Sunday 15 December 2019

How it all went wrong from day one for Labour Party

The problem has been an accumulation of minor defeats rather than one great disaster.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said the Government “was close to an agreement” on water charges
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said the Government “was close to an agreement” on water charges

John Drennan

The tragedy for Labour and its leader Eamon Gilmore is that when we ask, 'so where did it all go wrong, Eamon?', the party cannot even cite a George Best moment involving a blonde, a bottle of bubbly and a cash-strewn hotel bedroom.

When it comes to the invisible man of Dun Laoghaire, the escalating Labour tragedy consists of an accumulation of little defeats rather than one Wagnerian moment when it all went down in flames.

Some will cite the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters lying face-down in the February mud and puddles; with the exception of the nice dry ones safely stowed away in Joan Burton's garden shed.

Others will mention that 'Frankfurt's way' demarche where Gilmore's warning to Europe, even at the time, bore a quixotic look.

Even Micheal Martin, who was then in church mouse mode, was moved to tartly observe that Gilmore would "quickly discover that it is not 'Labour's way or Frankfurt's way'" and that Trichet is more than a "mere civil servant".

Remarkably, the Fianna Fail leader was right.

In spite of its popularity as a carpet-beater for Labour, it didn't go wrong either because of Ruairi Quinn and the 'free fees' or the 'every little hurts' gig, for those promises were needed for Labour to survive the Fianna Fail onslaught.

Unlike the Greens, who at least started right, it actually went wrong from the start for Labour.

From the day when Eamon Gilmore went into coalition negotiations with Enda Kenny demanding six ministers and came back with five plus the political side-dish of the AG's job, things went badly.

The problem for Labour was that this set one fact in stone. To borrow the famous quote about 'senior hurlers' by Seamus Brennan in the FF- Green negotiations, Labour from day one were the junior hurlers in this Coalition.

Nothing epitomised this more than the division of the Department of Finance, where that wily old fox Michael Noonan ensured that Fine Gael would be in charge of tax cuts in the run-up to Election 2016 while Labour will have spent five years implementing jobs cuts.

It was a division that set a pattern of 'partnership government', well from the eye-line of Fine Gael at least, where Labour's well-behaved schoolboys have been continually roughed up by Enda's Bash Street Kids.

The even worse news is that Labour's central political tactic when it came to the tricky matter of its relationship with Fine Gael has landed it in even more trouble.

Labour may have had the best of intentions when it decided the party would escape the tensions that dogged previous coalitions by eschewing the old policy of man-marking their political partners.

Under the new progressive dispensation, the line was that any trouble with Fine Gael ministers would be a matter for Fine Gael and vice versa.

It may have been a grand plan in theory, but, the practice has been lethal for a limping Labour Party for, with the best will in the world, that little imp called trouble in politics, be it single-party or coalition governments, cannot be avoided.

In the case of our current Coalition, the first problem this strategic decision has posed for Labour is that all of the trouble in this Government has been caused by the Fine Gael Bash Street Ministers.

This on its own is annoying but the real problem this has posed is that the Labour non-interventionist strategy has not gone down at all well with an electorate who believe Labour's main purpose in government is to maintain some discipline in Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, for that matter.

Indeed, one key factor in the Labour semi-recovery in the last week of Election 2011 was that a substantial portion of the electorate baulked at the notion of a single-party Fine Gael government.

How astonishing it then is, that having been voted into power to put manners on Fine Gael, the second key strategic decision Labour took was to defy the wishes of the electorate. Apparently it thought this might be popular.

Instead Labour's failure to fulfil this role – particularly in the case of Alan Shatter where unlike laissez faire, laissez passer, Enda, it was left to Leo the leader to put manners on the runaway justice minister – has left the party looking like a collective of political wimps.

The precedent, of course had already been set when Labour hid trembling in the political drapery whilst the tragedy of Roisin occurred.

Sadly, in a rare case of bungling actually being punished in Irish politics, this has facilitated the evolution of the astonishing scenario whereby, when Fine Gael ministers blunder, it is Labour who is punished for failing to appropriately police its coalition partners. Meanwhile the precedent set on the first day where Labour was rough-housed out to the margins of the AG's office has continued to be followed in every other aspect of governance.

Gilmore may be huffing and puffing about jobs but that cause was lost once Labour acquiesced to the political imperatives of the Fine Gael tough lads when choir boy Enda said 'jobs' would be a FG issue.

As Michael Noonan busies himself in preparation for a billion euro of tax cuts and Brendan Howlin hunts for a billion's worth of cuts, Joan Burton may have fought valiantly when it comes to social protection but that is a battlefield which has been colonised by Sinn Fein.

The sidelining of Labour has had a further unwanted side-effect where a marginalised party decided to seek relevance in the middle of the worst Irish recession since the Famine by majoring in areas such as gay civil marriage.

Unsurprisingly, in Meath East, an astonished electorate measured Labour's interest in such issues and dismissed the party as peripheral urban elitists, fatally distanced from the real lives of the citizen.

As the party wonders anxiously if Meath East was an accident or a trend, the cumulative defeats and the accelerating slide towards annihilation have had one other lethal side-effect.

Nature teaches us that often the response of small animals to the fear of incipient death is disassociation from the reality of their peril rather than flight.

The rabbit being stalked by the stoat, for example, though knowing it is in mortal peril, generally instead of running away becomes distracted and sits inertly until the stoat grabs it by the throat.

Increasingly, it looks as though poor Labour is in a similar state of disassociation.

This unfortunate complex is epitomised by the paper war it has declared on Irish Water, for the extent of the Labour credibility gap means the current game of chicken it is playing was immediately dismissed as show-boating.

Intriguingly, the worst example of the dangerous politics of disassociation was provided by that wily fox Ruairi Quinn last week.

Stirring the viper's nest of the role of the church in education might in theory accord with the 'Sancerre-sipping Socialists of Sandymount' view of what the Labour support base is.

Instead, all it has done is to intensify the Meath East theory of disassociation where Labour is utterly removed from the world as it actually exists.

Even prior to the minister's astonishing achievement at the teacher conferences of making Fianna Fail resemble a party of radical feminists, Quinn's critique of the church left Labour resembling a party of old men fighting old men's wars from a different age.

The problem, you see, Ruairi, with the modern world is that most parents, owing to the living-to-work thing, have subcontracted the job of providing their children with a value system to 'religion class'.

How ironic it is that once again by disrupting this plan, Labour, instead of being up with the times, has proved itself to be totally disassociated from reality.

Quinn may well have signed his ministerial marching orders last week, but, he is a mere symptom when compared with the actual existential crisis which Labour faces.

Top-level politics is a game dominated by Alpha males and the unfortunate 'Mrs Doubtfire of Dun Laoghaire' simply does not fit the bill.

The question Labour must begin to ask before it is all too late is whether anyone exists who actually might.

Sunday Independent

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