lines”.

Fiscal constraints

The Boston/Berlin reference came off the back of a speech made by

Mary Harney

in Dublin in 2000 when she was leader of the Progressive Democrats and in coalition with

Fianna Fáil

. The backdrop to the speech was Harney and then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy’s resentment of the fiscal constraints imposed on the Irish government by the

European Central Bank


Germany and France, Harney maintained, were “wedded to an outmoded philosophy of high taxation and heavy regulation which condemns millions of their people to unemployment”, whereas Ireland was a country “that believes in essential regulation but not over-regulation”.

Rather than breaking away decisively from that mindset, Rabbitte maintained he could find an Irish Labour Party blend to perfect a Boston/Berlin brew, to “translate the success of our economy into a successful society”.

Rabbitte and his ministerial colleagues have failed in their quest for that translation and a distinct Labour Party identity has been lost in the process. With an attitude and tone in recent years more right than centre, and certainly not left, and his excoriation of former colleagues who objected to government policy on principled grounds, he might as well have been in Fine Gael instead of whingeing about a dim, ungrateful electorate not minded to appreciate the torture of being an Irish Labour Party governor.