Labour is on the ropes, but not down yet

The reality of coalition government is well known to Labour. It has bounced back from the brink before, says Gary Murphy.

Labour is on the ropes, but not down yet

THERE have been 12 coalitions in Ireland since the first inter-party government came to office in 1948, offering much in the way of policy but little in the way of cohesion beyond the fact that they were not Fianna Fáil. Ever since that essentially anti-Fianna Fáil coalition, which collapsed after just over three years in office, all smaller parties in government have faced the same dilemma: How to remain distinctive in office while defending the overall record of the coalition?

Many have also faced discontent from their own members while in office, as the current administration can attest, having lost a number of deputies to the Independent benches and, most spectacularly, Colm Keaveney to Fianna Fáil.

Dick Spring, as leader of Labour in the deeply unpopular Fine Gael-Labour government of 1982-87, faced similar sniping from his party, although in that case it came from outside Leinster House in the guise of current grandees of the party, Emmet Stagg and a certain Michael D Higgins. He also had a militant tendency in the party, epitomised by Joe Higgins, to deal with.

Fast-forward to today, and another unpopular Fine Gael and Labour coalition, and you have similar mutterings of discontent and calls for a change of leadership. This time, the complaints have rather bizarrely been led by the party’s current MEP and Ireland South candidate, Phil Prendergast, a politician never elected to national office, and one who has literally no national profile or even strong constituency base behind her.

In the height of Labour’s best electoral achievement in 2011, Prendergast came a distant sixth in Tipperary South, receiving just under 11% of the vote. This isn’t quite Albert Reynolds calling for Charles Haughey to resign in 1991.

Reynolds, a politician of national stature and senior minister, had never forgiven Haughey for bringing Fianna Fáil, the national movement, into coalition with the apostates of the Progressive Democrats in 1989. By contrast, Prendergast is on 4% in a secondary election. Those in Labour tempted to ditch Eamon Gilmore while viewing Joan Burton as their saviour need a bit of perspective.

Labour has been a member of eight coalition governments and served with Fine Gael for all but one, when it famously entered government under Dick Spring with Fianna Fáil after its historic 19% of the vote and 33 seats in 1992.

An electorate which had grown to deeply admire Spring for his anti-Fianna Fáil rhetoric during the 1989-92 Fianna Fáil-PD government flocked to Labour in the 1992 election. They never quite got over the fact that Spring eventually took his phalanx of deputies into coalition with Fianna Fáil and extracted their revenge in 1997 when the Fine Gael- Labour- Democratic Left government lost out to the Bertie Ahern-led Fianna Fáil-PD alternative.

In the course of one election cycle between 1992 and 1997, five parties served in office. Two are now gone: The Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats. Ten years later, in 2007, the Greens entered office for the first time, propping up the Fianna Fáil-PD alliance. If not quite gone, the Greens are on terminal life support having no nationally elected politicians and a pitifully small local base.

So the question to be asked is whether coalition government is bad for the health of junior parties with the most likely outcome being death or slow but sure political paralysis?

From Labour’s perspective the answer must be no. The party has been lower in the polls before, has received trouncings in various elections but has also shown a tremendous resilience. In 1987, coming out early of that troubled Garret FitzGerald-led coalition, Labour won 12 seats. The PDs, by contrast, won 14.

In 1997, Labour, coming out of government with Fine Gael and Democratic Left, having gone into office at the 1992 election with Fianna Fáil, lost 16 of its 33 seats. Its political merry-go-round did it no favours but it did not die.

While Labour had to wait in the political wilderness for 14 years, the 37 seats it won at the 2011 general election saw it enter government with its greatest ever mandate.

Labour’s current trouble is that this coalition has been a crisis government. It was elected, in essence, because it was not Fianna Fáil. It had not wrecked the country and it offered hope to a country beaten down by debt, recession, and austerity.

Following three years in office, while the troika is gone, the country is still mired in debt, recession, and austerity.

The coping classes have Fine Gael to vote for. For Labour, its public- sector and working-class vote has begun to look elsewhere, according to the polls. What Labour needs to remember is that while coalition government has been toxic for smaller parties, it has yet to deliver a fatal blow to a party in existence since 1912. The likelihood of serious losses in the coming elections should not be viewed as terminal.

If Labour can hold its nerve, delineate what it has done in office beyond the weary ‘save the country’ narrative, then the chances of it approaching a general election in 2016 with optimism should not be ruled out.

* Gary Murphy is associate professor of Politics and head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.

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