The Irish Labour Party is in dire straits. Its vote has collapsed from 19.7% in the 2011 general election to only 7% in last months local election, causing its leader Eamon Gilmore to resign. Now there is a leadership election ongoing between Joan Burton and Alex White, both of which are making bland statements about what they would do as leader (neither have mentioned any policies or anything concrete). But is this simply a case of rearranging chairs on the Titanic and finding someone to take the poisoned chalice and lead Labour into election meltdown?
Both candidates claim they want to return to Labour’s core values, but the problem is that neither are very clear what these core values actually are. In fact this is the main reason for Labour’s decline, it doesn’t seem to know what it stands for. Labour politicians regularly repeat that they are not Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but this distinction seems to be a difference of name rather than policy. When Fianna Fáil were in government they raised taxes and cut spending. Now that Fine Gael and Labour are in power they are doing the same thing. What does Labour have to offer that wouldn’t happen under Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael?
In order to save the Labour Party, it must find a unique voice. In recent years, Labour has lost its way and merely follows the lead of other parties with few distinctive policies of its own. When it tries to find its core values, it cannot simply settle for “reducing unemployment” or “increasing prosperity”. These are the core aims of every other party, Labour needs to find something that only it strives for. As a test, take any speech or quote by a Labour minister and ask yourself if any other party politician would say that. So long as Labour policies and speeches are unimaginative banalities that any politician can spout, it will have no future. Even if it survives, the country would be no better off than if it hadn’t.
The next Labour leader is unlikely to face up to these realities because most of the party is in a state of denial. To listen to Labour ministers (Pat Rabbitte is one of the worst) you would think Labour is composed of selfless martyrs who heroically sacrificed themselves to save the country (that phrase that was constantly repeated by Fianna Fáil “tough, hard measures”), only ordinary people are too ignorant and short sighted to realise their wisdom. They conveniently forget that when they were in opposition they ferociously attacked austerity policies only to implement the very same policies once they entered power. The litany of broken promises made at the last election is the elephant in the room, the true cause of Labour’s decline, but the one thing no one wants to mention.
Look at Labour’s last election slogan “jobs, reform, fairness”. Anyone and everyone claims they are in favour of reform (even Lucinda Creighton), jobs (even Fianna Fáil) and fairness (even the PDs used to). Vague buzzwords won’t save Labour. Nor will mimicking other parties as when Joan Burton claimed living on welfare was a “lifestyle choice”. Unless Labour does something imaginative and new, people simply won’t care. Its current leaders have been around for too long and have become worn out from repeating the same slogans every year for the last two or three decades. Equality has become nothing more than a poster slogan and their highest aim is little more than a ministerial pension. The crisis Labour is facing is coming from within.
What would these core issues look like? A commitment to reducing inequality for one. Not just as a slogan but with solid policies to follow them up. Policies such as promoting unionisation, higher capital taxes, a wealth tax and greater welfare spending. All of these would be very controversial, but that is the point. Simply repeating the empty catch-all slogans like every other party is not going to win any votes. In politics you need to have a core group of supporters and with that comes some people who will never support you. Reducing unemployment should be the priority even if that means increasing the deficit (the other parties have the opposite priorities). Universal health care, free education and green energy are other issues that Labour could make their own. There is room for an openly secular liberal party to counteract the traditional conservatism of Ireland. Could you ever imagine Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil supporting these policies? Of course not, that’s the point.
I was a proud member of Labour in 2011 and canvassed for them in 2009. I voted against raising student fees, only for Labour to raise them just as much as Fianna Fáil would have. I believed Gilmore’s promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and reduce inequality, only for these proposals to be dropped without notice once Labour got into power. I cheered when Labour criticised the policies of austerity that only made the recession worse and barely even reduced the deficit. I believed that Labour was the only way to prevent a continuation of the failed policies of the past, the failed policies that got us into the recession and kept us there. I won’t make that mistake again and neither will thousands of others.
Perhaps there is some hope. Some in Labour have been dropping hints that enough is enough and they will take a firm stance against austerity. Perhaps the next leader will rally the troops and draw a line in the sand. Maybe the next budget could lead to a split and Labour leaving the government over a core principle. It is their only hope of winning back any support and avoiding complete decimation. We could have a re-energised and motivated Labour party that knows what it stands for and knows what to fight for.
I don’t think Labour can be saved. In all likelihood we will rearrange the deckchairs on this sinking ship. The current crop of leaders are in too deep and too compromised to rock the boat now. The time for a noble stance over core issues was years ago. The new leader will do their best to use Labour rhetoric to mask Fine Gael policies. Labour will continue to implement policies that make the recession worse, increase poverty and inequality, drive away their supporters and continue the same old failed policies that got us into this mess. One of the things I can never understand is why sheep can go so calmly to the slaughter. Its a question the next leader of Labour can answer for us.