What next for Labour and the Irish party system?

Eoin O’Malley (28 February, 2011)

Although the election was a seismic event in the redevelopment of the Irish party system, the decisions made in the next week as to the structure of the government will have a greater long term impact. The decision Labour has to take as to whether to go into government or not seems to have already been taken if we consider the noises made by senior Labour members at the weekend. But if the party were considering more than getting bums on seats in ministerial mercs (or the share of a Prius) then it should pause for thought.

By entering government Labour will stunt its own growth and the potential development of a left-right divide in Irish politics. If it were to stay in opposition it would displace Fianna Fáil as the main opposition party. This would make much more difficult for Fianna Fáil the task of effecting a rebirth from the opposition benches – starved as it would be of Dáil and media time or any obvious basis to oppose an unpopular government. This could kill any potential for growth in Fianna Fáil. And with so many constituencies without Fianna Fáil TDs there are plenty of target seats.

Meanwhile staying in opposition would protect Labour’s left flank. In going into government Labour will be opposed vigorously by a young, energetic and largely articulate Sinn Féin and ULA. These parties will make hay with Labour’s inevitable compromises in government and will successfully label Labour as a conservative party and part of the ‘consensus for cuts’. By staying in opposition Labour can prevent this from happening and will be free to vocalise its opposition to what it sees as the deflationary policies Fine Gael supports.

For Fine Gael having Labour in government will be important, not just to have a secure government majority but also to spread the inevitable blame for the cuts that are coming. Fine Gael TDs will find it easier to sell these cuts to their constituents if they are also supported by Labour.

The Labour leadership will no doubt claim that it does not want to go into government but that the national interest demands it. It is also the case that the broad leadership of Labour is at an age when it knows that this will its last chance to govern. Its parliamentary party’s average age was the highest of the parties in the last Dáil. The national interest happily coincides with personal ambition.

But it’s not even that clear that it is in the national interest to enter government. A coalition with a large majority can become listless. A minority government is more likely to work hard to enable it pass legislation. It will be less obsessed with its own internal dynamic. Labour could possibly have as much influence were it to be in opposition. Especially if the Dáil is reformed extensively as Fine Gael has promised it will.

Or it might have and perhaps should seek none. Labour could reasonably argue that there is a right-wing majority in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil would find it hard to oppose the policies it campaigned on and presumably the right-wing independents would support some of these policies. It would make the task of the next government Chief Whip difficult but you could see Fine Gael drawing support from across the floor of the house. In fact the most difficult task might be to elect a Taoiseach, but here Labour could abstain in the national interest – because the country needs a government, even if it is a minority government.

With Labour leading a left-wing opposition it could restructure Irish politics more deeply than the 2011 election already has. Sinn Féin and the ULA would have less time and space to grow their parties. Labour could enter an election campaign in 2014 or 2015 with a reasonable expectation that it would be the largest party, perhaps under the banner ‘Sherlock for Taoiseach’!

But of course this isn’t going to happen – this is just a dream of the younger Labour members and a nightmare for Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the ULA.

When Labour and Fine Gael enter government, the two parties should try to frame this government not as a normal coalition government of two parties who struck a deal to enable them take power, but as a  government of national unity which would go to the country in 2014 having reduced the deficit and ‘saved Ireland’. By holding it sooner than legally required they maximise the chances that people won’t have forgiven or forgotten Fianna Fáil and don’t give the impression they were in government for the sake of office. They could then go to the country as separate entities from left and right and hope that they’ll have been able to discredit as extreme the policies of Sinn Féin and ULA on the left and Shane Ross-types on the right.

But there will always be Fianna Fáil.

27 thoughts on “What next for Labour and the Irish party system?

  1. between them they got a million plus votes. It’s a fair point that it is a national government. A centre right one

  2. As a member of the Labour Party, I’d agree with most of what you are saying except for one thing. This newly elected Fine Gael party are going to be worse potentially than Fianna Fail, with their slash and burn tactics that will impact heavily on the less well off. Their equality agenda is non existent, so while I sympathise with your sentiment, the reality is we need a Labour element in the government to curb the financial extremism of FG… My personal fear is that Labour will suffer like the Greens did under FF and that will reduce the capacity of the party to build…long term.

  3. “but as a government of national unity which would go to the country in 2014 having reduced the deficit and ‘saved Ireland’.”

    Interesting idea.
    Why leave FF out of such a government of national unity – when they have negotiated the EU-EB-IMF deal?

    Outside events – exports but also public/political sentiment within Germany – will be key determinants of the extent to which Ireland can be “saved” by 2014 or whenever.

    Perhaps the editors could invite some German political scientist to summarise, occasionally, German political and popular sentiment on the political aspects of the management of the €urozone crisis – which has not gone away.

    It would do us all (how many of us can read German easily?) here in Ireland a service.

  4. the core values of elected deputies and division on party lines do not exactly coincide. if you were obliged recast your entry (above) in terms of core values, rather than using party labels – the underlying position might become clearer, or at least it could be seen slightly differently.

    i see micheal martin’s fianna fail as a detached retina in the overall european unionist vision of fine gael / labour, they will be a rump cut off from their natural allies.

    i see the main opposition core value as resistance to european integration, thus the core might run through sinn fein and certain independents, and rally them around the cry “default now!”. these people, together, would not only be more numerous than fianna fail, but have more focus.

    if you impose left/right values, you may miss the possibility of, say, shane ross and mary lou macdonald as allies. remember that irish politics has yoked together dessie o’malley and charlie haughey, and yoked together ian paisley senior and martin mcguinness. political possibilities include the bizarre and unprecedented.

    the threat of sovereign defaults may undermine the political middle ground in europe, and polarise european voters towards much greater integration in defence of the euro – or partial or total defaults and a return to separate national currencies.

    the ‘revolution’ is not over. fine gael / labour are about to jump into a pool where the last swimmer has just been dismembered by a shark. i make no prediction of their fate except that there are interesting times ahead . . .

  5. Shane Ross-types on the right? Ross has no friends other than Donnolly if/when he’s elected. Other than that on the right wing of Independents you’ve got Lowry, Healy-Raem Tom Flemming & Mattie McGrath.

    The rest of the Independents are “of the left” I’d say.

    Are the Labour Party heads really only in it for the jobz? What happened to the parliament holding the government of the day to account and all that.

  6. Eoin’s argument rests on the precarious assumption that, in opposition, support will naturally flow towards the Labour Party. But why should it? SF and ULA will claim, not without some justification, that Labour is propping up an FG government and Labour is bound to support at least some of the government’s proposals. So, its left flank will not be protected. What is more, FG and FF will be able to claim, not unreasonably, that if Labour is so convinced that its policies are right, then why didn’t they go into government and put them into action? In opposition, therefore, Labour will look both hypocritical and pusillanimous, which is never a good combination. Instead, Labour should go into government with the aim of being the architect of a realignment. To do so, they have to avoid the neo-patrimonial temptation to insist on Finance, delivering a few community centres here and one or two new roads there. They should go into government as a party of reform. They should decide what areas they want to reform – health, welfare, maybe tax if Finance is a red line ministry. If they can behave as a reformist party that is in touch with civil society, then they will get the benefits of office. The bottom line is that Labour cannot sit back and wait for realignment, they have to be the agent of it.

  7. Why should FG bother taking Labour on? It could function as a strong minority government, and at least initially it would be unlikely to suffer any opposition votes from the demoralised FF lobby. It would also have support from at least some of the Independents. Meanwhile, they could leave Labour to stew ineffectively as part of a motley left opposition, and leave Labour’s former Democratic Left leadership in the uncomfortable position of having to share space and positions with a very confident Sinn Fein. Just think of the personal animosities.

    Labour has very few cards to bargain with here. As we have seen earlier on this site, its leadership is old, and this is probably their last chance for government office. Fine Gael, meanwhile, could realise a dream: the first single-party FG government to take office since 1927, albeit as a minority. And it wouldn’t have to bother with daily negotiations with Labour.

    • On the question of FG’s motivation:

      FG may not need Labour in order to remain in government or to achieve its policy goals; however, it does need to implicate Labour in the government’s policy agenda in order to compete with it electorally. Labour is now FG’s largest competitor, its closest competitor (on the FF – anti FF dimension) and its major competitor in Dublin. Being in government will damage Labour more than FG, because government policy in coming years will be much further from Labour’s positions than FG’s, and that will suit FG just fine.

      • Yes, I think this is a crucial point. Many Fine Gael voters (in Dublin in particular) will reward it for imposing austerity, Labour voters will blame it. In more rural constituencies where FG support is more broadly based it could be different. Expect rural TDs and TDs in working class areas to want Labour – the Lucinda Creightons and Simon Coveneys of the world will be against it.

  8. Robert has a point there, it would be very difficult for Labour to stay out of government and maintain credibility. Particularly given that the alternative is to return FF to power as a junior member of government, whether tacit or formal.
    The only way that Eoin’s scenario would play out would be if FG decided to go it alone unilaterally, and that this was presented as the result of FG’s hunger for power.
    Labour face a serious dilemma here, stay out and have no guarantee of a positive return,as Robert has outlined, while FG are free to slash public services and pay, or go in to mitigate against the harshness of FG single government but in doing so likely consign themselves to minor party status for the forseeable future.
    Tough choices.
    On Peter’s point, FG seem, bar Leo Varadkar, to be committed to bringing Labour in with them because they recognise the difficult task ahead. A series of austerity budgets with no guarantee of turning around the economy is not a recipe for future electoral success. At least with a coalition partner and a large majority, FG will be able to leave government at a time of their choosing and be able to deflect criticism to the junior government partner a la FF/PD’s or even the revisionism on the Fitzgerald governments in the 1980’s.

    • This is an unusual situation in that there are fewer arguments for going into government for any party than usually exist. And I’m not sure that I agree with Peter that Fine Gael has an obviously superior negotiating position. To have a better position you need outside options – some other attractive proposition. Fine Gael has to be in government, and it doesn’t really want to be on its own, not could it put up with Shane Ross et al. giving it Econ101 every week.

      Robert’s point rests on the assumption that Labour actually supports Fine Gael policies. It has been trying to balance on a fine line between appearing too centrist or too left wing (something it just about managed). But it could shift a bit more clearly to the left and oppose Fine Gael policies. It could show itself as a more liberal party than the essentially conservative Fine Gael. And it can stunt Sinn Féin. To be the party of reform is easy to say, but not that easy to do. Harney though she could sort out the health service in 6-12 months, and she took over when there was money (albeit from a completely different perspective). What had been a good career was ruined by Health. Why should we expect that Labour would be able to fix it?

      Ken, it’s reasonably easy to not go into government w/out being blamed. You pick a point of principle that you know the other side can’t accept or isn’t inclined to accept. If the other party does actually give in, then you’ve got a good deal. If I were in Labour, I’d bargain hard. That’s why I’d look for a 9-6 split in cabinet seats and pretty detailed commitments on the time line of the bailout.

      For Fine Gael the decision is about jobs and peace. On its own a lot more people get into cabinet – the likes of Simon Coveney is unlikely to make it with Labour, but could get there in a SPG. And FG won’t have the weekly negotiations on every issue. But (barring a miraculous turnaround in the economy) FG will inevitably lose seats at the next election (FG received a massive seat bonus – largest ever in seat numbers through really effective vote management). With Labour it can share the pain and the blame and perhaps limit the fall that will occur at GE14/15/16.

      • I agree with much of what you’re saying there Eoin, except on the optics of not going into government.
        You’re right of course in tactical terms, it is easy to not go into government – would a referendum on gay marriage and legislation on abortion be enough as red line issues? Both issues would cause serious problems for FG and help nail Labour’s progressive colours to the mast.
        The problem they face though is the media environment, can they win the argument in the public sphere that they are not merely shirking responsibility? One limiting factor on their election campaign was the repitition by various commentators that Labour lacked the ‘guts’ to take tough decisions in budgetary matters and public service reform to the exclusion of any possible alternatives. I suspect a failure to form a coalition will, likewise, inevitably be billed as more Labour flakiness and opportunism, and unfortunately I can’t see Labour winning that argument in the short-term at least.

  9. The reality, unfortunately for Labour, is that there is a plurality of up to 100 seats in the Dail broadly in favour of right and centre policies – FG (76) + FF (20) + a handful of Independents. As always, the progressive left is trapped between what could or should be and what is most likely or will be.

    Despite the vengeful – and fully deserved – judgement of the people, FF, as the principal authors of this mess, should be forced to abase themselves further and be compelled to support a minority FG government. But FG won’t touch them because, so toxic is the FF brand, it would probably do more damage to FG than to FF to pursue this course. This will allow FF to wriggle free and opportunistically, as it always has, begin to regroup in opposition.

    In addition, the combined popular vote that FG and Labour command in government will strengten Ireland’s hand in the upcoming engagement with the powers in the EU. And, furthermore, enough voters, comfortable with the historical ability of FG and Labour together being able to provide an antidote to FF, by their transfer votes willed this result.

    Labour, once again, by retaining out-dated ideological baggage and its defence of specific vested interests – and focusing on communicating voter anger rather than detailed work on policy, has missed an historic opportunity to reach out to voters in the liberal, progressive centre. These are now firmly in the FG camp (with some supporting FF and some independents) and it will prove difficult to dislodge them.

    Labour, of course, still retains the potential, once some initial stability is ensured in financial and economic affairs, to leave government (governments with such overwhelming majorities are inherently unstable) and to force an early general election. This would be fraught with danger, as voters, who have just developed a taste for applying punishment, might not welcome major changes to what they thought they had settled for some time last Friday.

    I fear that Labour’s opportunity lost will not be recovered for a very long time – if ever. And the already evident splits on the progressive-left will widen even more and delay even further any prospect of seizing this opportunity again. It is indeed a sad prospect.

  10. Contrary to Eoin, I still can’t see why FG has a weak bargaining position. It has the option of either a minority single-party government which nobody on the centre-right will want to challenge, and which can therefore probably endure; or a possibly fraught coalition with Labour, who will inevitably want to grandstand even when they are knuckling down to accept the policies. Labour, on the other hand, has the option of coalition with FG, following which the left will criticise them and the senior leaders will head into retirement; or another spell in opposition, this time shared with Sinn Fein, following which the left will still criticise them and the senior leaders, still without Can=binet posts, will go into retirement. FG has choices, Labour – or its present leadership – doesn’t. And don’t forget the imbedded FG culture of being the only party that really looks after the public interest. In this case they can go into government alone for the first time since Liam Cosgrave’s dad was a young man (he left office at 52), bear all the slings and arrows, save Ireland from economic collapse, and feel good about themselves, as FG always does, even if/when they lose the next election.

    • Perhaps I should have suggested that Labour’s ‘outside options’ of staying in opposition isn’t obviously worse, and so it can afford to bargain hard. I don’t think opposition would be all that bad for Labour – it could distinguish itself from the government, and still appear as the most reasonable alternative (the Irish electorate is remarkably cautious. As you point out earthquake elections usually produce new parties).
      One of the unusual features of this negotiations is that for the first time in Ireland a coalition is being formed when both parties had a good election, and so will be less inclined to accept scraps from the other partner. In 2002 both government parties had good results but the PDs were no longer needed for FF to form a government and so the PDs should have gone into opposition.

      • @Eoin,

        For Labour the prospect of exercising a share of power – particularly for a party deprived for so long – normally outweighs any strategic or public interest consideration.

        And remember that nothing in either party’s political reform proposals (which are unlikely to be implemented in any event) would curtail, in any meaningful way, the exercise of executive dominance. For all the honeyed words and noise about commitment to political reform, both parties’ proposals in these areas have been carefully crafted to avoid any possibility of such restraint being imposed.

        Despite the serious diminuition of Ireland’s sovereignty, they can’t wait to get their hands on the few levers of power and patronage that are left. Nothing really has changed..except that FF has gotten such a hiding – one that was 30 years overdue and all the more savage as a result – that it will struggle to recover.

  11. Surely the problem is more straightforward? FG simply didn’t get enough seats to form a majority government even with the support of Independents.

    They will, apparently, have 76 seats, seven short of a majority, when all the counts are finalised. Now if they had 78 or 79, it might be a different story. Hobble on with the support of Independents like Ross, Stephen Connelly and maybe even some of the FF gene-pool Independents and let Labour soften their cough in opposition for a couple of years. Then, if the going got tough with the Indo group, they might find Labour amenable to doing business without a mid-term election, same as they did themselves with the Rainbow in 1994 and all in the interests of ‘stablility’ etc.

    With just 76 seats, Fine Gael would have to cough up one seat for the position of Ceann Comhairle; which makes them 8 short of the magic number. That’s arguably too big a gap to bridge with Independents, because there are not enough ‘like-minded’ Independents in the pool who could be relied upon to stay the course for any appreciable length of time. Even for non-like minded Independents, there are no constituency sweetheart deals that Fine Gael can offer, nor concessions on social welfare or health programmes either, that would might lure them into offering support. Besides with no ‘minor party’ for the media and the public to blame, public ire would likely fasten on the supportive Independents, putting their parliamentary careers in jeopardy.

    Ideally, if Labour could stay out it might enhance its own prospects in the next election. Then again, maybe not since there is no great wealth of talent or ideas on Labour’s ageing front bench – if there was they would hardly have made such a mess of the historic opportunity presented by election 2011! A Labour Party, stranded in opposition once again, would have a fair bit of rebranding and soul searching to do about what it is and what it stands for; almost as much as Fianna Fail.

    Finally, since FG needs Labour to form a government that has any chance of lasting more than two to three years, the old rule of coalition government kicks in: your partner in government is an equal partner and you’d better respect that. Thus Labour stand a chance of getting a good deal, from their own perspective, in the present negotiations. Since the future is so uncertain, politically and economically, they’re probably better off taking what’s immediately in front of them than dreaming on about what might become available a few years down the road. Besides, can they afford to discoutnenance the possibility that FG might prove such an excellent government – especially if they perform well in their dealings with the EU – that they would be re-elected with a healthy overall majority next time out?

    I like the idea of a commitment to a general election in 2014. That’s ethical. But it’s politicians we’re talking about here, not moral philosophers. Once in power, they’ll cling to their titles and offices and perks with all the tenacity of limpids to a rock.

    • @veronica,

      As usual you provide us with a wealth of common sense. For all sorts of reasons (both good and bad) a coalition deal will be cobbled together. And many voters, via their transfers, communicated an expectation, and an acceptance, of such an arrangement. But many voters, via their support for independent and smaller factions, gave two fingers to the existing parties. Political reform is needed to engage these voters effectively. In addition, the government will have to come us with something to occupy the 85 or so TDs that won’t be on the government payroll. (This has been mentioned on this board previously.)

      It would be a good idea to resource and empower Dail Cttees (with chairs and deputy-chairs elected by secret ballot) to do some proper work hearing and testing evidence on policy proposals, giving ministers (and their officials and secpial advisers) a good working over. That might keep them out of mischief and they might actually do something that has value to the public – rather than being forced to tramp through the lobbies rubber-stamping government bills or huddling and fomenting attention-seeking revolts safe in the knowledge that they can posture without causing a government defeat.

      • Hmnn..yes. How to keep the backbenchers out of mischief… maybe take their free mobiles off them the first time any one of them does a ‘Dan Boyle’? No ‘tweets’ for them then! It might be a good idea too to restrict internet access and after that, a ban on speaking to Daily Mail journalists? Any breaches of the latter and they would be immediately relegated to the ‘open plan’ area where FG and Lab bad boys/girls get to share desks with one another. For those who behave, a free bar, a sort of ‘happy hour’ event, in the Members Bar on Wednesday nights? The government might usefully schedule votes on all the tough decisions for 9am on Thursday mornings?

        Sorry to be so tongue in cheek! Thing is, watching the way Committees work, deputies don’t appear to take them all that seriously. They each have their pet concerns and once they’ve aired them then they leave the meeting or sit there looking bored to death as their parliamentary colleagues ask much the same questions that are really only intended to make for good PR on local radio or in the local newspaper or a soundbite on Orieachtas Report.

        There were far too many committees in the last Dail, anyway. Some even duplicating one another’s efforts. Others just providing more a platform for Ministers and party positions than effectively scrutinising any area of policy. Not all backbenchers can be accommodated either on the PAC, which is the only committee with real teeth.

        The biggest problem with the huge majority is that there will be even less incentive for Dail reform than existed prior to this.

  12. Labour can enter these negotiations with a hand strengthened by its own better than expected finish to the campaign and my Fine Gael’s disapointment at missing out on the dreamed for overall majority.

    This opportunity to have genuine and serious control over the programme for government can be used to good effect but Labour will need to hold its nerve.

    Without Labour, FG would be forced to cobble together more extreme single issue or pot hole independents or perhaps Fianna Fáil. This meeting is the most logical given their policy and psychology proximity but given the hiding that Fianna Fáil took they will likely be deemed too ‘toxic’.

    Without FG, Labour could lead a genuine left wing coalition and relegate Micheal Martin to the very fringe of political relevance.

    These are high stakes but the control of their future destiny is in the hands of the Labour leadership. If they are going to be strong negotiating the country’s future in Europe they had better treat this as a full dress rehearsal and not think twice about walking away if they do not get what they, and the country need.

  13. Following Denmark’s earthquake election in 1973, the Liberals formed a single-party minority government which went on to hold office for just over a year. The Liberals then held 22 seats in the 179-seat Parliament, and were succeeded by a series of Social Democratic minority governments. Fine Gael, on its own, could do much better than that, especially since there is probably no single proposal it could make which would be voted against by Fianna Fáil. 76 plus 20 offers a stable basis in seats on which to govern, and no Independents need to be involved. It would also mark the most radical change from past practices that Fine Gael could manage, and would therefore offer the best signal for a new beginning. It is a mistake to think that that a government in these crisis circumstances, and at a time when no real policy options are available, needs a real majority. In other words, much as I like Labour, I still can’t see why Fine Gael needs them.

    • I’ve mentioned previously that the FF brand is so toxic that FG would consider what you’re proposing – impeccably rational as it is – would do more damage to them than to FF. And they could be right.

  14. It might seem shocking but there is as much chance of this government being a success as a failure and like in many good relationships – each can compliment the other.

    They can lay good cop/bad cop on loads of issued and balance each other.

    Also, the fact of the matter is, despite the merchants of doom, the situation we are in is nothing like the 1980s. It is bad, very bad, but in the context of how good it was in 2000 not how bad it was in 1985 and also FG and L will have the lessons of the 1980s seered into their minds, plus Enda Kenny has the sort of people skills that Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton can only dream of having.

    This government will be one of the best and most reforming government we have ever had.

  15. @Veronica,

    “The biggest problem with the huge majority is that there will be even less incentive for Dail reform than existed prior to this.”

    This for me is the litmus test. I can understand why you seem less than hopeful. I just wonder if, for purely prgamatic political reasons, the new government might not see value in having a more effective Cttee system that would give Chairs and Deputy-Chairs some status and power. For example, for those in FG who secure a senior or junior ministerial position there will be an equal number feeling hard done by. Wouldn’t it make sense to give them something useful to do to avoid little cabals, revolts and conspiracies bubbling up continuously? And we will have 50 odd non-government TDs in various small factions and as independents who will find it difficult to generate any cohesion to hold government to account. A government with such an overwhelming majority, if it had any wisdom, would recognise that both it and its democratic legitimacy would be better sustained by arranging for more effective engagement and scrutiny in the Dail and its Cttees.

  16. i think that while we were absorbed in our election, geopolitical earth tremors have gone unnoticed. the implosion of fianna fail might now easily be followed by the implosion of their fellow golden elite, the saudi royal family. or by an iranian invasion of kuwait. or a collapse of the japanese economy. or a fraying of more fringe members of the euro.

    the more scary the world outside is looking – the less likely we are, as an electorate, to risk rocking the boat. labour would be right to opt for office, the bird in the hand. leaders have less choice than we like to think.

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