Pat Leahy: Labour gambles on staying out of government
Party risks being marginalised as Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will dominate opposition
Alex White, Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin in Citywest: if Labour wants to “make amends” to voters, how does it do that from opposition? Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Enda Kenny is right about one thing: the choice is between a minority Fine Gael-led government and another general election.
The grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is a chimera. You wouldn’t bet against it happening in the next decade, but you would be mad to bet on it happening now. Even if Micheál Martin judged it to be in Fianna Fáil’s interests to form such a coalition – and he doesn’t – his party wouldn’t let him.
A Fianna Fáil minority government is no more realistic, however much Martin and his colleagues (somewhat preposterously) stand on their dignity and demand Fine Gael respects them. Perhaps they can agree that Fine Gael acknowledges Fianna Fáil’s right to form a minority government and gloss over the fact that Martin is not within shouting distance of the numbers required.
All that leaves us with this fact: either Kenny secures the co-operation of Martin and his party in a Tallaght strategy-type arrangement or it’s posters-and-shoe -leather time again. That is more or less a summary of what the political landscape looks like this weekend.
But this is predicated on the notion that government formation is purely a matter for the big two parties and the willing independents.
What about the others? Sinn Féin and the radical left opted out of that process before it even began. Neither is willing to participate in a government led by one of the big parties, preferring to work, through aggressive opposition to whatever government is in place for the advancement of their respective political projects. The rationale for their stance is self-interest, but it is internally consistent and it is rational.
You cannot really say the same for the Labour Party’s position. To the extent that Labour has a consistent refrain, it that the party is going into opposition because it needs to “rebuild” the party.
What is remarkable is that the party seems to be already agreed – without much real discussion – that it should undertake this process in opposition. The party seems to have given little real consideration to participating in government at all. This seems to me an emotional response, rather than a rational one.
That is understandable. But is it sustainable?
Even insiders admit that the party is more or less on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The twin priorities of many of its senior members appear to be not to have anything to do with government ever again and to prevent Alan Kelly from becoming leader.
The six-hour meeting of the party – defeated candidates and all – at Citywest this week was a bit of a bloodbath, by all accounts. Very little constructive appears to have emerged from it.
Labour seems to want to spend the foreseeable future talking to itself about itself. It is an optimistic reading of both human nature and of politics which supposes that from this process comes either productive ideas for the resuscitation of the party or a reconnection with lost voters. No doubt some degree of self-flagellation is necessary but it is hardly sufficient.
It might consider that the rebuilding of the party is a practical task that requires resources and profile, such as those provided by government. Many of the things the party will have to do in the coming years would be easier done in government.
To say that there is an open door for Labour’s return would be an understatement. I understand that Enda Kenny has contacted Joan Burton on a number of occasions with a view to enticing her back, but it is Brendan Howlin – almost certainly the next leader – whose position will be crucial. Howlin has previously said the party must return to opposition, but he may reconsider that now. If ever a politician was suited to government, it is Howlin.
Labour might also think about what being in opposition will be like. The party’s seven TDs will be dwarfed by Fianna Fáil and by Sinn Féin in the Dáil and in their share of media voice. The alliance of the radical left parties – almost Labour’s size in parliamentary terms – will be noisier, more energetic and more distinctive. The more colourful technical group – or groups – in the Dáil will outnumber them and provide better copy for the media. In opposition, Labour faces being fifth in line. Is that really a platform to rebuild?
Also, if Labour really wants to “make amends” to voters, how does it do that from opposition? By shouting louder than everyone else about policies similar to the ones it implemented itself?
If Labour thinks that a government including it would be a better one, then I don’t know what it is doing refusing to even consider the prospect. Labour people say that they have been rejected by the electorate. No doubt that is painful, but they will have to get over it sooner or later.
When they do, politics will re-emerge. Labour long ago decided that politics was not about howling permanently in opposition, but about being in power when it could and implementing whatever social democratic and progressive programmes are possible at that point. Does the party really want to change that now?