Exclusive interview with Colm Keaveney TD – Labour, its future. leadership and why cutting is easy, it’s saying stop that’s tough
I interviewed Labour Chairperson Colm Keaveney today in order to get an insight into what is happening in the Labour party at the moment and what are the dangers the party faces. It can be rare in politics to find people willing to talk straight and face up to problems. Keaveney is in no doubt however that that is exactly what Labour needs to start doing.
In a very open interview he accepted that Labour ‘has added to the volatility’ of Irish politics at the moment through a failure to deliver what people elected them for. ‘There is no doubt we over promised at the general election’ he says and he believes that by doing this Labour have added ‘in no small way’ to the public cynicism about politics.
He argues that the issue of rhetoric and promises is something that Labour ‘have to come to terms with quickly.’ Unless this is addressed in a meaningful way it could have big implications for the party. In particular Keaveney says that the now infamous ‘Every little hurts’ ad, was taken by himself and others to be the basis of the conditions upon which Labour were going to enter government.’ The fact that the party has failed to deliver any of this is a source of immense disappointment for him. For Keaveney in particular, the cut to child benefit was a step too far. ‘There is nowhere in the programme for government where it says we will cut child benefit, it is not provided for’ and Keaveney argues that this represented and major break with the trust of the Labour voters.
The problem, of course, is that such promises were made and if you want to deal with this issue then someone has to take responsibility. It was not as if Labour prepared for the election in the dark, they were well aware of the economic situation. Keaveney lays the blame for this on the fact that the preparations for the election and the discussion of promises to be made were not the most democratic process in the world. ‘I have suspected for some time that there is a cohort of management personnel who chase numbers and figures on likely support and the rhetoric is based around that intel.’ This is a process that Keaveney does not agree with as it leads to simply chasing votes rather that attracting a vote by virtue of what you actually want to do. He admits quite openly to believing that the ‘promises were unnecessary and were not based on sound political science.’
The problems this created for Labour are being felt by the party membership now. The labour vote has been plummeting and Keaveney believes this to be because ‘the people who needed us most’ are now the ‘people with the greatest grievance’. It is clear that the current Labour leadership did sign off on the strategy and Keaveney describes the approach as ‘immature’ and a judgement call that ‘lacked professionalism’.
Any party that finds itself saying that about its own leader’s decisions has to face up to taking some actions. The Labour Chairman has called for an early national conference to allow the members have their say on the direction of the party and the policies it is implementing. His thinking on this is pretty simple ‘If you can’t persuade the membership then you can’t persuade the country.’ According to Keaveney the Labour grassroots are increasingly disaffected with a growing number of TDs and Councillors feeling the pressure too. He believes that decisions were taken that have grave implications for Labours future ‘Within a number of months (after entering government) it became apparent that we were going to capitulate the left in Irish politics.’ That is a thought that should worry all Labour members as the largest left wing party in the country and with a number of rivals snapping at their heels. ‘Meath East was not a flash in the pan’ Keaveney says, arguing that the disastrous by election result could be repeated across the country.
So where do Labour go? What can they do to stop this becoming a reality? On this question the Galway deputy feels that there is no magic solution and says that coming back will be difficult. It will be a slow process and Labour will have to fight for every inch. Change is required and the ability to build a new brand of Labour in government through their capacity to negotiate at the cabinet table is critical to any success. But is the leadership listening to this advice? I put it to him that the leadership and some other Labour TDs have made clear that they see nothing wrong with Labour policy and that he and others are just taking an easy route out in order to try and save their seat. It was clear that this argument is one that annoys Keaveney. He says that such messaging is part of a ‘consistent formula rolled out by management of the party where dissent is not provided for’ and critical analysis is not facilitated. He maintains that the current language used by the Leadership is ‘unhelpful’. ‘The reality is that the hardest decision is to cross the floor. It’s easy to take from those that are not organised, it’s very easy to cut and take from people with disabilities, very easy to remove someone’s mobility allowances, and very easy to dismantle mental health services.’
Keaveney says that he is receiving calls everyday from around the country. Communities are being torn apart and the language and example set by the Labour leadership is not what is required according to the Deputy. This led me to asking him directly if Labour needed to change Leader and if that was what the grassroots were saying. Perhaps understandably Keaveney, as chair of the party does not want to instigate that debate or make such calls as that is a matter he feels for the party at large. But he says that there is not doubt members want a change in policy and ‘policy is closely aligned with personality’, as a result of this Keaveney feels it is an error for the leadership to be showing an unwillingness to engage with the grassroots.
‘We need firm leadership, but we also need compassionate leadership’ and this is where Keaveney sees some of Labours greatest failings. He maintains that they are not following a conciliatory strategy and that it would have been far more difficult for him or others to leave the parliamentary party if there had been any willingness on the part of the powers that be to reach out and empathise with their concerns. Instead he feels he was met with ‘personal attacks’ and says that the same formula was seen only last week in the ‘de-characterisation of Neassa Childers’, but he argues that this policy is now transparent and members of the party across the country have had enough.
So lets call a spade a spade, Labour have lost a considerable number of personnel and many more seem willing to jump ship unless something changes, so if the leadership is not listening, is someone going to call time? Keaveney is definite that this is ‘not a debate to be held in public’; the Labour party must deal with such issues in the proper manner. As Chairperson he says that any such discussion must be facilitated within the confines of the party. But as I sat there listening to these words I could not help but feel that its not exactly good news for Eamonn Gilmore and the leader’s reluctance to agree to an early conference is probably informed by this fear.
But is there hope for reconciliation? What needs to happen to appease the fears and worries of the rebel TDs and the membership? Here again Keaveney is in no doubt about some Labour redline issues in the lead up to the next budget. He says that he was ‘appalled’ to hear Richard Bruton talking that very morning about reductions in income tax and says that when he hears such talk he hears ‘cuts in home help and intellectual disability.’ Ireland needs a fairer tax system and Keaveney wants to see the difference between the headline and actual rate of corporation tax addressed along with changes to the USC that will see higher paid public servants and high income earners shoulder even just a little more of the weight. Any failure to do this or another regressive budget laying most of the pain on low and middle income families will cause a serious issue for government stability according to the Labour Chair. He argues that this is just one of a number of crisis points that they face.
What was most striking about his approach, however, was the pragmatism. He believes that while social policy is important the number one priority right now must be ‘jobs and growth’ and the money in ordinary peoples pockets. He fears that a decision was taken to try make social issues the battleground for Labour at the next election but that the ordinary voter is currently far more worried about the economy and not paying as much attention to social or constitutional change as the political class might be. ‘I don’t think this election will be won in the leafy suburbs of Dublin 4’ he argues adding that there is a whole country out there that Labour needs to convince.
Keaveney is determined to give the Labour grassroots an opportunity to influence policy before it’s too late and has tabled a motion to hold an early conference to facilitate this. He admits that he was surprised to find that the Leadership have already proposed a November date for any such conference which conveniently means it will be after the budget and Keaveney feel this is a ‘foolish’ stance to take. It would appear that battle lines are being drawn and we are going to watch a fight for the soul of the Labour party over the coming months. No party can afford to put the idea of stable government over its own ideology or aspirations for society and increasingly it seems Labour members feel this is what’s happening. A struggle between those at the top and those at the bottom seems inevitable and Keaveney finds himself in the middle of this. It’s unlikely that we are going to see a dramatic change in poll figures and with the current leadership setting its face against any compromise with the rebels it may only be a matter of time before someone else has had enough. Watch this space.