Unhappy Labour

Pat Rabbitte has disappointed expectations of him as leader and he has moved his party decisively to the right. By Vincent Browne

Labour is not a happy party. A large minority of its TDs and Senators are dismayed with Pat Rabbitte's leadership. Much of the membership is disillusioned. The high expectations of his leadership have been disappointed. Prospects of any significant gains in next year's election are negligible.

The conference of 1 April amounts just to a television opportunity for Pat Rabbitte – 28 minutes of prime time uninterrupted exposure (aside from the choreographed applause) in the slot usually occupied by Winning Streak. Otherwise the day's events are largely meaningless – a succession of presentations by party worthies in the morning, a series of workshops in the afternoon and then the leader's speech in the evening, introduced in an address by the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, whose legendary long-windedness risks diminishing Pat Rabbitte's television exposure.

"Preparing for Government" is the optimistic theme for the day and the party's TDs and Senators are expecting to hear from the former Labour Svengali, Brendan Halligan, on Labour's experience in government from 1973 to 1977, and from Brendan Howlin and Ruairi Quinn on the experience from 1992 to 1997. That latter presentation might prove slightly unsettling as the period in office with Fianna Fáil from 1992 to 1994 is recalled.

Pat Rabbitte has disappointed those who thought he would bring new dynamism to the party, would reaffirm its radical, socialist roots, would dominate the Dáil as Dick Spring did from 1989 to 1992 and would cause a Rabbitte-jump in its electoral fortunes as the Spring-tide did in 1992.

In fact he has moved the party decisively to the right. There is no talk now of major expenditure programmes on health and education. No sharp dissent from the consensus on foreign policy, including the facilitation of the war in Iraq by the use of Shannon as a pit-stop (Michael D Higgins certainly dissents but his perspective is not shared by his leader). There are repeated assurances on no new taxes. Signals to reactionary populism that he (Pat Rabbitte) shares anxiety over immigrant workers (the reference in an Irish Times interview in January to work permits for EU nations and the aside on 40 million Poles). And the hard line on crime (a position shared by most in the party).

There was dismay over his equivocation in 2004 regarding the citizenship referendum and he was forced to come off the fence by his party, which was adamantly against. There was dismay also over his "work permits" and "40 million Poles" remarks earlier this year – he explained in a private party meeting that the latter was a mistake and nobody made an issue of it.

There has been disquiet too over the revival of the stories concerning the IR£2,000 he received from the corrupt lobbyist, Frank Dunlop, in 1992, after he had supported a rezoning for which the latter was lobbying (the donation was subsequently returned). Also the revival of the story concerning the IR£5,000 he received from Citywest in 1994, as a donation to his European Parliament election campaign – he had earlier supported a rezoning favouring Citywest and was subsequently to sponsor Citywest's designation as a national science park.

And there was the spat with the former Labour TD and Mayor of Sligo, Declan Bree, who had criticised fellow Labour councillors for voting against a proposal to provide accommodation for Travellers. Pat Rabbitte wrote a letter to the Irish Times in condemnation of Declan Bree's criticism – one of the councillors whom Declan Breen criticised and Pat Rabbitte implicitly supported, Jim McGarry, is a former Fine Gael councilor and now Labour candidate for Sligo-North Leitrim. He has a record of voting against proposals to accommodate Travellers, although he denies being anti-Traveller.

While he shaped up well in the Dáil in the early months of his leadership, at a time when Enda Kenny was foundering as the titular leader of the Opposition, two things have happened since. First Enda Kenny has found his rhythm, his performance is more polished than it was initially. But more so, Pat Rabbitte has disappointed – his Dáil performances border on the self-important, rarely landing a punch and regularly eclipsed by Joe Higgins who sits high on the benches behind him and outperforms him in effectiveness and humour.

And, to add to the party's misery, Pat Rabbitte has been defensive, quarrelsome and autocratic. The commitment to enter government with Fine Gael in advance of any agreement on policy weakens Labour's negotiating position, although there is little discernible difference between the parties on policy issues with Labour's move to the right.

However seriously Labour may be "preparing for government", the opinion polls give little indication that Fine Gael and Labour, even if supported by the Green Party, will have sufficient seats after the next election. This will be partly because Labour will be unable to make enough gains to increase its chances of taking significantly more seats, as it did in 1997 when it won 32 seats. Labour won 21 Dáil seats in the last election and the best the party can hope for in 2007 is a gain of four seats. Fine Gael can improve its position from 31 seats to 45, giving a total Fine Gael and Labour of 70. Even with six Green TDs that is still well short of an overall majority (84).

It is true also that Fianna Fáil and the PDs are very unlikely to come close to an overall majority either – probably around 74 seats between them. The likelihood now is there will be pressure on Labour to join in government with Fianna Fáil – the only other government option would be a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition and Labour may find it in the "national interest" to preclude such an outcome. That is a scenario Labour does not now want to discuss, however much it may preoccupy its 25 TDs and four Senators as it prepares for government this coming weekend. p