Labour's core ideals are needed now more than ever
Carol Hunt is hopeful that the party can regenerate itself and rebuild public trust in a New Labour
EXERCISING my democratic franchise last Friday was a depressing, if not tragic, experience. I wouldn't usually equate a trip to the local polling booth with a Shakespearian odyssey, but bear with me – and I'll explain why I felt a bit like Ophelia did after Hamlet went through his personality change.
I may have mentioned before that I have voted Labour all my life. Why wouldn't I? I come from an aspirational Dublin working-class family who believed in equal education, fair wages for hard work, and that society has a duty to care for the old, the poor, and the vulnerable. I grew up in the Eighties in an Ireland which wasn't very kind to women, children or people who were in any way "different" – an Ireland ruled by white, middle-class, middle-aged Catholic men. I thought Labour – with its internationalist, liberal, tolerant ideology – was the best bet for people like me; people who wanted a more diverse, more equal Ireland and an end to the 'old boy' network.
And I thought right. Since the foundation of the State Labour has provided the country with an intellectual rigour and idealism rarely seen in the plodding, populist policies of Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael). During the Nineties, in particular, Labour was an important partner in two progressive, forward-thinking governments. We can't say that Labour kept everybody honest – it didn't – but at least Labour managed to keep itself honest, as Eamon Gilmore reminded us last week, tweeting that he was "very proud of all @labour candidates who are running on a corruption-free record in local govt".
Which is very well and good, but sadly irrelevant when the Labour Party has all but committed hara-kiri. Yes, it is only a small party in this coalition but it will be blamed for the Government's attacks on our most vulnerable. Why? Because Labour supporters expected better from the party. Much better. And the reaction came at the polling booths.
So there I stood on Friday, looking at my voting card and wondering who in God's name I was going to put my "X" beside. The Government parties who got us into this mess? Or the ones who are making a virtue out of punishing us because "we all partied"? The socialists who say that giving them a seat in the EU parliament will somehow exempt us all from water charges (that the rest of Europe pays)? The Sinn Fein party, happy to implement Tory policies when in government up North?
And that's when I got angry, very angry. Because it didn't have to be this way. If there's one thing Aristotle and Shakespeare agreed on (Leaving Cert English students please take note), it's that the tragic hero is responsible for his own downfall. And so it is with Labour.
Labour did this to itself. Or rather the leadership did. In 2011 the party had a chance to become the biggest opposition group in the Dail. By the time the next election came around we'd have been so fed up of Fine Gael's unjust austerity politics that Labour could reasonably have been a contender for government as the major party.
Think about that for a minute. We could, for the first time in the history of the State, have had a Labour party calling the shots. Labour could have been in a position to put into place all the policies and ideals – fairness, equality, justice – that it insists it still stands for.
So, why didn't it? Well, it said that there's no power in being in opposition. And that's true. It said that the public would have punished the party if it hadn't gone into government to keep Fine Gael's more Blueshirt tendencies in check. That point is moot now, as Labour is being punished anyway.
The party said that it wasn't going to be afraid to make hard choices. But, as was pointed out to me last week, yes, it has repeatedly made hard decisions ... but for other people. Hard choices indeed for the young unemployed, the long-term ill being denied medical cards, the massively indebted at the end of their tether, the disabled and the elderly. But no hard choices for the cosseted elite of Leinster House or the top brass in the public sector, from where it got its votes.
Many suspect the real reason Labour went into government with Fine Gael – even though it would have been far better for the party, in the long run, not to – was for that most anodyne and self-interested of Irish reasons: The Pension.
Well, you don't need me to tell you that just over a century after the Lock-Out, Larkin and Connolly are rolling in their graves and wondering when the Labour Party turned into the Me Fein party.
It appears that I'm not the only one who thinks this. Since it took office, Labour has lost about 10 per cent of local councillors as well as a junior health minister, senator, MEP, numerous TDs and a chairman. (Lady Bracknell would be apoplectic.) But instead of jumping ship, why don't all those disaffected Labour politicians take things into their own hands, reclaim and regenerate Labour itself and rebuild the public trust in a party whose core ideals are now needed more than ever?
There is hope – when we see Labour candidates like Rebecca Moynihan and Darryl O'Callaghan – that we may yet see a new, young, dynamic Labour; one which retains its ideology, cares for the most vulnerable, reduces the inequality gap, stands up to the unions and lets the rest of us get on with working and living. We need Labour to properly represent the aspirational working classes – and not just the pampered elites of the public sector.
Labour is too important to be voted out of existence. We don't need a new political party in this country – we need a "New" Labour. It doesn't have to end in tragedy.