Back in the day, when I used to work for the Labour Party, I often resented advice from old-timers.
Times and politics change, I used to think. Modern times demand modern responses. What do these old-timers know anyway?
When I stopped working for the party, one of my resolutions was that I wouldn’t become the fat old guy in the corner, muttering about how we used to do things in my day. That’s the kind of help people don’t need, especially in times of difficulty.
If you think I’m breaking that resolution now, it’s because I also resolved at the time that I was going to stay a loyal member of a party whose values mean a lot to me. I know thousands of people throughout the country who share those values, and they’re all hurting right now.
One of them, by the way, is Eoin Holmes, your candidate in Meath. I’ve known Eoin for years, and he is as fine a candidate as any party could wish for. I think you know that nobody could have won that by-election for the Labour Party right now, and Eoin stepped up to the plate knowing that too. I was away throughout the election campaign and I was really sorry that I wasn’t there to support him. In better times he’d have been (and maybe could be again) a star addition to your parliamentary party.
In everything I’ve read since the election, I haven’t come across any references to history repeating itself. But it did in this election. Back in 1983, Labour had been in government with Fine Gael for about a year. And when George Colley died, we had to fight a by-election in Dublin Central, a Fianna Fáil stronghold at the time where every left-wing vote was basically owned by Tony Gregory, no friend of Labour’s.
The government of the day had inherited an economic mess the previous year, and cutbacks in public spending had resulted. Labour was taking the lion’s share of the blame for that, and also for the introduction of water charges for the first time since the abolition of rates. Dublin City Council sent out the water charge demands during the by-election itself (just as the Revenue sent out property tax letters during this by-election).
And guess what? Labour’s candidate Jimmy Somers came fifth, behind Sinn Féin in fourth place and the Workers Party (remember them?) in third. Tension within the Labour Party rose; there were calls for the replacement of the leader and a withdrawal from government; and the political commentators started writing about the imminent demise of the party. Worse was to follow, with a 50% drop in the party’s votes in the local elections 18 months later, and several more attempts to unseat the party leader.
But the party survived. In fact, it began to grow again. It wasn’t that long before even the experts were ready to accept that those who had written the party’s obituary had been more than somewhat premature.
There were several reasons for that, and I reckon they’re all worth remembering now.
First of all, its roots are very deep. There are parts of Ireland — some of them quite unlikely — where the idea of political representation without Labour would be unthinkable. The party is like both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in that respect, even though it has never been as successful as the others in the breadth of its representation.
Second, (although I’m sure there are some who cause you endless irritation) by and large the members of the party are deeply loyal to its values and traditions. And they’re proud of the fact that Labour, whatever policy or political mistakes it may have made, has never been tainted by corruption. There is a deep pool of wisdom among the rank and file membership of the party, and now is the time to start tapping into it.
But the two keys to the recovery of the party were a strong and determined push for unity and discipline throughout the organisation, and a new sense of vision for where the party wanted to go.
Oddly enough, the search for unity and discipline was, in a sense, foisted on the leadership. There isn’t time here to retrace the entire history, but the party was riven back then by a debate over the issue of coalition. That debate was ultimately resolved by a commission, set up despite the misgivings of then leader Dick Spring. But he decided to make it work, and effectively turned it into a mechanism for forging greater coherence and discipline.
At the same time he produced a document called “Labour’s Alternative”, a thoughtful, detailed commentary on Irish society, and a set of radical proposals for better distribution and a greater sense of social justice.
These two approaches were the underpinnings of a new confidence within the party, and the beginnings of new respect for the party. They’re often overlooked now by people who trace the growth of the party to the effective opposition work of the late 1980s and the election of Mary Robinson. But the internal party commission on electoral strategy, and the publication of Labour’s Alternative, were essential foundations for a new start.
They both happened after the general election of 1987, and while the party was in opposition — and work like this is much easier in opposition than it is in government. If a party decides to take a long hard look at where it stands while it’s in government, that can be seen as destabilising. It doesn’t have to be, as long as the work is carried out with respect for government partners.
SO I guess what I’m suggesting is this. The party is at something of a crossroads right now. I think we all — and you especially — should accept that. Mistakes have been made, and there is a strong sense that the party has lost touch. (For example, I don’t know who in the Cabinet has been representing fearful and anxious families in the preparation of the insolvency guidelines. I can’t imagine Labour ministers allowing something so crass and insensitive to see the light of day)
But a fresh start needs to be made. You need to lead the work of developing a strong post-austerity vision for the party, but it needs to be the property of the entire party, and especially its younger parliamentarians. They are the future and they need to be put in charge of a new party programme now — with your strong support.
You know that most of your Labour Cabinet colleagues are coming towards the end of their leadership role, and you need to be in the succession planning business, developing new leaders and giving new thinking its head.
That needs to happen as part of a coherent, united and disciplined approach, accepting that the party has to re-earn, as it were, the support it needs. It’s still there, in the roots, traditions and values your members espouse. It needs new energy, and that’s your job. It can be done.
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