Kathy Sheridan: Labour pains in being a small party in Government

‘It’s no fun being a green, blue or pinkish small party with a brief to save the people’

A protester outside the Labour conference last weekend sounded very aggrieved. “Very disappointed,” he said. “Labour were put in there to save the people.” No small brief that.

Inside the venue, plenty of decent Labour members believed they had saved the people. Sure, cherished policies were abandoned amid tears and dog's abuse but the way they see it, the country is still a lot better off for Labour's sticking power. It is just a matter of time until the work of departments such as Brendan Howlin's – racing to play catch-up after decades of big party neglect – is recognised. History, they must believe, will be kinder. But if only Labour could make its own version of It's a Wonderful Life in the meantime. Repurposing the entire cast of EastEnders, fresh from the soap's triumph over the Taoiseach's fearful interview, the film would detail the resulting catastrophe, frame by frame, when – in an alternative universe – Labour chose to stay in opposition in 2011. Hashtag #cuddajustkeptonsniping.

The Bertie years

Then the Greens could make their own what-if version of the Bertie years, plus out-takes from the bank guarantee. And the PDs could make it a trilogy, since by some accounts, they were instrumental in averting an IMF landing back in the 1980s. #RebootIreland could include it in members’ welcome packs.

Clearly, it’s no fun being a green, blue or pinkish small party with a brief to save the people. History demonstrates that the people will always astound you with their ingratitude. But whose fault is that?

Say Joe Murphy scans the manifestoes before an election and likes the cut of the Plain People’s Buffet. The PPB is a small party that has never achieved more than 14 per cent in a general election but sets out its stall like a party expecting an overall majority. This means making the kind of big promises only a party with a big majority can deliver – subject of course, to trifling details such as accurate information flowing from the incumbent lying snakes plus a series of economic miracles.

So Joe will not be hearing any of that old boring but responsible “on the one hand . . . on the other” stuff from the PPB. But here’s the question. In his quiet time, what does Joe think will actually happen to all the big promises when, as predicted, the electorate once again relegates the PPB to 14 per cent and junior partnership in a coalition? Sure, the party may be able to implement some of its promises – and is doomed to spend vast energy reserves fighting for the credit – but chances are, it will be forced to renege on or dilute many of the headliners.

Righteous recrimination will follow as happened when Labour was challenged about its failure to explain that promises on child benefit could be undermined by an economic downturn. Pat Rabbitte’s reply chimed with every cynic’s expectation: “Isn’t that what you do during an election?” In fact, that line was in response to another question – “you didn’t explain that at the time, you kept it simple?” To which Rabbitte responded: “Isn’t that what you do during an election?” Aka keep it simple, stupid.

He’s right of course. Small-print terms and conditions – “This manifesto will be implemented in full only if you make us a three-term, one-party government and even then you’ll be lucky because economies, seagulls and our more intemperate members’ moods can go down as well as up” – don’t sit well on posters. But who determines just how simple that message should be ? The party grandees? The slick strategists? The high-fiving marketing guys? At what point does the practical requirement to keep it simple slide into reckless promises indistinguishable from lies. Imagine a party that qualified its promises and told the simple truth. What would happen to it on election day?

So Joe is doomed forever to be astonished and disappointed. Even now, he is casting an envious eye at Mayo and that brilliant idea of the First Independent Mayo community alliance to advertise for Independent candidates for the general election. He’s not envious as a voter of course. Quietly, he has high hopes for himself because nothing in the job spec actually rules him out.

You don’t even have to be from Mayo and since he never actually got off his backside to join the PPB or do any campaigning even in the crash, he’ll be “particularly welcome” as a contender with no current or previous affiliations to any political groups.

‘Positive personality’

The whole family agrees that he’s a “straight talker” (they differ on the “well-informed” bit but that’s because they don’t know enough to know quite how well-informed he is, frankly) and God knows, he has an embarrassment of “positive personality” and ethics and “demonstrable common sense”.

To go forth as an Independent used to be the tough option. Now enlisting with a party is beginning to look more left-field (metaphorically). The real heroes here are the people charged with filtering the Mayo alliance applications. May the combined skills of Ban-Ki moon, Michael O’Leary, Big PR Inc, and Job be with them.