Labour can kill off Coke and Pepsi politics
OPINION:We are doomed to a broken system if Labour forms another coalition government, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
IF THE Irish political system is to change, Eamon Gilmore has to become a killer. The Labour Party is the political equivalent of a mountain rescue team, or a cuddly Saint Bernard with a flask of reviving brandy around its neck. He has to turn it into a cold-hearted movie villain who sees an enemy clinging to the edge and ruthlessly stamps on his fingers.
The scale of Fianna Fáil’s current crisis may be unprecedented, but twice in the last 30 years one of the catch-all Civil War parties has been in terrible trouble. In 1992, Fianna Fáil, under Albert Reynolds, had its worst general election result since 1927, with its share of the vote falling below 40 per cent. Fianna Fáil lost 10 seats. The party was almost as shocked, disoriented and at sea as it is now.
As Reynolds’s press secretary Seán Duignan noted, “we were on a roll, downhill”. To the amazement of most voters, it was Dick Spring’s resurgent Labour that threw itself in the way to stop that downhill momentum. Fianna Fáil was given the transfusion that always sustains life in politics – power. The moment was lost. The system survived.
Ten years later, the moment came again, this time with Fine Gael. In the 2002 general election, Michael Noonan led his party to outright disaster. Fine Gael got just 19 per cent of the vote and lost 23 seats. It ended up with just three seats in Dublin, fewer than the Greens. A large chunk of its front bench (including Alan Shatter, Alan Dukes, Nora Owen and Jim Mitchell) was wiped out. In panic, the demoralised rump elected one of the few experienced TDs left standing – the unconvincing Enda Kenny – as its leader. Fine Gael was moribund.
Again, Labour took a deep breath, stood over the prone body of a wounded beast, and delivered the kiss of life. It accepted, with astonishing alacrity, the notion that the resurrection of Fine Gael was the only way to provide an alternative government. Pat Rabbitte, with the Mullingar Accord, gave Enda Kenny the credibility he otherwise lacked by dressing him up in the ill-fitting clothes of a would-be taoiseach. Labour’s position as a half-party, an eternal make-weight, was reinforced.
Fine Gael returned from the dead, gaining 20 seats in the 2007 election. Labour paid the price in stasis and irrelevance.
These rescue acts were motivated by two factors. One (understandably) was the desire for power. Given the extreme weakness of the Dáil, politicians of any ambition want to be in government. Labour, with its relatively old age profile, is programmed to seize the opportunity of power whenever it arises. Saying no is not easy.
The other factor, though, is a misplaced patriotism. Labour has convinced itself that it has to be responsible, that it must bear the burden of making stable governments possible.
It is easy to be cynical about this conviction, since it coincides so neatly with the desire for power, but it is largely genuine.
For all sorts of historical and cultural reasons, going right back to the early years of the State, Labour has bought in to the idea that it must facilitate the formation of a government or face the shame of being labelled as a self-indulgent party of protest.
This belief is innately absurd. The responsibility for creating governments lies with the electorate.
The voters have never, ever, given Labour anything like a mandate to govern. Even in its peak years of 1969 and 1992, Labour got 17 and 19 per cent of the vote respectively. The famous Spring Tide of 1992 washed 33 Labour deputies up on the shores of Leinster House – practically the same number as Fine Gael returned in its annus horribilis of 2002.
The whole basis of Labour’s self-imposed duty to form governments is the notion that a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is inconceivable. To accept this proposition is to endorse the belief that the tribal and dynastic divisions between the two big parties are more important than policy and ideology. So long as that idea is taken for granted, Labour itself will always be marginal. It will always end up colluding in its own marginal status.
The tectonic plates are shifting now. The inadequacy of our political system – its failure to do the basic job of offering the electorate a choice more meaningful than that between Pepsi and Coke – is ever more abundantly obvious. The patriotic burden Labour has shouldered has now shifted completely.
The imperative is not to sustain the system but to break it. Gilmore has to make it clear now that if the people vote for right-wing policies, they will get them and, conversely, that if they want socialist or social democratic policies they have to vote for them.
Gilmore has a historic opportunity to send out the message to voters that if they give Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael a good kicking, he won’t be standing by with smelling salts and a magic sponge. To grasp it, he’ll need the steady nerve, the keen eye and the icy heart of an assassin.