Rabbitte must slay a few myths before he can make real progress

ALL Irish political parties have their myths. They can be useful in motivating membership and cementing internal party unity.

However, at a recent all-party forum organised by the SDLP in Dublin some of the myths advanced by a Labour Party speaker were particularly striking and acutely self-delusional.

The first great Irish Labour Party myth is that its failure to be anything more than a medium-sized party is the fault of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The theory goes that if FF and FG, and their civil war baggage, would only get out of the way, then the electorate would be as enlightened as the rest of Europe and vote on a class basis.

While this is a convenient excuse for Labour, the reality is more complex. Political scientists have argued that a country's party system is shaped at the time that the right to vote is extended to all citizens. During the first and second decades of the 20th century, as suffrage was extended, it was the class issue which dominated in most European countries.

At that time, Irish politics was absorbed in an independence struggle which formed the basis for mass political organisation. When the nationalist movement divided that became the line along which the party system divided.

Civil war bitterness is of no relevance to the modern generation of Irish voters. There is a broad consensus on the "national question"; it is one of the least divisive issues between the political parties. Labour has been unable to displace either FF or FG, not because of some civil war hangover but because Labour's message has never been attractive to more than an average of about one-fifth of the electorate.

In every election since 1921, people have had the option of voting for Labour in large numbers and have decided not to do so. For this, the electorate owes Labour no apology.

Another powerful Labour Party myth is that the great breakthrough is just around the corner. I call this the "tiocfaidh ár lá amárach" myth. It was very potent among the Labour ranks in the late 1960s when the party attracted high profile intellectuals such as Justin Keating, Conor Cruise O'Brien and David Thornley to contest elections for it. Labour's slogan at the time was "The Seventies will be Socialist". Of course they were no such thing. Labour's performance in the two elections held in the '70s was no more impressive than that of the previous seven decades.

In 1992 Labour justifiably celebrated the "Springtide" victory. However, talk of 20 years of Government and a radical change in the party system was premature. In 1997 the Springtide ebbed as dramatically as it had flowed and the party has been beached at the same point since.

This myth of imminent dominance is once again potent among Labour rank-and-file. Some have convinced themselves that Fine Gael will implode and that Labour will surge to become Ireland's second largest party. Again it's an illusion. Even if FG disappears which is extremely unlikely all the signs are that its difficulty is not Labour's opportunity. In last May's election, Labour stagnated while disillusioned FG and middle-ground voters switched to the Greens and independents.

Another great Labour Party myth is that the party has always been progressive and that it is almost the exclusive source of radicalism in Irish politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Until recent decades, Labour's parliamentary party was dominated by conservative, male, rural deputies. In the 1940s, for example, those voters, particularly in urban areas, who wanted an alternative radical voice turned to Sean MacBride's Clann na Poblachta rather than to Labour. At the same time as the Atlee Labour government in Britain was introducing the national health service and other such socialist initiatives, Clann na Poblachta Minister Noel Browne the only real socialist in the Irish Government launched State medicine initiatives against TB. It is ironic that when Browne wanted to go one step further with his Mother and Child Scheme he was opposed as strongly by his Labour cabinet colleagues as he was by anyone else.

In the 1980s and 1990s Labour did play a role in contributing to the environment which gave rise to social reforms, but they held no monopoly on such reform. Neither were they the only actors on socialist economic initiatives. The Labour Party, when in Government, had traditionally been stand-offish with the trade unions. It was Fianna Fáil who brought the unions into the economic policymaking tent through social partnership in the 1980s. Bertie Ahern more than matched Ruairí Quinn in the introduction of workplace reforms. Ironically, it was the PD leader Mary Harney who introduced that great socialist initiative, the minimum wage. Some of the most self-deluding myths developed in recent years within the ranks of Labour, and in pockets of the media, have concerned the Dick Spring leadership. Spring and his team deserve credit for an impressive opposition performance from 1987-1992 and a stunning 1992 election campaign. However, they must also carry the can for the dramatic reversal of Labour's vote in 1997.

The same team was mainly responsible, although not completely responsible, for Mary Robinson's presidential victory in 1990. Again, however, they must take responsibility for Adi Roche's disastrous performance seven years later. Another of the myths which has emerged from the Spring era is a conviction that the backlash against Labour in 1997 was because they went into Government with Fianna Fáil in 1992.

In fact, in the early months the Reynolds-led Fianna Fáil/Labour Government was both popular and successful. It was Labour itself which was unpopular in these months. Stories of arrogance and opulence in office, the Waldorf Astoria, overuse of the Government jet, programme managers and perceived cronyism and nepotism in filling Government jobs all helped alienate the party from voters who supported it in 1992.

Probably the most amazing myth which Labour has developed, and which was trotted out by the Labour speaker at the SDLP forum, was that Dick Spring only went into Government with Albert Reynolds in 1992 because of the peace process.

Those who perpetuate this myth greatly simplify the situation and conveniently forget that Albert's chat with Dick about the potential of the peace process occurred some weeks after a screaming match which Dick Spring and John Bruton had when they met to discuss Government formation. Dick let John have a piece of his bruised ego and, in so doing, cut off Labour's nose to spite its face thereby dramatically narrowing its Government options.

The new Labour Party leader Pat Rabbite has an interesting and daunting challenge. He enjoys a unique mandate from his party membership.

Rabbite's task will be easier if he can slay some of Labour myths and if he can get the party's membership to be realistic in their expectations. When the myths are put aside Labour can point to a proud contribution to Irish public life. Like that of all parties it is not a flawless contribution, but it is a substantial one. Rabbitte should develop an honest assessment of the party's past achievements and of its current difficulties. It would also help if he could get the party to publish some new policies so that the electorate could judge what Labour is for as well as what it is against.

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