Could the real Labour Party please stand up?

On 12 September 2012, Labour MEP Nessa Childers raised the prospect of the Labour party splitting, when she made the following comments in an interview on Newstalk, saying, “I think there is a risk in the medium term of a breakaway political party forming, of people who feel that they’re, if you like, more representative of the Labour Party. This is very evident all over Europe with centre-left parties.”

Splits, splinters and breakaway movements are nothing new in the history of the Labour Party in Ireland, but what might have spurred Childers to raise the prospect of a breakaway organisation?

'Opposition' in government

Since Labour has entered government, three of their TDs have chosen to vote against the coalition. Junior Minister Wille Penrose lost the party whip in November 2011 due to his opposition to the closure of Columb Barracks in Mullingar. This, it could be argued, was a local politician, thinking locally and protecting his Dáil seat. Two more Labour TDs followed Mr. Penrose in losing the whip, but both claimed matters of policy principle as the reason. For Tommy Broughan, the extension of the bank guarantee scheme was the policy he could not stomach, and less than a week later Patrick Nulty was expelled from the party when he voted against the Budget.

Nulty withdrew his support for the Government, he says, because “I decided that on certain aspects of economic strategy I could not support them. This is because I believe austerity has failed Ireland and Europe. Since 2008, €25 billion has been taken out of the economy through cuts and taxes on working people. This strategy is damaging recovery and is not helping to deal with unemployment, which is still at 15%. In particular I believe cuts to frontline services in health and education to be totally unacceptable.  Such cuts are not and have never been Labour Party policy.”

Next to go was Róisín Shortall, who resigned from her Junior Minister position in the Department of Health, and from the party whip, in September 2012. In this case Ms Shortall failed to get the backing of the leadership of her party as she attempted to stand up against a case of “stroke politics”.  

A different direction

It is not only elected Labour officials that are having a hard time swallowing the current direction of their party. Ordinary rank and file activists are also dismayed at their Labour’s role and record in government. A group called Campaign for Labour Policies has been set up to express this dissatisfaction.  Their spokesperson, Neil Warner, explains why the group was established: “The group was developed because of the growing frustration which Labour Party members have felt with current government policy which we feel does not fit with the values of the Labour Party. Rather than simply feeling disillusioned, we decided that members should work towards promoting genuine social-democratic policies in government. Following what we felt was a very undemocratic party conference a group of us met over the summer and came up with a five-point platform of how we wanted to see government policy changed. This was given approval at a launch open to all Labour Party members on 15 September.”

The five-point platform set out by the group includes a proposal for a stimulus package of €2 billion, public finances to be repaired through taxation on higher incomes, no sell-off in semi-state enterprises, an increase in workers’ rights, suspension of all promissory note payments, and negotiation of a new deal based on a complete write-down of bank debt. Warner claims this platform and the formation of their group has gained support from within the Labour Party and has a chance of influencing government policy. “The launch in Dublin was attended by about 100 members and we have received support and interest from members across the country. Numerous TDs have also said they feel it is a positive development which will enhance debate within the party and which also may help the party in negotiations with Fine Gael. Fundamentally, the party depends upon its grassroots to survive. Without the support and enthusiasm of the grassroots members, the party simply wouldn’t function. This means that when a large number of members express dissatisfaction with current government policy and call for it to change, the party leadership should know that it’s in its own self-interest to listen. The party is also democratic and at least theoretically it’s the members who have the power to determine its course at conference and through elected bodies. There has not been an organised grassroots campaign from the Labour Party membership up to this point under this government, so we still have to see how the Government will react when the pressure is in place. For these reasons we feel that it is worth trying to bring about a shift in policy.”

Warner is certain that their campaign and members will remain within the Labour Party and he dismissed talk of splits and withdrawal from government. “We are very committed to the Labour Party and the values we believe it represents, and in fact it’s our loyalty to those values that has led us to set up this campaign. We believe there is still a chance that the direction of the Government can be changed, and we’re committed to campaigning with that in mind. We completely disagree with the Government’s current policies, but we think there is still potential for the Labour Party to push for a change in direction and assert real Labour values with the support of its members.”

Despite his opposition to Labour’s current direction in government, Patrick Nulty is also dismissive of talk of a split in the party. “There has always been a great tradition of open and robust debate with Social Democratic/Labour parties, not just in Ireland but throughout the world. This is a strength and a sign of a vibrant organisation. I believe there is and will always be space for different perspectives within our party. However, I will continue to speak out clearly and directly on the issues that I feel strongly about.”

As Budget 2013 approaches, the Labour dissidents will be able to measure if their opposition will be enough to influence government direction. Recent kite-flying from Labour has raised the prospect of an increase in the universal social charge to 10% for those earning over €100,000. While this would be only a small victory for those on the left of the Labour Party, it would perhaps be a small indication that the Labour leadership are taking heed of their grassroots. For Nulty this would not go far enough, and he sets out a number of policies he wishes to see implemented in the upcoming budget: “Labour could demand the introduction of the following policies in the next budget, all of which are either official Labour Party policy or core elements of contemporary Social Democratic thinking: A wealth tax based on the French system taxing net wealth of €800,000 per annum; a new 48% tax rate on incomes of over €100,000; and a financial transactions tax.”

Broken promises

Are these rebel Labour members right to be dismayed at their party’s record in government? The Labour manifesto contained a number of pledges to the electorate that gave them a mandate to enter coalition with Fine Gael. Labour promised to renegotiate the EU-IMF deal to share the debt with bondholders and to reduce the interest rate to leave Ireland’s economy to grow. Fast-forward to November 2012 and bondholders continue to be paid and a deal on our debt seems further away than ever. Labour promised a referendum on gay marriage rights, however despite Eamon Gilmore expressing his support for this, no tangible progress has been made on this issue. With public services under constant attack from this government, along with the implementation and consideration of a number of regressive taxation policies, it is hard to see how much influence Labour is having in the corridors of power. Budget 2013 is now in the final stages of preparation, and if leaks and soundings from government sources are to be believed, it will stick to the austerity menu of public service cuts, social welfare reductions and regressive taxation. Gilmore famously promised it would be “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” during the 2011 election - now it seems that Labour’s Way is Frankfurt’s Way.

Last month’s Red C poll would suggest that dissident TDs and party members aren’t the only ones feeling dissatisfied with the Labour Party. The poll found that “over a third of the current Labour support is losing faith in the party”. Mr. Nulty thinks that despite these worrying findings Labour does still have something to offer. “Polls are a snapshot in time. I strongly believe, as previous polls have indicated, a large portion of people are willing to listen to what the Labour Party has to say, but we must assert ourselves more clearly and in particular insist that this budget will not increase inequality in society. Even at a time of serious economic crisis, choices are always available to government and we must place the focus on jobs and growth, not free market fundamentalism.”


Image top - Eamon Gilmore at the Labour Party's annual commemoration of James Connolly (in 2008): The Labour Party.