Say Goodnight Dick

After yet another trouncing, yet more pieces have fallen off the shaking shattered Labour Party. The party now faces even more crushing defeats.

LABOUR HAS ALWAYS HAD AN IDENTITY crisis. From the beginning it couldn't make up its mind on what its attitude should be to the struggle for national independence. As a result it lost out on the most crucial election in modern Irish history, the 1918 election, and it has failed to catch up ever since.

In the 'twenties in the Dail the party served for a while as a prop to the ultra-conservative Cumann na nGaedheal. It was outflanked by Fianna Fail as a radical party in the late 'twenties and early 'thirties. It split in the 'forties beetween the Larkin and the William O'Brien forces and itwas only in the middle and late 'sixties that it began to achieve a measure of coherence and confidence.

That gain was largely blown however by a wildly overroptimistic prognosis for the 1969 election - activists are talking in terms of winning over forty seats, while a target of twenty would have been more realistic.

But in that election Labour won a higher percentage of the total national vote than it had ever done previously or has come near to doing since then - 16.9%. Nevertheless the engines which drove the party over the previous five years, effectively went into reverse and changed course radically. The no-coalition stance was dropped smartly, while the spectre of "a threat to the state" arising from the arms crisis fiasco of 1970 was firmly grasped - it provided the intellectual justification for the Coalition Government which came into office in March 1973.

Labour was strong on intellectual justifications at the time with the likes of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Justin Keating and David Thornley in its ranks. Arguably, these intellecctuals added to Labour's undoing by adding further to the ideological confusion which beset the party from the beginning - this was perhaps particularly so in the case of Con or Cruise O'Brien's revisionist stance on Northern Ireland.

The Coalition experience proved chastening for Labour but it was in the years from 1977 to 1981 that the seeds of its collapse were sown. During that period, under Frank Cluskey, the organisation was allowed to fall into further decay and the policy formulation came almost to an entire halt. The Labour luminaries fought bitterly among themmselves, when not jetting to seminars and conferences at the four ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Fine Gael was stealing its social democratic thunder. From 1977 to 1981 the Labour vote fell from 11.6 to 9.9% - the slide thereafter was virtually irreversible. This was because Labour was again plunged into office, this time under a new leader, Cluskey having been defeated in the June '81 election. Then there wasn't time to draw breath before O'Leary had defected to Fine Gael and there was another election, folllowed by yet another absorption into the task of running the country, and again under a new leader, this time, Dick Spring.

IT HAS BEEN AN ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE task for Spring, especially given his inexperience as a politician and as a holder of any executive office whatsoever. In the circumstances he will probably be adjudged to have done creditably and it is hardly his fault that the party is crumbling under his feet.

Yet another electoral disaster seems unavoidable, espeecially with the party general secretary Cohn 0 Briain sideelined now. The party could well be reduced to seven or eight seats in the next Dail, with no representation from the Dublin area at all, with the possible exception of Barry Dessmond. There could also be a new leader.

The demise of an Irish political party, even one as hisstoric as Labour, is not the end of the universe but it does have long implications for Irish politics. An alternative to Fianna Fail as a Government will seem very remote as we enter the last decade of the century and if Charles Haughey can keep his bib clean within his own party he could be Taoiseach until the mid 'nineties - perhaps until his 70th birthday in 1996.

The left will probably be occupied almost entirely by the Workers' Party, with its bizarre mish-mash of ideology.

During the local election campaign the Labour Party set out on a ludicrous enterprise to fly a banner over Dublin, advertising its virtues. One thing after another went wrong, culminating in the banner falling from the airplane. Dick Spring watched the banner flutter down from the sky and turned to his comrades, the media cameras trained on them. "Smile bravely, everyone," he said, "and walk away." He may soon be repeating his advice, as the fmal devastation of the parliamentary party arrives.

IN NOVEMBER 1982 THE LABOUR PARTY suffered a major humiliation in the Dublin Central constituency, the heartland of the capital city's working class. It won a miniscule 6% of the vote in the by-election caused by the death of George Colley.

As recently as June 1981 the party had won 17.5% of the first preference vote there with the candidate who was to become leader of the party immediately after that elecction, Michael 0 'Leary.

Commenting on the result, which saw Provisional Sinn Fein eclipse the Labour Party in that constituency, the party general secretary Colm 0 Briain was quoted as saying (The Irish Times, November 25, 1983) that they would have to start rebuilding the party from the ground.

In June, 1984, following another disastrous electoral performance Labour won 8.3% of the total vote in the

European elections as compared with 14.5% in the 1979 European elections - the party leader, Dick Spring proomised a rigorous assessment of both the party's perforrmance in government and its organisation.

There was indeed a post mortem of sorts on Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13 of last year when the Adminiss'trative Council and the Parliamentary Party met for several hours. But little attention appears to have been paid to the organisational difficulties and a great deal to what was happpening within the Government. In spite of this concentration however nobody remembered to mention to the backbench TDs and Senators that food subsidies were to take a knock a few weeks later.

Now with yet another electoral disaster behind them, the party leader is again on radio talking about "sitting down with the party activists" to determine what is wrong organisationally and what needs to be done about it.

The extent of that disaster is quite considerable. Labour's vote, dropped nationally from 11.9% in the 1979 local elections to 7.9% - a drop of over a third. But in the Dublin area the drop was by almost a half - from 20% in 1979 to 10.5%.

In constituency after constituency the picture was one of almost uniform bleakness from Labour's viewpoint, with only Kildare and Carlow/Kilkenny showing any relief.


So bad is the situation that even Dick Spring's own seat must now be considered in jeopardy. In the North Kerry constituency we calculate that Labour won just 13.9% of the vote, as compared with Fine Gael's 22.4%, Fianna Fail's 45.9% and 17.8% for "others". (We have simply halved the vote for the local government area of mid Kerry for the purpose of this calculation.) If anything like this pattern is repeated in the general election then Fine Gael's Jim Deeniihan will take Dick Spring's seat.

Admittedly Spring's own performance throughout the constituency should be better than the combined performance of the Labour local government candidates, who included his own sister, Maeve. But the margin to make up over Deenihan is still formidable. Labour did make up a similar margin from the 1979 local election to the June 1981 general election but on that latter occasion Dick Spring won the seat with only 144 votes to spare on the last count - ironically thanks largely to the H-Block candidate's votes. Now Fine Gael have got an excellent candidate in Jim Deenihan, the former Kerry football captain. So Dick Spring himself is in trouble.


He would seem to be safe but could get a surprise. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael seem certain to take two seats each in Dun Laoghaire, which will leave Desmond fighting for the fifth seat with a Fine Gael candidate. The third Fine Gael candidate, Liam Cosgrave (Jnr) was far ahead of Desmond when he was elected in November 1982 and Fine Gael did creditably in the local elections, while Labour took just 12.5% of the vote.


Labour fared miserably in the south city area and anyway

Cluskey seems set to bite the dust again at the hands of his former colleague, John O'Connell, again. So Cluskey is out.


More trouble for Labour. Fianna Fail should take three of the five seats here, which leaves Frank McLaughlin fighting with John Farrelly of Fine Gael for the fifth seat - presuuming that John Bruton is safe for Fine Gael. Labour won just 11.8% in the local elections here but, on balance should make it.

Bell didn't stand in the local elections and without him Labour collapsed entirely, winning just 3.7% of the vote. With Fianna Fail likely to take three of the four seats here , Labour would seem to be doomed to defeat here too.


Labour won just 8.8% of the vote in Dublin South East in the local elections, which spells big trouble for Quinn, epecially with Fianna Fail's improved showing among the Dublin middle-class. He lost out in June 1981 and could well do so again to Fianna Fail.


Labour did very badly here as well, taking just 10.5% of the vote - 25% needed for a quota in this three-seater. However, he may be saved by the defection of the Fine Gael TD, David Moloney.


Did miserably in the local elections, although he did run in Mid-Kerry, instead of his home base of Killarney. Fianna Fail will be looking to take two of the three seats here and Fine Gael has already held on to one, which is a bad omen for 68-year-old Moynihan, who had probably wanted to retire at the next election anyway.


Trouble. Labour got just 12.4% in the local elections here and Kavanagh's seat hasn't been safe for some time - he was elected with only 218 votes to spare in June 1981. He could be saved by internal wranglings in Fianna Fail but he'll be lucky.


Seems safe. Labour won 19.4% of the vote here in the local elections, which was a considerable improvement on its November 1982 showing of 15.2%.


He could be in trouble in spite of a very commendable showing by the party in the local elections - it took 16.7%.

His seat has been extremely marginal in the last three general elections and with any slump in the Labour vote Pattison would be in difficulty, especially as Fianna Fail must surely take three of the five seats here next time and Fine Gael should hold on to its two.


Jim Kemmy's resurrection seems at hand here and Frank Prendergast is likely to bite the dust. Kemmy's Democratic Socialist Party took 19.2% of the vote to Labour's 9.7% in the local elections.


Either or both could be in big trouble, although Labour were pleased with their showing here in Cork city, where they won 10.5% of the vote - well short of a quota (16.6%) for the two five-seat constituencies. •