Sunday 25 September 2016

A tale of two Labour parties, both knee-deep in troubles

Published 10/09/2015 | 02:30

Tánaiste Joan Burton
Tánaiste Joan Burton

Labour is in enormous trouble on both sides of the Irish Sea. They're compounding some very difficult situations by very bad decisions.

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At noon today, polls close for the election of a new British leader to replace Ed Miliband. Jeremy Corbyn is almost certain to be the victor, and the party seems destined to exclude itself from power for a decade.

Back home, a transfer pact with Fine Gael could copperfasten disastrous opinion poll ratings into an electoral meltdown by alienating former supporters. Both could go the way of the SDLP by being hit by both left and the right-wing opponents.

The impact of a crippling recession followed by years of fiscal austerity has eroded the popularity of centre-left parties across Europe. Labour voters comprise distinct categories. There are the middle-class liberals, who accept extra taxation for better state services as part of an ethos of overall social responsibility. Then you have the public sector workers, who look to Labour to safeguard employment terms and conditions - opposing free market economics.

Into the mix one may add blue-collar households seeking a better deal for working men and women, at the expense of the better-off.

There's also the youthful idealists who want to reshape society based on equality lines and end discrimination through fairness. Their key characteristic is an adherence to democratic principles and moderation of socialist ideology; Social Democrats in a nutshell.

But higher taxes across the board and reduced disposable earnings have resulted in more polarised beliefs. Prolonged punishment fostered a dog-eat-dog harshness which made short work of a mild consensus. Strident opinions became crystallised into self-interest.

Thus Labour voters evaporated in large numbers from 19pc in the 2011 general election to 7pc in local/European results. The majority have moved to the left - espousing more radical protest in the form of Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, the Greens, Anti-Austerity Alliance, the newly formed Social Democrats, or Independents.

Some middle-income earners may have drifted to Fine Gael, supporting personal tax cuts unambiguously.

Most worrying of all for Labour is the recent reorientation of the trade union movement. Historically, the largest unions (Siptu and Impact) openly supported, were affiliated to and even financed the party organisation; many TDs were previously full-time trade union officials (eg. Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore, Ged Nash, Michael Bell, etc). But unions now queue up to underwrite the Right2Water organisation.

CPSU, Mandate, CWU and TEEU are pillars to politicise these community-based campaigners into the Right2Change movement, fighting for wider improvements in public healthcare, education and housing provision.

The last annual ICTU conference voted to support the abolition of Irish Water after a divisive debate - reflecting a tilting of the balance of party politics amongst delegates.

One of Labour's most high-profile advocates is Jack O'Connor, probably the most powerful union leader in the country. When Labour is attacked, he defends them, citing coalition compromises due to FG's right-wing policies.

What does he make of Brendan Howlin's transfer pact with FG?

The timing and the strategic wisdom of Labour's acquiescence seems highly questionable. It's a no-brainer for FG, without downsides: it strengthens their arguments of scale to anchor the next government, under the guise of stability; it ensures smooth passage through this Dáil towards the election, avoiding any final rupture, as happened in 1987; it even fits with their overall game plan to assimilate and absorb segments of Labour's support.

Joan Burton has seemed even more compliant than Eamon Gilmore as Tánaiste. She hasn't threatened to walk out once, capitulating to Enda Kenny's demands; she most recently was first to say he was "in the clear" over the Fennelly report.

She, Brendan Howlin, Alex White and Arthur Spring may need FG transfers to secure their seats. Joe Costello and Dominic Hannigan need to dislodge FG TD colleagues to survive as the tide goes out electorally.

Labour's opponents will cynically brand the pact as the final capitulation to FG's right-wing agenda.

Back in 1982, the former leader Michael O'Leary did the same, eventually joining FG; it took Labour a decade to recover in procuring 19pc of the vote in 1992.

Labour's role as a mudguard for FG creates an identity crisis that is in neither party's interests.

It suggests weakness, and their soul and passion appears to have dissipated.

Not that it's any consolation but the British Labour Party is in even deeper distress. Some bright spark got the ingenious idea that it would invigorate a lifeless leadership contest to have a hard-left, even maverick, candidate.

With only two minutes to spare, Jeremy Corbyn secured sufficient MPs for the nomination threshold of 35; including a dozen MPs such as Margaret Beckett, who never intended to vote for him. Bookmakers make him a 1/5 certainty to be declared winner on Saturday.

A new voting system of One Member One Vote (OMOV) replaces the electoral college comprising MPs, members and trade unions. A surge in new membership (for a mere £3) has catapulted Corbyn as leader, despite howls of horror from former leaders Kinnock, Blair and Brown.

This outcome represents death of Blairism in Labour. Corbyn's blueprint is unoriginal and clear-cut: renationalisation of railways, energy/power stations and water utilities; open-ended Bank of England quantitative easing to fund free third level education, extra welfare and enhanced public services; dismantling Britain's nuclear defence network; tax avoidance hikes to raise £120bn; diplomatically embracing Hamas and Hezbollah, befriending Russia; even reopening coal mines. It indulges the most fervent ideologues of extreme socialism, leading Labour into insular isolation. This leaves the Tories free to seize the centre ground indefinitely. The Red Flag rhetoric of the 1970s and 80s isn't set to catch fire amongst UK mainstream opinion. Jeremy seems decent, parsimonious, sincere and with genuine integrity; yet it all adds up to déjà-vu all over again. Think Michael Foot during 1980-1983.

Both the Irish and British Labour parties must find the 'least worst option' to escape their current doldrums, as the red roses wilt.

But a premature transfer pact and an unelectable leader represent respectively a surrender of independence and a flight from reality.

Irish Independent

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