No challenge to Rabbitte as Labour lurches to the right

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte now enjoys a blank cheque from his party to agree to whatever deal with Fine Gael he feels is necessary for a successful assault on government at the next election.

The party's national conference in the Helix Centre, Dublin, last weekend (1-2 April) saw an almost total absence of critical comment or debate, with delegates applauding equally Michael D Higgins' appeal for Labour to be guided by values and Pat Rabbitte's prosaic but unequivocal ruling out of tax increases if Labour gets back into government.

In fairness, this was not a full congress, and there was therefore no presentation of motions for debate, but there were no indications from conversations with delegates or TDs that there is any serious disquiet with the party's direction.

Those TDs who are believed to be less than enamoured of Rabbitte's strategy of tying Labour to Fine Gael's apron strings are sitting back quietly, hoping for what they believe will be the inevitable failure of that strategy, when, they believe, the road will be open to negotiate a deal with Fianna Fáil and get back to the brave new road of 1992.

The conference was heralded by Labour strategists with the "news line" that "Labour is presenting a range of new ideas in health, crime and the cost of living." But the reality was that there was nothing new whatsoever presented at the conference. The speeches by the New Candidates with New Ideas were singularly devoid of fresh thinking, and consisted mainly of statements of the obvious about current problems.

So, Phil Prendergast from Tipperary South told us that A&E is close to breaking point; Joanna Tuffy wants a new Garda rank of community garda to solve the crime problem; Joe Costello wants to break the link between alcohol and sport in order to cut down crime; Cork's Ciarán Lynch wants to reduce the cost of living by strengthening the role of director of Consumer Affairs; Sean Sherlock wants better value for taxpayers' money; Brian Collins wanted an organised car pooling system to defeat traffic chaos – and so on and on in tedious and irrelevant detail.

It was left to Michael D Higgins to play his usual role and give Labour some actual socialist context. In a well-considered and extremely political speech, Michael D argued that Labour must go into government to advance its own values if it is to go into government at all.

In a pointed sideswipe at Pat Rabbitte's attacks on Government incompetence and mismanagement, he declared that "the tasks which will face an ethically-driven left of centre government ... will neither be simply technical nor will they be managerial in nature."

And he explained what he saw Labour values as being about. People do not exist, he argued, to service the economy; the economy should be developed to service the needs of people. Issues concerning quality of life are central to Labour's vision, he claimed.

This speech was wildly applauded, but no subsequent speaker made the slightest attempt to translate Higgins's theoretical proposition into concrete policy on any issue.

And Pat Rabbitte, in his televised keynote address, combined a commitment not to have tax increases, with a criticism of vested interests holding up reform in the public service, with a mandatory but muted criticism of Mary Harney in health which managed to back the consultants over the HSE. It was perhaps the most rightwing speech ever given by a Labour leader, and was warmly welcomed by Fine Gael.

But were any of the delegates fazed? Did anyone draw in his breath? NO. The nearest thing to a dissenting note, apart from Michael D's impassioned opening address, was Liz McManus's declaration that Labour intended not just to put Fianna Fáil out of office, but the PDs as well. It is a phrase that is yet to pass Rabbitte's lips.

Speaker after speaker did make the point that the current government is tired, but the conference gave the decided impression that Labour is tired as well.

The point is, of course, that Rabbitte has decisively won every battle in Labour on this issue. He won the leadership on a clear programme of seeking a special arrangement with Fine Gael; he got a three- or four-to-one endorsement of that strategy at the last Labour congress and only three or so out of 21 Labour TDs have indicated any problem with that.

In the meantime, Rabbitte has a clear run. But he'll need more than a few clever phrases to turn the tide decisively in his favour: he will need some real policies, and there's no sign of that at the moment.

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