Run Rabbitte run

Irish Labour is facing the upcoming election without any serious hope of making progress, and how that has come to pass is a story in itself. A couple of years back, Labour was riding high in the polls, and, not for the first time, looked to have a serious chance of displacing the Blueshirts as the major opposition party in the Free State – if only the party leadership could press home its advantage. That “if only” is important. Pat Rabbitte, in comparison to other party leaders, gets terrific notices – he’s very highly regarded by the Leinster House lobby correspondents, and has a reputation as a great orator amongst the drunks and insomniacs who watch Oireachtas Report. But the party’s apparent strength has turned out to be its real weakness – in return for a mess of pottage called the Mullingar Accord, Pat has committed Labour to a strategy of clinging like grim death to the rotting corpse of Fine Gael. Recent polling shows Labour flatlining at around 11%, which represents no improvement at all on the last election.

The arithmetic is simple. To the limited extent that Labour has prospered in recent years, it has done so by eating into the traditional Fine Gael electorate – in particular, colonising territory in Dublin historically occupied by FG’s nearly defunct liberal wing. If Labour is to advance further – maybe not in terms of seats in this election, but lining up constituencies for future gains – it can only realistically do so by putting the squeeze on the Blueshirts. But one of the unstated provisions of Mullingar is that Labour should turn its back on developing winnable seats and concentrate in these areas on providing transfers for FG candidates. This point is not lost on activists in a number of constituencies who have put a lot of effort into rebuilding Labour’s organisation and profile, in the hope of delivering TDs in the not too distant future, only to be told that the only purpose of their candidates is to run sweeper for Enda.

Not only this, but Labour has a fight on its hands to even hold its own. The best bet at the minute is that the party will come out of the election with more or less the same number of TDs that it currently holds, give or take one or two, but even a small swing could be catastrophic. At the last election, no less than seven of Labour’s 21 seats were won with narrow margins over Fine Gael, and would thus be vulnerable to even a minor revival in the FG vote, or to Sinn Féin Nua continuing to nibble at Labour’s working-class base, or to the Greens squeezing Labour in the middle-class trendy vote – all of which would be consistent with current polling. It follows from all this, as night follows day, that the best strategy for Labour in purely electoral terms is to kick the shit out of Fine Gael. It should be, like, obvious. But then, Pat Rabbitte is a man who spent the best years of his life on the ard chomhairle of the Workers Party, while being completely unaware that the Official IRA existed.

For the last couple of decades the second largest party in the state has had no clear idea of what it stands for. Now, to give him credit, Electric Enda has a few ideas, and those ideas are pretty rightwing. On health, he has introduced the concept of the deserving sick. On education, FG proposals have sent the teacher unions screaming into the warm embrace of Minister Mary Hanafin. And then there have been Enda’s forays into law and order, where he has vainly attempted to outdo Interior Minister McDowell in the Dirty Harry stakes. And what has Pat said about this? Has he attempted to put manners on his putative coalition partner? No he has not. The practical outcome of Mullingar seems to be that Enda can say whatever pops into his head, while Pat can say frig all.

Nor can Labour make a serious pitch for the protest vote this time out. The ongoing Shell to Sea campaign in Mayo provides the clearest evidence of this. Footage of gardaí baton-charging old age pensioners should be a godsend for any opposition party worth its salt – and Labour’s weakness on the ground in Mayo is not really the point, Ireland is a small country and the national leadership could and should have spoken out. But the Corrib pipeline is in Enda’s constituency, Enda supports the project, and therefore Pat can’t say anything of substance. The upshot is that somebody will make electoral hay from Rossport – it may be local independents, the Provos or even the Éamon Ó Cuív faction of Fianna Fáil – but it surely to God won’t be Labour.

These facts have impressed themselves on Rabbitte’s critics within the party, of whom there are many. Nor has grumbling been confined to notorious malcontents like Declan Bree or Henry Haughton. There are lots of Old Labourites who would be keen to wrest back control of their party from the Sticks, and are discreetly sharpening knives even now. (Not to say, of course, that all the criticism is principled in nature. There are those in the parliamentary party who worry that Pat’s visceral hostility to Fianna Fáil is ruling out a coalition option.) One hears regular reports of anti-Mullingar sentiment in Labour Youth. Most importantly, I think, is the stance of the “rebuilders” who have been putting in heroic amounts of spadework in the constituencies. There are quite a few ambitious young councillors who don’t stand a chance of getting in the Dáil this time around, but might well be contenders in future elections. They are less than gruntled at the suggestion that their main task is to elect Blueshirts.

The most coherent alternative to Mullingar is that put forward by ATGWU regional secretary Mick O’Reilly. This is based on the idea that Labour could struggle for power in its own right – first, by attempting to maximise its own representation, then by projecting itself as the main force in a progressive alliance which would encompass Sinn Féin Nua and leftwing independents (possibly also the Greens), and which would, on current figures, be stronger in the Dáil than Fine Gael. This alliance would refuse to enter into any right-led coalition (although Mick acknowledges that this would mean the unprecedented situation of a party actually sticking to its electoral commitments). It would then fight for political hegemony in the southern state, instead of passively accepting its lot in life as junior partner to either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Mick’s perspective is a seductive one, and its appeal to those activists in the Labour Party who are trying to rebuild in local areas is easy to see. It would certainly be a vast improvement on the course followed by Rabbitte and the hard-right Stickie faction who currently control the party. But is Pat interested in a grandiose scheme to try and put Labour in a dominant position in the state? No he is not. He seems perfectly happy with his lot in life. He’s firmly ensconced in the party leadership (at least this side of the election). Labour may not be a great prize, but it’s a hell of a sight better than Democratic Left. Apparently his only remaining ambition is to be Electric Enda’s tánaiste. And, on current evidence, he won’t even achieve that. What a comedown from his days as a stentorian Stalinist.

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