Saturday 1 October 2016

The new Dail is suffering a bad case of the Trots

The Labour Party needs to honestly ask why it lost, rather than hosting its own little pity party

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Labour leader Joan Burton Photo: AFP/Getty
Labour leader Joan Burton Photo: AFP/Getty

Ireland is not the only country suffering from a bad case of the Trots right now. The British Labour Party was also embroiled in a row last week over its decision to grant membership to Gerry Downing of so-called 'Socialist Fight', a group of over-excited Marxist agitators at constant war with the forces of imperialism and capitalism, albeit that the imperialists and capitalists don't seem to have noticed.

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Downing's membership was revoked within hours after comments he'd made about 9/11 and Isil were made public; he later insisted that his words had been taken "out of context", but it was another shot across the bows by the Trostkyists, who made Labour unelectable in the 1980s and are gearing up with renewed determination to do it again now that Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader.

What's most dangerous for Labour is that, as another leftist Walter Mitty-type admitted on the BBC, they don't even mind losing elections, they'll just keep fighting the good fight until they either win the argument and/or the revolution, whichever comes first.

It's the eternal battle between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, now recast as an ideological battle between those who want to work within the social democratic framework to enact incremental change for the betterment of working people and those who'd rather tear down capitalism in its totality first.

That battle is being played out in the new Dail as well. On the one side, the Irish Labour Party, committed to trading its political capital inside government in return for progressive change; on the other side, the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, who'd rather have nothing than be forced to settle for less than everything.

Somewhere in the middle, Sinn Fein, who still haven't made up their minds which way to eeny meeny miny go.

The thing about being a Menshevik, though, is that you have to make social democracy work in order to hold back the romantic tide of Bolshevism; and that's where the Irish Labour Party fell down. By all means, trade your seats for concessions for ordinary working people, but make sure they're the right concessions.

Labour in the most recent government sacrificed too much for too little in return, nodding through cuts to essential services and vulnerable groups while getting back only footling social change on issues such as same sex marriage and legislation to deal with the X Case, neither of which matter nearly as much as their advocates and opponents mistakenly believe.

Labour leader Joan Burton delivered a graceful, dignified speech when the Dail returned last Thursday, and her decision to support the nomination of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach was a principled stand that had the important symbolic significance of showing Fine Gael and Labour as the only two groupings in the new Dail still able to show cross-party unity on a day when all other parties retreated warily to their tribes, waiting in the long grass for the right moment to strike.

Burton's choice of a quotation from Romeo And Juliet to expose the far left's self-indulgent preference for purity in opposition over compromise in government was also inspired. "They jest at scars that never felt a wound," she said of those sneering at Labour's losses. There was hurt in her voice, but ice and steel too.

Sadly, it was almost immediately undermined by her insistence that she had "no regrets" about the choices made in office. There can't be any healing without identifying the source of the wound.

Fine Gael's reliance on Tory-lite campaigning techniques showed the foolishness of transplanting British strategies into an Irish context without first adjusting them to fit; but that doesn't mean some lessons can't make the journey across the Irish Sea.

The UK Labour Party commissioned a report to see why it lost the election last year, and one striking conclusion was that the party needed to stop defending the huge increase in public spending during its previous term of office. It hadn't caused the crash, but it had made it worse, as well as copperfastening the party's reputation as economically profligate. The message was clear: you might think that you did the right thing, but no one else does, so get over it.

Labour's still smarting from not being appreciated. It was there in Joan's voice. It's there in each media interview with one of Labour's bright young things who bore the brunt of the voters' revenge.

Of the 19 Labour TDs who lost their seats this time round, 13 were elected for the first time in 2011, and it shouldn't have taken a genius to decipher what the voters who put them there wanted at that historic election, or how they might react if that hope turned to disappointment.

They won't move on without humbly accepting that this is an argument they cannot win. Labour supporters expected more from their Mensheviks. Maybe that was foolish of them, but they did.

It would be easy to now read Labour its last rites. There are certainly signs of the party being muscled off its traditional turf as Sinn Fein and the hard left mop up disaffected, austerity-hit communities and guilt-ridden faux intellectuals in nice bourgeois neighbourhoods alike.

At first glance, a strategy to win them back isn't obvious.

But the Tories weren't finished in 1997, and Fianna Fail wasn't in 2011 either. Rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated. Labour's base in the public sector, universities, schools and media is still there, and it's lucky in one crucial respect, namely that Sinn Fein hasn't yet reconciled itself to its destiny as the new, slightly edgier Labour Party.

At the moment, Sinn Fein is playing at being Bolshevik, as that's where all the fun is to be had in the playground; but ultimately, the future for Sinn Fein is Menshevik-shaped, and deep down it knows. There will always be a social democratic hole in Irish politics, and Labour's best hope of expanding to fill that gap once more is for Sinn Fein to continue squandering every golden opportunity to snatch it from their hands.

Throwing a little pity party would be a forgiveable indulgence if there was no prospect of an election soon; but Labour now needs to be on a permanent war footing, as the Left/Independents always are. Government parties were still trapped last month in an obsolete way of doing politics, where you only have to make your case once every five years. The reality now is of constant campaigning.

Labour needs to adapt quickly if it wants to show that it, rather than a Sinn Fein still abstentionist in spirit, is best placed to make a difference. Mensheviks must deliver when they get the chance. It's that simple.

Sunday Independent

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