Labour- Act now or become Diet Fine Gael
The Labour party is learning some hard lessons about government at the moment. It is strange that this should be the case for a party that unlike the Greens is not particularly new to such an experience. Their current predicament has its roots in several errors and they need to start addressing these and stop the waffle about staying in government for the good of the country and imagining what life would be like if FG were there alone.
Labour has been losing its identity for some time. This was a trend started under the leadership of Pat Rabbitte. Smaller parties should never become the side kicks of larger ones. The so called Mullingar Accord made Labour look like just another crutch for Fine Gael. Its leader would even address the Fine Gael National Conference. This strong left wing party was reduced to the position of a child thrilled by the attention of its stronger, bigger right wing brother. While dealing with the realities of what the electorate might want Labour should have made clear its disdain for both FG and FF and left the door open to either if they changed their policies and tack. That is always the best way to keep larger parties doing what you want and desperate to please you.
You do not enter politics to make friends. It’s a rough game. I was part of the ‘larger’ party back in 1992 when Labour went into government. Now that was a very different government. Dick Spring never hid behind the charade of being bosom buddies. He may have become friendly and even gained enormous respect for those he worked with but his tone and body language was always that of a man who saw this as his job, his coalition partner was never his life long ‘best friend forever’. That was clear with Reynolds, and even while John Bruton liked to play the happy smiling best friend game, Spring always looked more reserved and a tad uncomfortable if it went too far.
It can be argued that the best governments this country has ever had were not strong overall majorities or long term stable ones. The best governments were minority ones or shaky coalitions that existed under the constant threat of collapse. It forces new thinking and new ideas. The lazy option of just ‘forcing’ through whatever policy you think up first is not an option. You must bring people with you, you must ensure everyone can accept the decision and you must find new and creative ways to get around stumbling blocks.
Now back in 1992-’94 I remember the annoyance in FF with Labour. That government lived every single day under the constant threat of a walkout. It was a ticking time bomb. While some of the politicians became very friendly, others continued to simply plod from one row to the next always suspicious of each other and some made no secret that they hated each other outright. Policy wise it proved a very good government. Both parties desperate to get stuff done in a hurry because both felt the game could be up any day. Over time it taught me a lesson. Larger parties should be angry with the smaller one; they should feel that they are a thorn in their side and always worried about appeasing them. It is the only way to level the playing field; otherwise the larger party starts to do as it pleases. While at the time I would have moaned and complained about the way Labour acted in government it was purely out of bias, the reality was that labour were being highly effective in government and couldn’t be taken for granted. Now that was not a model government because it lacked any real trust but both parties secured a lot of what they wanted in a short time through high wire trade offs. Labour knew Reynolds was not afraid of collapsing governments and FF knew very well that Labour would not hesitate to walk out.
Bertie Ahern is blamed for many things. One that is often forgotten is one that he was most proud of himself, the start of long term ‘stable’ governments. The idea that nobody else can do the job except the current government and that they are staying in power for the good of the country. It’s no coincidence that the calls for Dail reform have grown during the last 15 years. Unlike some other countries we do not elect fixed term governments. The whole idea of our system of the executive holding so much power is based on the idea that the government needs to bring its entire party with it and navigate that Dail, it doesn’t have other houses blocking legislation because it lives with the threat of government collapse all the time. However, if parties become so determined to stay in power at all costs this system is turned on its head. The Dail is stripped of power. This is where back benchers need to hang tough and assert themselves.
Eamon Gilmore has become the chuckling best friend of Enda Kenny. The easy dismissal of Rosin Shortall proved that Gilmore saw Kenny as more of an ally than his own party member; even if he did let her resign it should not have been without a serious warning to FG and some demands. At every step Eamon has, instead, twisted himself into a knot in an effort to show just how well this government is getting along. He needs to remember that there is nothing wrong with having a row, fighting your corner, keeping distance from the larger party and even in a government collapsing. That is the only threat larger parties understand and react to. Indeed it is the only threat that even the troika react to, but that’s another story.
Brian Cowen was appointed a minister while in his thirties thanks to a serious blood letting on the FF front bench. Yet as Taoiseach one might never have guessed this. While FF was crying out for new faces and approach, he showed himself to be ultra cautious and always favouring age and experience. Even as the polls plummeted he could not see the need to even try to do something a bit more dramatic. When Eamon Gilmore selected his cabinet team he made the same mistake. Old dogs for the hard road. Joan Burton is the one Labour Minister who has a career that may still have another upward step on the ladder, all the rest are on their last lap before retirement. What is shocking is that none of these individuals themselves could see why this was wrong in a party that does have capable younger voices. None of these guys are going to rock the boat. That’s why they were selected. Like Brian Cowen, Gilmore has failed to select a team that could reflect the urgency of the situation and inject some vigour; instead relying on those that he knew would cause him least trouble.
Labour can now sit back and think about the problem all they want for it will do them no good. They need action and if they don’t take it words will get them nowhere. They made rash and foolish promises before the general election. The buck stops with the leader for this. Either he was naive enough to actually believe it or he failed to listen to those who were telling him, either way he must accept responsibility. FF dithered and waivered on Brian Cowen’s leadership until it was too late to make any difference, Labour cannot afford the same mistake. Either Gilmore changes radically now or he goes. Coalition government cannot continue to be the easy harmonious ride it has been for FG up until this point. The rhetoric about the country needing government and its success is nothing more than words. FF and the Greens used the same arguments while the troika were taking over. Its rubbish. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with an election or a series of them if that’s what’s needed to get both the government and the people to start singing from the same hymn sheet. Eamon Gilmore is fond of saying that Government is about tough decisions, he should remember that one of them is when to tell your partner to either tow the line or face a walkout. As things stand the electorate can’t tell the difference between FG and Labour and this is a disaster for the left wing party. When you can have the full fat, high caffeine, and full sugar option why on earth would anyone really choose the ‘light’ option? When any smaller party becomes the plaything of a bigger one then that is all they are. The labour (I can’t believe its not Fine Gael) Party.