Saturday 1 October 2016

As junior coalition partner, Labour fell victim to its own opposition methods

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Mary Harney led the PDs into Coalition in 1997. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin
Mary Harney led the PDs into Coalition in 1997. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin

Labour's true believers have excellent grounds to argue that they were given savage treatment by the voters in this election.

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They were given 20pc of the action in government, and they collected vastly more than that in voters' revenge this weekend. When we say politics is a tough game, we are vastly understating the extent to which that statement is true.

Many good and decent Labour politicians have fallen casualty amid this. I have looked at politics from both sides of the divide, and have no wish to add to anyone's sense of loss.

But, following a ground-breaking election which tantalisingly offers new chances to do our politics differently, it would be wrong not to point out that the Labour Party in government was the victim of its own political methods in opposition.

It is not as if the Irish Labour Party was in any way new to the concept of sharing government power as the junior entity. By 1997, when it entered a 13-year period in opposition, it had been part of seven governments in a minor capacity in a diverse range of situations.

Listing them gives you a certain perspective of the potential for organisational memory. There were the two Inter-Party Governments of 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. There were Labour-Fine Gael Coalitions in 1973-77; 1981; and 1982-87.

There was a ground-breaking Fianna Fáil-Labour Coalition in 1992-94 which led on to the celebrated Rainbow Coalition of 1994-97, marking the first time ever a government changed without an election. We know organisations go through personnel changes - but good politicians have a sense of where their party sits in history. That Labour coalition list contains a heck of a lot of learning opportunities.

But from 1997 onwards, Labour continued to attack the Government primarily via the junior partner. First it was the Progressive Democrats, the ones they liked to style as their polar opposites, since they favoured a liberal, market-driven economy and minimal State involvement.

Later it was the Green Party, the ones they rightly saw as fishing from their pool of dissident broadly left-minded voters. Labour was further miffed by the Greens as they always argued that they were addressing environmental issues amid a range of other people-driven policies.

As an opposition, attacking government via the junior partners frequently offers rich enough pickings. In both the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party cases, we had parties which came with ideology and stated principles, which often clashed with the cash-strapped realities of daily politics.

In the hurly-burly of politics, quarter is rarely sought or given. So the opposition attacks. It is not their job to posit remedies, merely to point out the shortcomings and contradictions of government. Instead of attacking the monolith of the bigger government partner, it is often more productive to rain fire on the junior crowd and sow confusion among their more idealistic members and supporters.

Thus, Labour savaged the PDs and then the Greens. Then, astonishingly, they were savaged in the same way as junior partners.

The point here is that they had more than 13 years to vary the terms of political engagement and stop this lazy and exaggerated game of political cant. They did what they did knowing that, as night follows day, they would soon again be the junior coalition partners.

From the citizens' point of view, this is just so much time-wasting political cant. Political point-scoring does not help address the economic crisis, much less help stimulate job creation.

I have made this point before and it has rightly been pointed out that I previously worked as a press adviser to the Green Party in government. That reality does not negate the point.

In fact, for the past five years Labour found out - yet again - that government is about more than always being right about what is wrong. It is much harder politically and much slower to find remedies and show results.

All oppositions must remember that reality.

Irish Independent

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