What Labour’s red lines for coalition should be

‘Let’s stop the posturing, learn from our mistakes and deliver some real benefits for our people’

Leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

Leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

 

The central trait of the Labour Party member is something that many political observers struggle to understand, and is also what gets us into trouble: we worry much more about the state of the country than about the Labour Party itself. It is this characteristic that made us walk headfirst into a tsunami of fiscal chaos in 2011 because the country needed a government. Other parties have reaped the political benefits from that period – the hard left for opposing everything that was done, and Fine Gael for the undeniable improvements that can be seen in the past number of years.

For the Labour Party, 30 months after leaving government the trauma of that experience clings to us still. We like to say we’ve moved on. But if we are to ask the people to trust us again, we must come to terms with their brutal assessment of our last term in government and illustrate that we’ve learnt from it.

Our biggest failure was initially in opposition when we effectively proposed that all the country’s woes had very simple solutions and the government were too mean-spirited or too incompetent to see it. Then we panic promised when it was completely unnecessary to do so.

Entering government on the back foot was a bad way to start, and assuming that the public would remember forever that the crash was caused by others was another fatal error.

Aside from that experience we now face a struggle that every party of the centre left is experiencing across Europe. Arguing for compassion and practical incremental solutions to the problems of the day don’t communicate well in the era of the outrage.

Arguing for collectivism and for the rights of the vulnerable is never an easy sell in an age when individualisation and a blame culture are triumphant. And regaining the trust of people we let down isn’t easy either. Because, for all the Labour Party’s successes, we did let people down.

Proud acheivements

There are proud achievements from a Labour perspective that in the teeth of an IMF bailout programme we placed a firm floor of compassion under the economy, especially in the areas of welfare payments, low pay and public pay agreements, unheard of in other bailout countries.

Advancements in school buildings, LGBT rights and drug policy were solid progressive achievements but the people had stopped listening to us. The expectation on our shoulders was higher because we said there were things we just wouldn’t do. And then we went ahead and did them. Taking criticism from those who governed the country into the ground, or who refuse to govern, is difficult. But it is the people who felt the anger and disillusionment most. And we must accept that and learn from it.

So what next for Labour? It is only in our absence that the argument from a left perspective at the cabinet table is so blatantly absent. We have to rebuild trust but we need to recognise that any manifesto of ours produced at election time will be scornfully perused by those who will dismiss it as a bargaining tool open for mass concessions.

We need to talk in hard terms about red lines. Labour are one of the only coalition options that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will entertain, so we need to name our price and stick to it.

What should these red lines be? A €16 billion five-year plan to deliver 80,000 homes. Free GP care for all children under 12. Absolutely free primary education including free books and a ban on voluntary contributions. A billion euro anti-poverty fund. Statutory living wage of €11.90 an hour and an end to zero-hour contracts. Commitments on climate change, childcare and public transport. Commitments that will be concrete, immovable and non-negotiable.

Principles and priorities

Let the next election be about Labour’s red lines and challenge the civil war parties to come out and say why tax cuts make more sense than what we are proposing. I am proposing a firm coalition fundamentally with our principles and priorities.

The challenge for the centre left is to be relevant in people’s lives again. Across Europe working families are turning to far-right rhetoric that echoes their resentment at anger at the institutions they feel have betrayed them. Now is not the time for self-serving egos on the Irish left to put themselves or party first. There is enough common ground between Labour, the Green Party and the Social Democrats to present a common platform to the people based on the red lines that I have suggested.

We should all as politicians care about the country first and foremost, but the left have spent the past hundred years doing the job of the conservative forces in this country by tearing strips off each other. Let’s stop the posturing, learn from our mistakes and deliver some real benefits for our people. We have an opportunity to inspire again. To provide a vision of a Republic worth believing in, that can eradicate poverty, homelessness and illiteracy and prove that compassionate, equality-driven politics works. Labour needs to prove itself worthy of the challenge.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party senator

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