WHAT does Pat Rabbitte expect? Serious question. Given all the anguish there is within the country at the slowness of recovery and the pain being inflicted to achieve what still feels like meagre progress, what does he expect from those on the receiving end?
Gratitude seems to be the answer. Labour's increasingly miscommunicating Minister for Communications appears to believe the country should be thankful to Labour for entering government and thereby saving us from a mess made by Fianna Fail. Asked on Newstalk Breakfast last Wednesday about Fintan O'Toole's blistering attack on the Labour leadership for, as the Irish Times man believes, torpedoing the party in order to enjoy the fruits of office and a well-upholstered retirement afterwards, Rabbitte was loftily dismissive of criticism. "You'd expect better from Fintan, wouldn't you? That's just abuse. I'm accustomed to getting that kind of bile from at least one other newspaper, but it really is beneath Fintan O'Toole." One other news-paper, is it?
Could he possibly mean us?
If so, he certainly picked the right place for a moan. Less than eight months after the 2011 election, Ruari Quinn also had a pop at "the Sunday Independent group" on exactly the same radio show, though to his credit, at least the Minister for Education gave a name to his complaint rather than harrumphing indeterminately about it like one sulky child we could mention. (See, minister? Two can play at that game).
The question remains: what does Pat Rabbitte expect?
Some understanding of the unprecedented economic constraints under which the Labour Party is operating right now might be the wounded minister's answer. The country has never before faced such challenges. They're doing the best they can. Etcetera. Paraphrased, it's a version of Margaret Thatcher's famous slogan, "There Is No Alternative". And there is indeed some honour in being a TINA politician. If tough decisions have to be made, made they must be. Don't waver. Don't apologise. Just do it.
Followers of TINA need a thicker skin, however. They also need to be sure that There Is No Alternative to themselves. It had to be Mrs Thatcher who took Britain by the scruff of the neck because, if she hadn't, her opponents wouldn't have done it either, and then nothing would have changed. Labour has no such excuse. If they weren't administering the Troika's medicine, someone else would be. Fine Gael could've done it alone. Fianna Fail could have done it. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together in a grand coalition could have done it too. Heck, Justin Beiber's monkey could have done it. Anyone can do what they're told by the Troika. Why did it have to be Labour?
If it's not true that Labour's old guard entered government solely to enjoy one last lucrative ego trip before retirement, they must have done so in a belief that they could offer something above and beyond the harsh realities of TINA. To soften the blow for the Irish people. That's exactly the plea which Labour made to the electorate before the last election. It looked for a time as if Fine Gael might be on course for an overall majority. Labour urged: "Don't trust them to go it alone, they'll be too uncaring, we'll put manners on them." The country took the party at its word and did just that, returning a strong Labour contingent; not a tame rump like the Greens or PDs had been under Fianna Fail, but a solid bloc with a mandate to keep Fine Gael in check. Labour responded by immediately washing its hands of the one task the party had been put into government to perform.
Not all manifesto promises can be kept, but there is a tacit understanding among the electorate of how far actions can differ from words before trust entirely snaps, and it's this calculation that Labour has got so horribly wrong. It was never going to be Labour's way over Frankfurt's way. We knew that. But we did believe Labour when it said that "bondholders should share in bank losses" or that "excessive austerity . . . puts growth and job creation at risk" and it wouldn't stand for it.
More fool us, but we did.
Maybe it was all too much to ask of Labour. Maybe voters were sending boys out to do a man's job. Fair enough. They weren't up to the big things. We'll be understanding. But surely they could at least be trusted to take care of the little things? There were three themes highlighted in the subtitle to Labour's 2011 manifesto – "Jobs, Reform, Fairness" (it was actually in lower case, presumably because some overpaid graphic designer thought it looked more funky and modern). This was Labour's own philosophical troika. Even if the first two proved beyond its capabilities, surely fairness was a promise which could be kept? In the event, fairness was the first thing to go.
Cast iron promises (Eamon Gilmore's pledge, days before the election, that "the Labour Party will not agree to having child benefit cut") were not only jettisoned; Labour went further in ending lone parents' allowance once children reach the grand old age of seven. The promise to place a "particular emphasis on carers, those living alone and on people with a long-term disability" became an equally vigorous campaign against carers and those with disabilities. The blind were targeted in the very first FG/Labour Budget. As for old people, they were to be "assured of access to care when they need it" so that it was "easier for them to live independently". Instead, home help hours were slashed.
Giving Fianna Fail a punishment beating at the last election was cathartic for a wounded country. Historically, politically, culturally, it was a seismic moment. But what was the point, ultimately, if everything just carried on as before? The Labour manifesto also agreed on that: "It is not enough to remove Fianna Fail's grip on government. We have to change government itself." In his one-page message to voters in that document, Eamon Gilmore used the word "change" 13 times. It would be "real, transformative change" too, not some cynical and cosmetic PR exercise.
Now Pat Rabbitte wants us to believe that removing Fianna Fail's grip on power actually was enough. What happened to the man who stood on the other side of the Dail and mocked the Greens for selling their souls for the trappings of office, reminding them that "a party that doesn't stand for anything will stand for nothing"?
Ultimately, it didn't even matter what happened to the Greens or the PDs. They were small, expendable, transient products of their time. They died. We got over it. The Labour Party, though, has been an integral part of the State since independence, and its death would be much more damaging to the nation's political life. And for what – the chance to implement policies which would have been implemented by others anyway? There Is No Alternative is a hopeless philosophy. There's always an alternative.