The abandonment of Socialism

The Labour Party has never defined a distinctive position, it has floundered ideologically and failed electorally. By Niamh Puirséil


The origins of Labour's failures run deep. Until recently Ireland's had been a rural, Catholic conservative society. Lacking a strong industrial base, the State's working class was small, and the size of the self-consciously working class smaller still. Furthermore, the national question and the identities created and fostered during and following the civil war over-rode economic identities. 

Labour, founded as a party of trade unionists for trade unionists, had a limited appeal from the outset.  It contested its first election in 1922 and took over 21 per cent of the poll – its largest ever share of the vote, but even then at least half of these were protest votes which went to Labour rather than to either pro- or anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. 

Since its 1922 result it has been down hill all the way.  It was not until 1992's Spring tide that Labour came close to matching its best result (taking 19.3 per cent of the poll and winning a record 33 seats), but for the most part Labour has bobbed around ten per cent. Based on every general election since 1922 Labour's average vote is 10.5 per cent; its average number of seats is 16.  This time it won 10.1 per cent and 20 seats, effectively the same as the last election in 2002.  Ultimately, 2007 saw Labour perform as well (or as badly) as it ever does. Perhaps we would do well to remember observation of Tom Garvin (the UCD historian): “The reasons for Labour's weakness have often been debated by Irish political scientists and historians; it might be more appropriate to inquire into the reasons why it managed to survive at all.”  

Labour was established as the political wing of the trade unions but the problem was that even generous estimates suggested that even if all union members voted Labour (and they did not) it would never manage to win more than a sixth of the national vote.  Moreover, in areas where Labour was successful, it was based on the hard work of local candidates so that seats were held by personalities rather than the party.  (This is a trend which continues to the present day, and in light of the aging parliamentary party, is significant cause for concern as these deputies begin to think about stepping down the next time around.) 

If it was going to become a force to be reckoned with it would have to broaden its appeal and the urgency of doing so was highlighted at a general election in September 1927 when Labour managed to return with only seven deputies. The solution at the time was to engage in some re-branding. 

In 1930 Labour re-launched itself.  In order to attract white collar workers and professionals to its ranks, it cut some of its ties with the trade union movement, adopted a watered down constitution which would not frighten off the middle classes and considered changing its name to something a little less proletarian to shake off its image as ‘the labourers party'.  The Social Democratic Party, the Progressive Party and the Party of Social Justice were among the names mooted at the time, before deciding to stick with the familiar. There was, however, a small flaw in this cunning plan for Labour to thrive as a catch-all, social democratic party: they were three years too late.

Fianna Fáil had already done it. With immeasurably better resources both in finance and personnel, it was well on its way to establishing itself as a progressive republican party of the working and lower-middle class. It avoided Labour's sectionalism completely – indeed it painted itself as being something more than a party, but a national movement. With its combination of nationalism and economic reform and de Valera's curious charisma, Fianna Fáil offered bread and circuses where Labour offered bread alone, and in so doing managed to harvest the support of men and women who in other circumstances would otherwise have voted for Labour. 

The mark of an honest electorate is that once bought, they stay bought. Labour never had a chance. Fianna Fáil governments introduced significant improvements in housing and benefits during the1930s and fostered close relations with the trade unions during the 1940, often implementing Labour policy while the smaller party was relegated to the sidelines.   

Ideology & Coalition 


At the 1966 Labour conference, party leader Brendan Corish declared the party's adherence to socialism to a rapturous response from the floor.  In any other western democratic country his speech would have been unremarkable, but on this occasion it was astounding. It was a radical declaration of the party's ethos and for a party which had recently been described as “probably the most opportunistically conservative Labour party in the known world” it was a monumental new departure in rhetoric if nothing else. 

Until then Labour had pursued a reformist agenda, looking for better employment legislation, improved welfare benefits, more public housing and calling for the nationalisation of certain industries. It was afraid of going beyond such limited agendas lest it risk the censure of Catholic groups who feared Labour was promoting socialist policies which would be the thin end of the communist wedge. 

Labour was subjected to various red-scares over the years – indeed one in the 1940s sundered the party for almost a decade – and so took care not to attract unwanted criticism, a strategy which made Labour appear particularly insipid and earned it the description of the “political wing of the St Vincent de Paul organisation”.

The political climate had changed considerably by the 1960s, and Labour's foray into socialism seemed like a good idea at the time.  Brendan Corish announced that “The seventies will be socialist”.  They weren't, but Labour managed to reinvent itself as a radical young party, at least for a while as the party shed some of its fusty image, attracting legions of new members, among them stars of academe and screen such as Conor Cruise O'Brien, Justin Keating and David Thornley. 

The party that exists today is built on the bones of that time. Many, if not most, of Labour's public representatives and activists joined then: much of the party's problem is that not many have joined since. If some of the more radical rhetoric of the 1960s was diluted subsequently, Labour's ideology remained centre left over subsequent decades, despite the best efforts of Militant and Labour leftists to move the party in a more radical direction. 

One of Labour's key positions under Brendan Corish during the 1960s was its anti-coalitionism.  Labour had first gone into coalition with Fine Gael and others between 1948-51 but a second inter-party government (1954-57) dominated by the conservative Fine Gael minister for finance, Gerard Sweetman, left Labour badly bruised and the party swore off coalition until 1970. The end result that it left Fianna Fáil in government for sixteen years. 

Ending Labour's go-it-alone policy was necessary but difficult and the issue of coalition was one which caused some of the most bitter fissures within the party ever since.  Although it had adopted a degree of social democratic gloss with the Just Society, Fine Gael remained a conservative party both socially and economically, its social support base diametrically opposite that of Labour. 

What is remarkable about the Fine Gael-Labour coalitions of 1973-7, 1981-2 and 1982-7 was that they managed to function as well as they did.  For Labour's coalitionists, it was question of pragmatism – not whether the party went into government but what it could achieve once in there – for the anti-coalitionists, it seemed that whenever Labour went into government with Fine Gael, it always came out the worse for it. Significantly, no outgoing coalition featuring Labour has ever been returned at a general election. 

The coalition question was the scourge of conference after conference, battles over the issue lending the party an image of never so exercised as when fighting itself and as far as elections were concerned, Labour may well have had no policies at all: the only issue the media or other parties were concerned with was will you coalesce afterwards. Thus the dilemma for Labour is significant – put the question to rest by ruling it in or out afterwards. It means strategy overshadows policy ever time.  

Labour since the Spring Tide

The 1992 general election saw Labour win almost twenty per cent of the poll and 33 seats. It was the party's best ever result by a long shot but brilliant as its performance was, it remained only the third largest party in the Dáil. Undoubtedly, the poll marked a dramatic shift in electoral behaviour, but talk of earthquakes, cataclysms and watersheds, and the ‘end of civil war politics' were more than a little previous. It is easy to see how commentators could get carried away – support for both civil war parties had dropped and it seemed as though following on from Mary Robinson's success two years earlier, that the public mood was swinging towards Labour. 

It was, but only a little. Perhaps it was more that it had swung away from Fianna  Fáil. 1992 had begun with the X case and a succession of scandals (Greencore, beef tribunal) had done nothing to bolster the government's popularity, still less the grim economic situation (polling day came only weeks after black Wednesday).  Fine Gael under John Bruton was un-enticing.  Labour under Dick Spring, widely regarded as a very capable politician of integrity, was the main beneficiary of public discontent.  The problem for Labour was this: even if Labour's performance in 1992 was not a protest vote, it still only managed 20 per cent of the poll – an outstanding result in Ireland but one which would have constituted near decimation for her sister parties in Europe. 

The really momentous aspect of 1992, however, was Fianna  Fáil's decision to court Labour and Labour's decision to let them. Until then, Labour had been plagued by the question of whether or not to go into coalition.  Now it was a case of coalition or not, and if so, who with? In 1992, Fianna  Fáil offered Labour the best deal and Labour took it. If some in the party felt uncomfortable with this, many others did not (as Dick Spring observed at the time “The party isn't full of anti-coalitionists after all.  They were just anti-Fine Gael.”) and the Fianna Fáil-Labour partnership worked well until breaches of trust between the two parties made it untenable, prompting Labour's exit into the Rainbow government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.      

The result of the 1997 election which saw Labour's vote and seats halve suggests that the party went wrong somewhere, but opinion is deeply divided over whether Labour suffered because it went in with Fianna Fáil in the outset, because it jumped ship in 1994 or because having done both it appeared at best flighty and at worst mendacious. 

Either way, the end result was that when Labour faced the electorate following the only time in its history that it was in office during a period of prosperity, it lost half its seats. A change in leadership with Ruairí Quinn taking over, followed soon after by the merger with Democratic Left made no impact at the 2002 election. When Quinn stood down after that poll, it was not policy which differentiated the four candidates standing for leadership, but coalition, as Pat Rabbitte held himself up as the anti-Fianna Fáil candidate. With strategy coming before policy, it is easier to see who Labour is prepared to stand with, than what it actually stands for.        

Labour now

Labour is in an invidious position today. Certain battle grounds have been abandoned because fights have been won or moved elsewhere.  The trade unions do not need Labour because their agendas can fruitfully be pursued through the partnership process.  The liberal agenda, which Labour did so much to promote and execute, has been won by the liberals.  Talk of social justice and re-distribution might be dangerous – it is possible the 2007 electorate was wary of a party that focused more on how they would spend than how they would create wealth – but it is necessary. 

This does not mean the adoption of far left policies – few people in the country wish to see Ireland become the new Venezuela – but taking on an ultra-centrist image to fight Fianna Fáil when Labour' s natural constituency is being chipped away either side by the Green Party and Sinn Féin does nothing to develop a strong sense of identity and a reason for people to join the party and work to get the vote out.  At a time when election slogans have become increasingly meaningless, Labour's reached new levels of glib.


During the summer, Pat Rabbitte complained that Labour had fallen foul of working class people trying to live middle class lifestyles (does this mean drinking wine instead of stout, a liking for opera, or perhaps a third level education?), a statement that seems strange in a number of ways.  Firstly, the suggestion that working class people should know their place (imagine, trying to live middle class lifestyles! The nerve!) is astonishing, but more pertinently, it is on exactly that platform that Labour fought the election. 

Make it easier to buy houses (number five of Pat's five election pledges), ensure “pre-school education for all our children” (Pat's pledge number two). If universal access to finger painting is such a core value, why not tell Eamon Gilmore not to bother and just get in Barney the dinosaur instead.  At least it might add a little colour to the party.  What of people on waiting lists for council houses?  It has even adopted the language of Blairism, promising more gardaí on the beat in neighbourhoods because “hard working families are entitled to live in peaceful law-abiding communities”. (Clearly, single and unemployed people can take their chances.) 

On the face of it, Labour's campaign offered little to those who had a bit, and even less to those who have nothing. Labour is a sectional party. It always has been and if it to remain relevant it must remain so. The lack of appetite for the leadership contest does not bode well for the party. 

It is less that Gilmore enjoys his colleagues support, than his would-be opponents do not have the energy or the will to make a play for it.  If the parliamentary party have not the heart to fight for the party, why should its members?  Strateºgy and organisation are all very well but Labour needs to mobilise the voters who need Labour most. It needs members to go out and work for the vote (a strategy which has brought Sinn Féin rewards) and at the moment it does not have them. Until Labour remembers what it wants to fight for, nothing will change.

Niamh Puirséil is a lecturer in the School of History and Archives, UCD.  She is author of The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73 recently published by UCD Press.