Leaning left may bring a real future for Labour


Radical change might be possible if Labour was open to an alternative strategy of joining leftist groups and individuals, writes VINCENT BROWNE

EAMON GILMORE, Pat Rabbitte, Liz McManus, Ruairí Quinn, Joan Burton, Michael D Higgins, Jan O’Sullivan, Proinsias De Rossa and many others in the Labour Party are not venal. They are able, decent, honourable people committed to the idea of a fairer society. They believe, with some justification, that if Labour were the lead party in the next government, Ireland would be a better place: fairer, less violent, more tolerant.

They accept, however, that the prospects of Labour being the lead party in the next government are close to zero, and see the next government as a coalition of Labour and Fine Gael. They believe, again with some justification, that a Fine Gael-Labour government would be a better government than the current one.

Is that enough? Aren’t the objectives of the Labour Party more ambitious than partaking in a government that is an improvement on the current lot? Isn’t Labour supposed to be about changing the structure of society, to make it more equal in terms of distribution of wealth, income, power and status, and making it more democratic?

Aside from Fianna Fáil, Labour has been in office longer than any other political party since the foundation of the State. In the last 37 years, Labour has been in office for almost 16 years, and I don’t think even Labour members themselves would claim that Ireland was a significantly more equal society than it was before any of the stints Labour had in government during that time.

Isn’t there something curious about the fact that, after a period in office, Labour never examined how effective it had been in promoting the Labour agenda and, in so far as that agenda was not significantly advanced, why that was so?

One of the governments of which Labour was a part, that in power from 1973 to 1977, was broadly reactionary. Its next long stint in office, from 1982 to 1987, was a deeply unhappy time for the party and, I think, it would acknowledge that little progress of any significance was made on what might be described as the Labour agenda. Similarly, in its last period in office, from 1992 to 1997, first with Fianna Fáil and then with Fine Gael and Democratic Left, some reforming measures and improvements on social welfare were achieved. But what about changing the structure of Irish society to make it significantly more equal?

A report I quote with repetitive monotony in these columns – because I think it is so telling of Irish society – is Inequalities in Mortality, which relates to the period 1990 to 1998, and it shows that for all the main causes of death, the mortality rate for people in the lower occupational groups was a multiple of the mortality for people in the higher occupational groups.

Labour was in office longer than any other political party in the period relevant to that report’s findings (1982-1997), and the report shows that after Labour left office, inequality was so embedded that more than 5,000 people were dying prematurely every year.

How then is Labour content to go into another government with Fine Gael when it is a virtual certainty that after a further period in office with that party, embedded inequality will be as entrenched as ever? Shouldn’t reflection on the legacy of previous coalitions with the main parties suggest that some different strategy be adopted?

There is another plausible strategy now: that Labour looks to its left and seeks alliances with left-wing parties, movements, non-governmental organisations, community groups and citizens.

This is a period of extraordinary flux. People, I think, are appalled by what has happened in the last decade and a half, and are open to a break from the culture of voracious wealth creation and accumulation.

People are open to a fairer redistribution of wealth and income, status and the rest. Were Labour and Sinn Féin to join with other left-leaning groups and individuals, a radical change might be possible.

Yes, I did mention Sinn Féin. There are indications that Sinn Féin is gagging to go into office with whoever (Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael) will have them, but they could be coaxed into a left alliance, I think.

Labour and Sinn Féin, along with the other parties, groups and citizens of the left would form a critical mass that could be transformative.

I appreciate that for many in the Labour leadership, the next election offers a last prospect of government office (the average age of the most likely Labour ministers in 2012 will be 63), and even if such a government is to be with Fine Gael in the lead role, the prospect is better than yet more years in the political wilderness.

Maybe at this weekend’s conference there will be some debate about this alternative option, given the proven failure of the other one.

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