Tuesday 27 September 2016

Eoin O'Malley: Labour would drown in sea of Opposition noise

Labour will have suffered all of the pain and none of the gain by rejecting a return to government, writes Eoin O'Malley

Eoin O'Malley

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Alan Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Alan Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

In a week in which we learned our political leaders need to discover WhatsApp, we are slowly moving to a situation where Fine Gael and Fianna Fail talk to each other. The process of government formation has been messy and we should consider a more organised system. Perhaps if we had an informateur - an honest broker appointed by the President - to direct ­government negotiations when situations like this arise, the country would be spared this spectacle, which has all the panache of a slow-set at a teenage disco.

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The process has been dominated by Independents, which is surprising because most of us said that Independents would be irresponsible when it comes to government formation. In fact, it has been the small parties - with the honourable exception of the Greens - that have been sitting out. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

Labour met last week to discuss the election campaign. You don't have to have read reports of the meeting to know what sort of messages will have come out. They'll have said that they were surprised by the voters' anger, and that they will have to listen to what the electorate was saying. There'll have been calls to go back to its roots, and to reinvigorate the party grassroots. Some excitable souls will even have said the party should invoke the spirit of James Connolly. There will have been an attempt to blame the leader, and we'll hear that new leadership can take the party in a new direction. It's the same guff you hear coming out after any party loses an election. It's meaningless.

Feeling sorry for itself will butter no parsnips.

Labour needs to think about what type of party it is, what it is good at and what it can't be. Why do people vote for it? Whether it likes it or not, it is an establishment party. It appeals to people who are more liberal than those who vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. But on the economy, it's hard to distinguish Labour from Fianna Fail. It's voters are predominantly middle class and urban.

It went into the February election promising stability. It hitched itself so closely to the Fine Gael wagon that voting for Labour became pointless. Because of the election result, it assumes that it has to go into Opposition. That decision seems to have been made without any thought.

It's assumed that government is bad for parties, especially small ones. But it might be that Labour is making a mistake staying out of government.

Before the 2011 election it was clear that it was an election to lose. Going into government might have been the right thing to do for Ireland but it was a disaster for Labour. 2016 was an election to win. Despite the fights over the 'fiscal space', it's clear that the country has more revenue and all the economic indicators are in the right direction.By choosing to go into Opposition now, Labour will have suffered all the pain for none of the gain. Labour took a lot of punishment for doing the hard work, and now it is rejecting the prospect of some power.

The logic is that it can rebuild and rebrand in ­opposition whereas in government it will be too busy to do this, and it can't rebrand because it will once again be linked to Fine Gael. It forgets that it is an establishment party. It can pretend or wish that it wasn't, but the voters won't go along with this. As well as its centrist position, its small size is Labour's other problem.

In Opposition, it could drown in a sea of noise. Opposition will have a big Sinn Fein that will dominate the left, and there is a more extreme alphabet soup left that will make it difficult for it to be heard. Even if it is heard, it will be irrelevant, because its moderate centre-left voice in Opposition is likely to be taken by Fianna Fail. The media will ignore it in favour of the more extremist voices.

And what exactly would it oppose in Opposition? The policies that it spent the last few years implementing? This won't be plausible for voters. Fianna Fail had to stay quiet for a few years before it could start to oppose Fine Gael.

It may realise that apart from the decision to enter government in 2011, its other mistake was not to carve out an agenda for itself that was both deliverable and distinctly Labour. In 2016 it could identify a couple of issues that it can be associated with in voters' minds. And despite its size, it might even win a few more battles in Cabinet because Fine Gael has been humbled by the election result.

In government it could have a distinctive voice, ­especially on social issues that Labour voters value, such as repeal the eighth. It could deliver a referendum on this. If it were to do this, it would need to carefully consider what portfolios to take and what could be delivered in 12 months.

It will need a new leader at some stage before the next election, but it shouldn't believe a new leader is an end in itself. Ditching Gilmore didn't transform anything but the head on the poster.

Who the new leader is will be important, but so too are the decisions it takes now. If Labour were to go into government, that new leader should not sit in Cabinet. That will allow it to maintain a separate voice for the party not constrained by government decisions.

As unpleasant as he appears to be, of the party's remaining TDs only Alan Kelly has the drive and ambition to rebuild the party, though he may not be able to resist the pull of office.

Government could also bolster its party's regrowth with some Taoiseach-­nominee senators, and could even use the Seanad to broaden its top team by ­appointing a minister from the Seanad. The media would listen to Labour in government and the public will be aware of its existence.

Government might seem scary, but its alternative is irrelevance.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is senior lecturer in political science and director of Dublin City University's MSc in Public Policy.

Sunday Independent

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