Labour's way is yet another confidence trick

We should have known from the awful blather and bombast of the Labour manifesto that we were being set up for another con job. By Vincent Browne.

Just last year, in February of last year, they were talking of a new politics. No more the cronyism, stroke politics, abuses of corporate and political power.

The Labour manifesto for the election of that month spoke of a “historic choice” the Irish people had to make. It said at the beginning: “Together, on polling day, we can change the direction of our country.”

Further in, the manifesto dealt with “reform”. “Labour pledges that Ireland will never again be vulnerable to the kinds of abuses of corporate and political power that have risked our country’s sovereignty. To restore confidence at home and abroad in public governance, Ireland must make significant changes in the culture and framework within which business is conducted.” It spoke of restoring “our trust in democracy”.

In the course of the election campaign, other solemn promises were made, among them one by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, made on 11 February, accompanied by characteristic finger-wagging: “Child benefit. The Labour Party will not agree to having child benefit cut anymore and Fine Gael need to drop their plans to cut child benefit.”


This commitment was uttered at a time when it no longer seemed plausible Eamon Gilmore would be taoiseach and when Labour were nervous that Fine Gael might get an overall majority and the Labour elders would not be needed for ministerial office.

Probably the last chance for such office on the part of Pat Rabbitte, Joan Burton, Ruairí Quinn, Brendan Howlin and Eamon Gilmore himself.

There were people who might have believed Eamon Gilmore’s promise on child benefit, “The Labour Party will not agree to having child benefit cut anymore”, because Fine Gael said they would do just that and there was a clamour from well-heeled economists for child benefit to be subjected to a means test or taxed.

Aside from Eamon Gilmore’s promise, the party issued posters around the country that read: “Protect child benefit, vote Labour”; “Families Need Labour in Government”; and “A Cut Too Far – Fine Gael – Every Little Hurts.” It is likely that there were a few tens of thousands, at least, of Labour’s 431,796 first-preference votes and probably a few seats won on the basis of that commitment.

A week ago, the Labour Party agreed to child benefit being cut by €10 a month for the first two children, €18 a month for the third child and €20 a month for the fourth and subsequent children.

On the RTÉ programme The Week in Politics on Sunday 9 December Pat Rabbitte was pushed on this breach of an election promise. After the familiar waffling, diversions and faux indignation, he was finally obliged to acknowledge this was a breach of an election promise but added: “Isn’t this the kind of thing you tend to do during an election campaign?”, meaning: isn’t it part of our political culture to make promises during an election campaign which one doesn’t intend to keep?


Or, maybe more explicitly: isn’t lying to the electorate part of what we are? Oddly enough, on The Week in Politics, nobody made a big deal of what Pat Rabbitte said, as though there was nothing unusual about an acknowledgement that deceiving the electorate was par for the course in an election that supposedly offered the electorate a “historic choice”, that offered an opportunity to “change the direction of our country”, an election that might restore “our trust in democracy”.

If a senior Fianna Fáil figure had said anything similar during the heydays of that party’s protracted periods in government office, think of the outrage that would have blazoned from the Labour benches, the vigour of Eamon Gilmore’s finger-wagging, the imperious corpulence of Pat Rabbitte raised to haughty indignation or yet more faux anger on a television screen.

“Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way” was more in the line of “the kind of thing you tend to do during an election campaign”. How did Eamon Gilmore not know then this was nonsense? Did it matter to him or anybody in Labour that this was deceiving the electorate? We should have known from the awful blather and bombast of the Labour manifesto that we were being set up for another con job.

But many people fell for it again, desperate to be rid of the old politics and of Fianna Fáil. Labour got 37 seats, with 19.4% of the popular vote and went into government, pronto, with Fine Gael, which had won 76 seats and 36.1% of the popular vote, and together they adopted the Fianna Fáil agenda in almost every detail and together they have brought to a new level the cynical, weasel politics of the old regime.

Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte were known as the “student princes” as they emerged from student politics, first into the trade union movement and then into the Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party, later the Workers’ Party, then Democratic Left before ending up in Labour.

Along that trajectory there was a piece of profound cynicism that should have alerted us: their claim of ignorance that the political movement they had joined (the Workers’ Party in its various incarnations) was funded in curious ways and that that movement’s protestations of peace and abhorrence of violence were less than plausible. But then wasn’t that the kind of thing you tend to do in politics?

Image top via Irish Election Literature.