Labour will have to prove it left country a better place


Inside Politics:The tensions generated by the current talks on extending the Croke Park agreement have reinforced the cliche that the Labour Party is bound to suffer badly at the next election for taking part in government in a time of austerity.

Only time will tell whether Labour does get a pounding when the voters give their verdict but there is nothing inevitable about it. A lot will depend on whether the Coalition delivers on its pledge to restore the country’s economic sovereignty but even more will hinge on the credit Labour can get for that achievement.

The dilemma facing Labour every time it goes into coalition is whether it is better to take power, exercise a degree of influence over events and implement some of its policies or stay in opposition and fulminate to its heart’s content.

After the last election, which took place at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, there was no other feasible government capable of providing the stability needed for national recovery. A Fine Gael minority administration backed by Independents was never a realistic option as the behaviour of most of the Independents has since demonstrated.

Labour did what was required to give the country a stable government. It was more than simply giving in to the lure of power as its legion of detractors maintain. Many of its TDs recognised that it would have made more sense in terms of pure party self-interest for Labour to stay in opposition and attack those attempting to govern.

That might have kept Sinn Féin at bay and blocked a Fianna Fáil recovery but where would the country be now? The obvious downside of taking power in a time of economic crisis is the inevitable unpopularity that follows. An added difficulty is that the bigger the contribution Labour is able to make to Government policy, the more it is exposed to criticism from those on the left who are addicted to the politics of protest and recoil from the politics of power.

The public service pay talks are an example of the dilemma. The party is not just part of a government that has to reduce the public service pay bill. One of its senior Ministers, Brendan Howlin, is actually in charge of the negotiations.

On one level it would be easier for Labour if a Fine Gael Minister had been entrusted with cutting the pay bill. The party would be less exposed to the fall-out from the trade unions but would have far less influence over the shape of the deal. A Fine Gael-imposed pay cut might also have strained the Coalition to breaking point. As it is, Howlin is in a better position than his Fine Gael colleagues to get a deal with the unions that is well tailored in terms of fairness and equity rather than a crude across-the-board pay cut.

The intensity of the campaign being waged by those who stand to lose a range of premium payments and allowances is a clear indication that the Government negotiators know what they are about.

Of course Labour will have a problem whether a deal is agreed or, in the event of failure, a solution is imposed. The vocal minority who lose most will blame the party while those who emerge relatively unscathed will probably remain unaware of who protected their interests.

The same applies in social welfare, another major area of concern for Labour. Much-needed reform of the system is long overdue but it will inevitably provoke opposition from those who lose out while Labour’s achievement in protecting basic social welfare rates at a time of austerity may be taken for granted.

It is the classic problem of any party in government but it particularly applies to Labour. The public remains unaware of all the effort that goes into avoiding a range of disasters but is only too well aware of the negative consequences of government action that affects them individually.

Where Labour and its Coalition partner made the big political error was in not taking decisive action immediately after taking power. Spring 2011 was the time to cut public service pay, introduce a property tax and reform the welfare system.

At that stage the public was still in shock from the way a decade of Fianna Fáil economic mismanagement had led to the EU-IMF bailout and would have been prepared to blame the previous government.

Of course we will never know the social consequences that would have followed immediate and drastic action in the early months of the Coalition but politically it could hardly have been worse in the long run than the impact of constant grinding cuts and tax increases.

Another problem is that Labour’s behaviour in opposition in the two years leading up to the election didn’t prepare its supporters for the kinds of action it would have to take in government. Whether that was due to short-term political opportunism or a failure to appreciate the scale of the crisis doesn’t much matter at this stage. What does matter is that too many of the people who voted Labour expected something different.

The bottom line for the party, though, will be whether it leaves the country a better place than it found it and already all the indications are that it will deliver on that core objective.

The deal on the promissory notes put the seal on two years of achievement in getting the national finances back in order. Over the next two to three years the party will have to show what that means in terms of improving the lives and, more crucially, the long-term prospects for ordinary citizens.

Continuing reform of the tax and welfare systems will inevitably make a lot of people feel aggrieved but the critical thing will be whether people are feeling more optimistic about the future by the time the next election comes around. If they are, Labour might defy the prophets of doom as it has done in the past.

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