Green vote on electoral strategy sends shock-waves through Labour

The debate in the Labour Party about forming a pre-election pact with Fine Gael is hotting up in the wake of the overwhelming vote at the Green Party conference in Cork last weekend against any such initiative on their part.

Since Pat Rabbitte has effectively put his credibility as party leader on the line over this issue, it is very hard to see him losing the vote in Tralee next weekend; but the anti-pact forces are brimming with confidence.

Labour Vice Chairman, Henry Haughton, argues that the tide has turned in the debate and that many Labour activists are embarrassed at the party's supine attitude to Fine Gael in contrast to the Greens' more assertive stance.

"The decision of the Green Party," he said, "to exclude the prospect of any pre-electoral pact, including any transfer agreement, is the right decision for them."

But if the Greens' decision was welcomed by the Labour left, it was greeted with horror by the Irish Times which seems to see its own role as lead cheer-leader for the ABFF (Anyone But Fianna Fáil) camp. Despite the overwhelming nine-to-one vote against a pact, the Times sought to find solace in Trevor Sargent's subsequent comments that he would rather resign than go into Government with Fianna Fáil. This boosted the chances of an alternative government, the paper optimistically opined.

The point which the Times ignored is that a clear, substantial and coherent majority of the Greens would prefer not to go into Government at all rather than have no serious input into policy and to be there only to make up the numbers.

And in the month's ahead we can expect the Greens to begin to elaborate more and more clearly their own specific stances. Fine Gael is going to find it very difficult to surrender to this, but the Greens' decision means that their policies must necessarily become centre stage in this debate since Rabbitte has deliberately eschewed insisting on a policy discussion with prospective government partners before committing himself to a strategic alliance.

If we stand back a bit from the debate, it becomes clear that Rabbitte's argument has nothing to do with advancing Labour's own specific programme, and everything to do with the ABFF agenda. But if the only objective is getting Fianna Fáil out, then this ties Labour into putting Fine Gael in. Good news for Fine Gael, of course, but where does it leave Labour?

What makes Rabbitte's position even more astonishing is that Fine Gael would almost certainly be prepared to make far-reaching concessions on major policy issues as it desperately needs to get into Government, more than any other party. But Rabbitte has made no such demands.

On a practical level, it is in any case hard to see this strategy working. While many Fianna Fáil supporters are fed up with the PDs influence in Government, they're not going to vote Labour while that party is committed to being no more than a prop for Fine Gael. For the Rainbow to win (and assuming that the Greens will ignore their conference stance and come on board like dutiful children) they will need to win 24 extra seats. A swing on that scale has never happened in Irish history, but in any case Sinn Féin and sundry independents are well poised to spoil the party.

For the Left, the choice should not be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but between subservience to the established order and advancing an independent left strategy. Such a strategy, based on uniting with other Left parties – Sinn Féin, Greens, Socialist Party, left independents – would immeasurably strengthen a real political alternative to the established capitalist parties.

With such clarity of position, Labour could dictate policy terms to the old establishment or withdraw to front a real opposition to the whole political system.

But let's be fair. In his campaign for the leadership, Rabbitte specifically excluded that strategy, and what he is campaigning for now is exactly the platform on which he won the leadership.

Unfortunately, the membership is only now beginning to realise how weak that makes Labour in the real political world. I think Rabbitte will still win in Tralee, but he will be made to pay a high price later when the policy goes pear-shaped.

Labour members can be an unforgiving lot.

Eoin Ó Murchú is the Eagrais Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity.