Left unity on the Agenda

  • 9 August 2007
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Is the highly successful Seanad deal between Sinn Féin and the Labour Party a harbinger of things to come? That's the anxious question which diehard opponents of Sinn Féin – both in the media and in political life – are putting. And all the indications are that from their point of view things are going to get worse.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was obvious that Sinn Féin had suffered a severe setback. But deeper analysis shows that Labour's problems are more fundamental.
Labour, notwithstanding the election to the Dáil of Seán Sherlock and Ciarán Lynch, is an ageing party.  It has now been consistently out of Government since the electorate passed judgement on its desertion of the Fianna Fáil-Labour partnership coalition back in 1994.  It tried three strategies: its record in government in the 1992-1997 period; standing aside from both major parties while waiting for Fianna Fáil to fall into its lap; and tying itself to Fine Gael's apron strings.
And no matter how much spin might be put out about how close it all was, the sad fact is that all three strategies failed and Labour has consistently lost votes and seats.
It is easy to see that if Labour just stands still, it will continue to wither on the vine, and there is clearly a need in the party for some serious rethinking.
Labour leader Pat Rabbitte himself set off the tone with his speech to Labour Youth's Tom Johnson Summer School: he argued that there was a problem with the “Labour brand”, as the working class base to which that brand was meant to appeal was being eroded by changes in the social composition of modern Ireland.  Labour, he argued, needed a new context for its project of building an Ireland “founded on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.”
Rabbitte was understood to be hinting at more than he said, and several commentators have implied that socialism is a valid slogan when times are tough, but when people are enjoying prosperity and opportunities for advancement for themselves and their children its appeal is lessened.
This is a gross simplification, of course. But it is true that equating socialism with poverty, or the programmes of socialists with the marginalised and disadvantaged minority, helps marginalise the appeal of socialist parties.
This is a challenge, naturally, that faces not only Labour, but Sinn Féin as well – though that does not necessarily mean that guaranteeing not to tax the rich will guarantee votes. After all, if the Left is no different from Fianna Fáil, why not just vote Fianna Fáil: they're more experienced in government and more attuned to success.
On first hearing, Rabbitte's speech seemed to imply that he would want Labour to go even further down the road of the Mullingar accord. After all, it was that Left independent Tony Gregory who argued that Fianna Fáil would only be put out of office when Labour and Fine Gael merged to form one social democratic party.
There was a quick response inside Labour. Anti-coalitionists like Tommy Broughan, Joe Costelloe and Róisín Shortall were less than impressed, and defeated leadership aspirant Brendan Howlin seized the opportunity to launch a broadside against Labour's failed electoral strategy.
Labour are seen as whingers, he argued, and that tying Labour to Fine Gael marginalised the party in the political debate. He contended that there was no fundamental problem with the “Labour brand”.  Instead, the problem was that the voters do not believe that Labour is realistic about pursuing the aims associated with its brand name.
Underlying his contribution is the idea that Labour will grow by pushing its own policies and forming coalitions with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael as the case might suit.
But what of the third way? After the 2002 election Éamon Gilmore openly called for an alliance of the Left, meaning co-operation and mutual assistance between Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens. It went down like a lump of sodden bread, and in the later leadership campaign Rabbitte openly derided the idea.
But the perception then was that Sinn Féin was a growing threat that might eventually take over Labour's position. Ironically, Sinn Féin's electoral reverse has reassured mainstream Labour activists that it is safe to do a deal and that Labour won't suffer the fate of the SDLP. Sinn Féin needs Labour more than Labour needs Sinn Féin (on the surface at least).
And it is Rabbitte who has taken the lead in pushing for a new strategy, of which the Seanad deal was the opening shot.
Sinn Féin, of course, got the prize of a Seanad seat bringing the gifted Piaras Ó Dochartaigh into the national arena. Labour won extra Seanad seats, not just Alex White on the Cultural Panel, but Michael McCarthy as well as Phil Prendergast on the Labour Panel.
I have good reason to believe that when the Dáil reconvenes in the Autumn we will see increased private members' time cooperation and Labour helping Sinn Féin to get speaking time.
This strategy can put Labour in the driving seat at the very time that Fine Gael is preening itself on its own electoral success.  It's a very attractive option for Labour.
For Sinn Féin, of course, it brings them in from the cold.  It opens up a new basis for advance in the South, but an advance built on the realities of Southern politics.  Note, incidentally, that Sinn Féin did not confine its deal-making to Labour: Fianna Fáil's Mark Daly of Kerry could not have been elected with the 58 votes he got from Sinn Féin, though the details of that deal have not yet emerged.
All in all, this is a serious blow to Fine Gael who, since the election, have just sat on their hands waiting for the prize to fall into their lap.
Their dismal performance in the Seanad election shows that they failed to translate their increased voting strength into denying the Government a Seanad majority. For if the Labour-SF alliance took three seats off Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael gave them three back by their own inept strategy.
Rabbitte has confounded more than his critics in Labour.
Eoin Ó Murchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.  He is writing here in a personal capacity.