Monday 26 September 2016

It's too late for cold feet: Labour can't be half in and half out of government

The party is following a strategy which led to ruin for the junior coalition partners across the Irish Sea, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

‘Is this the height of the Irish Labour Party’s political ambition now? To be the block on Fine Gael’s wilder aspirations?’
‘Is this the height of the Irish Labour Party’s political ambition now? To be the block on Fine Gael’s wilder aspirations?’

James Reilly couldn't have been more unequivocal. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was canvassing voters in his Dublin North constituency, trailed by a reporter from Newstalk, wisely refusing to be drawn on possible deals that might be done post-election with Independents, including Michael Lowry, and even more wisely making no bones of the fact that he was running on the record of the Government.

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In fact, so generous was the former Health Minister that he actually said at one stage that he was "fighting on a Labour/Fine Gael platform", thereby relegating his own party to second fiddle.

The Taoiseach, in his televised address to the party's ard fheis last weekend, wasn't quite so magnanimous, but he also publicly gave Labour joint credit for the recovery. That message is being hammered home by the larger coalition party at every opportunity.

The contrast with the smaller ruling party couldn't be more pronounced. With astonishing timing, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, picked last weekend to tell an interviewer that last year's UK election which gave the Tories an overall majority after five years of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, had led to a raft of anti-progressive legislation, and that Irish voters needed to keep Labour in office if they wanted to avoid FG doing the same thing.

Joan Burton hurriedly tried to heal the wounds to FG's pride by this show of apparent disloyalty, but the damage was done. Howlin had let the cat out of the bag. As the minutes ticked down to the launch of the election campaign, Labour was beginning to succumb to the temptation to prioritise its role in reining in FG, rather than the Government's shared achievement in "saving" the country from financial ruin.

If it works, the strategists advising such an approach will look like electoral geniuses. Is Labour not slightly concerned, however, that this was the exact same approach adopted by the Lib Dems before the UK election, which led to their effective annihilation in parliament, as they went from an historic modern high of 57 seats down to a miserly eight and were wiped out in traditional strongholds?

As the junior partner in that coalition, the Lib Dems began decoupling from the Tories long in advance of the election, giving their bigger colleagues plenty of time to devise a counter-strategy. It's probably too late for FG to do to Labour what the Tories did to the Lib Dems, by blitzkreiging them at their weakest points, an operation which was compared by victims afterwards to a black widow spider eating its partner after mating; but arguably they don't have to. All the evidence back then suggested that voters have little patience for parties which try to claim credit for the successes of Government while simultaneously distancing themselves from its more unpopular decisions.

You can't be both in and out, for and against.

One obvious proviso: Ireland is not the same as the UK. That's not such a big caveat, however. The two situations are not so different that warning signs can be dismissed.

Gathering this weekend for their ard fheis, Labour has to be concerned that it's now at risk of replicating exactly the same catastrophic errors which did for the Lib Dems.

As former Home Office minister, Jeremy Browne, concluded: "The mistake the Lib Dems have made, given we were instrumental in creating the winning proposition, is to distance ourselves from it… All we offer is a desire to water down (the Conservatives') strong views. We offer an insipid moderation. Whichever party is the biggest one, we will stop them implementing a large number of their ideas. It is entirely negative".

"Insipid moderation" - sound familiar, Labour?

Fine Gael is absolutely not budging from its position that it has done a champion's job in government. Whether or not that's the case is irrelevant; it smacks of confidence and conviction, and the fact all its representatives speak with one voice conveys togetherness. Labour still seems unsure what it thinks about its period in government. At times the party seems to echo former Lib Dems leader Nick Clegg's assertion that the reason for their existence was to give the Tories a heart and Labour a brain, which was a terrific slogan, and contained a huge dollop of common sense, but meant in practise that few voters knew what they actually stood for. At the 2013 conference, Clegg's proudest boast was being able to list 13 Tory policies that the Lib Dems had stopped from being implemented. Is this the height of Labour's ambition now? To be the block on FG's wilder aspirations?

One writer said of the Lib Dems that their strategy was one of "adopting the midpoint between Labour and the Conservatives on every issue". That, too, sounds ominously similar to Irish Labour's own stance.

On the one hand, they don't want voters to trust FG to rule alone. On the other hand, they want to warn about the dangers of the hard left. So they simply do some political algebra and fall somewhere in the centre between the two extremes. The resulting pitch seems to be: If you like FG, vote Labour, because we're a bit like that, only not so much - but if you're warming to the hard left, then also vote Labour, because we're a bit like that, only not so much too.

That didn't work in the UK. Those strongly opposed to the British government were unimpressed by the Lib Dems' claims to have tempered the worst of it, whilst those who liked what the coalition government had done were irritated by the Lib Dems' ambivalent attitude and decided that the best way to continue the good work was to just vote for the Tories because that would provide continuity and stability.

That is FG's mantra too. It might not work, but it has proven effective before, and adopting a strategy with a history of working always makes much more sense than adopting one which failed so spectacularly a year ago.

Much of this is deeply unfair to the Lib Dems. Two years before the UK general election, Lord Ashcroft published a report which pointed out the irony of a party which exists in order to go into coalition losing half its support the first time it had the chance to do so.

Traditional Irish Labour voters wrestle constantly with the same dilemma. The party is never going to rule alone, so what do its voters expect it to do in coalition? Flouncing out every time a cherished policy pledge fails to make the cut in the Programme For Government would satisfy the purists, but would rightly have been seen by most voters as an indulgence at a time of economic crisis. But once an agreed platform is in place, and you've signed up to it, then that has to become the battlefield on which you either triumph or fall. You can't substitute an imaginary programme for government that might have existed had you not been there to prevent it, and fight an election on that.

Labour has one safety net that the Lib Dems did not enjoy. Whatever Frank Flannery might have been optimistically claiming before Christmas, there's little chance of an overall FG majority, so Labour will be needed to make up the numbers; but there's no point making it harder for themselves to reach that position of being arithmetically useful again. Going lukewarm on the Government's record at this late stage of the day certainly won't cut any ice with those on the hard left whose opposition to the FG/Labour record has become a matter of metaphysical faith. They'll only be emboldened by any such sign of weakness.

It's too late now for Labour to get cold feet. Trying to be half in and half out of government is as ludicrous as claiming to be half pregnant.

Sunday Independent

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