News Analysis

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: A concert of Labour Party lessons, but minus carols

Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00

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CHRISTMAS this year is book-ended by two Sundays. So I get two chances to close my political accounts for 2012. This week I want to look at the lack of good politics in the Labour Party.

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What do I mean by good politics? Asked to answer in the abstract, I would argue it's acting with good authority. Standing up to the fat cats or wild cats on your own side.

But I prefer to describe rather than prescribe. Good politics in the Labour Party was defined by the attitude and actions of leaders like James Larkin Jnr, Frank Cluskey and Barry Desmond. Donal Nevin, who died last week, was of the same calibre.

Nevin was more than a titan of the trade union movement. He was a moral mentor too.

As a member of the Workers Union of Ireland, I was lucky enough to see him in action during the dark days of the "armed struggle".

Like all trade union leaders, Nevin had to make hard choices about the campaign of the Provisional IRA. In the early 1970s that was not easy. Then, as now, there was a nasty nationalist rump in the Labour Party and trade union movement.

Like his mentor, Jim Larkin Jnr, Nevin set his face firmly against the Provo IRA's sectarian campaign to drive a wedge between Irish workers. These stands saved the trade union movement from disgracing itself. Nevin was also sound on Israel. Here again he had to take a hard line. Bad politics being a seamless robe, the trade union Trots were naturally as soft on the IRA as they were hard on Israel.

Although Nevin supported a Palestinian state, he never forgot that criticism of the state of Israel had to be tempered by remembering its history: that it was the child of centuries of anti-semitism, of the Holocaust, and of the grim geography of its position surrounded by hostile Arab states.

Finally, in modernising the trade union movement, and opposing the IRA, Nevin, a committed Roman Catholic, had a meeting of minds with his Moscow-trained mentor, James Larkin Jnr. Like his father, Big Jim Larkin, James Larkin Jnr loathed armed nationalism.

Let me pause here to give a crash course on communist history to readers who may be recoiling from the notion that the Moscow-trained Leninist, Jim Larkin Jnr, could be a progressive force for change.

The first thing to understand is that the opposite of a Trotskyite is not a Stalinist. The opposite of a Trotskyite is a Leninist.

The tensions between the two traditions,which still survive in the modern Labour Party, are as much psychological as political. They go back to 1918 when Lenin sent Trotsky to Brest Litovsk to make peace with the Germans, to trade territory for time.

Trotksy, trying to have it both ways, did not do so. He came back to make fiery speeches in Moscow with the stupid slogan: Neither Peace Nor War. Lenin sent him back to do it properly.

James Larkin Jnr was trained within that pragmatic Leninist tradition. Far from Moscow wanting to foment revolution during the Cold War, it advised communist parties to avoid "adventurism".

The last thing Larkin was likely to do was preach red revolution.

Larkin Jnr disliked Sinn Fein's economic nationalism as much as its armed nationalism. So he took on the Trots who opposed entry into Europe and TK Whitaker's plan to end protectionism.

These acts of good authority earned him the respect and friendship of Sean Lemass.

The Leninist tradition left three marks on Jim Larkin Jnr: a rejection of revolutionary rhetoric, a rigour in analysis, and a respect for democratic centralism – which in practice is the only way a cabinet can function without civil war.

James Larkin Jnr hated wild talk. But when he struck, he struck hard. As RTE found out when he called a strike to protest at the transfer of current affairs to RTE News – a transfer which is still the source of tensions.

James Larkin Jnr also knew something Trots never learn: how to call off a strike. As he did at Independent Newspapers, in the 1970s, with a dignity that left the strikers holding the moral high ground.

Larkin left a large mark on the Labour Party. This explains some of its current tensions. By and large, most of the former Workers' Party deputies were formed in the Larkinite-Leninist tradition of taking on Trots, taking a stand, and loyalty to a party line.

Conversely, apart from Ruairi Quinn, Emmet Stagg and Roisin Shortall, many of the old Labour Party come from a Trotskyite tradition of wanting it both ways. That is why Colm Keaveney, who wobbled before taking a stand, still strikes me as politically unreliable.

The other Labour wobblers did the opposite – they first struck poses and later trooped through the lobbies, proving they are in line with the Trotskyite tradition of never taking on its own side that goes back to Brest Litvosk. With luck, since nothing annoys the Irish people as much as wobbling, they will lose their seats.

Labour's wobbling is bad politics. But so is that party's betrayal of the majority of workers in the private sector. The symbol of that abandonment is the Croke Park Agreement.

The Sunday Independent is not popular in some Labour circles because it has been consistently critical of that agreement. But which Labour circles? Here we leave the realm of politics and enter the portals of status.

The Labour Party is now largely the niche party of the professional bourgeoisie. Many are senior public sector employees residing in the leafier Dublin suburbs. Cultural insecurity marks this class.

They are status-conscious, not just socially, but culturally. Continually trying to catch up with the cultural consensus of their class. Belatedly loving Love/Hate or prematurely hating Mrs Brown's Boys until caught out by a BAFTA award.

They would have approved of last week's Vincent Browne media awards show. Four judges selected by Browne – Marie Louise O'Donnell, Gavan Titley, Noirin Hegarty and John McGurk – struggled to justify why they gave almost all awards to the Sunday Times.

They completely ignored an Irish media phenomenon like the Sunday Independent in favour of a UK-owned paper. The Sunday Independent broke more Irish political stories than any Sunday paper in the past year. And its unique appeal across all classes excites the envy of media executives in other countries.

But it is precisely this popular Irish appeal that makes the Sunday Independent anathema to the public sector class. As does its criticism of the Croke Park Agreement. The judges on Browne's panel acted as if the Sunday Independent did not exist.

Vincent Browne works for TV3, a private sector media outlet. Yet he failed to challenge the judges on this. Paradoxically, the Sunday Independent was treated more fairly by Marian Finucane on public sector RTE last Sunday.

And the result? Little reverence was shown to sacred cows, and listeners got a sharp show.

Sunday Independent

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