The unwilling coalition of Labour and Fine Gael

More than three years on, Labour has found itself with no other choice but to stick it out with Fine Gael because it dreads to imagine the alternative, writes Political Editor Mary Regan.

The unwilling coalition of Labour and Fine Gael

Labour’s power is reduced by its acceptance of being imprisoned in a partnership to which there is no alternative

“PEOPLE didn’t want a single-party Government and there was no other combination around.”

Ruairi Quinn’s description on RTÉ’s Six One News this week of how his party decided to enter a coalition with Fine Gael, hinted at a sense of reluctance about the partnership from the outset and lack of choice in the matter.

In the final days of the 2011 election campaign, Eamon Gilmore asked voters to reject a single-party Fine Gael government and, instead, give his party the numbers to participate. When this is what the electorate decided to do, concerns that the party would ultimately pay the political penalty — just as it saw its historic gains of 1992 ebb away in 1997 — were cast aside.

More than three years on, the often reluctant partnership has turned into a coalition of the unwilling: Labour has found itself with no other choice but to stick it out with Fine Gael because it dreads to imagine the alternative.

For a long time now, it has been resigned to the reality that if it pulled out of government and caused an election it would — as the less popular and less powerful party in coalition — face a massive loss of seats. It’s a dilemma Fine Gael has been able to take advantage of, allowing the bigger party to push through its proposals with little worry that its partner will pull the plug.

And so Labour is left with a tricky balancing act between the need to pursue its own policy objectives and keeping unity with its government partners. This position is described by academics in terms of a “unity distinctiveness” theory — which effects smaller coalition parties universally. In other words, they have to preserve their own identify while working effectively with a party quite different to theirs.

“The Labour Party — in order to be effective in Government — must display unity with their coalition partners if they are to govern coherently,” said Theresa Reidy from the Department of Government in UCC. “But at the same time — four weeks out from an election — they must be seen to have a distinct set of policies, and an identity, that is separate from Fine Gael if they going to compete effectively at the election.”

It seems that, for the first half of the current coalition’s term, Labour leaned far too heavily on the “unity” side — in other words allowed itself to be walked all over by Fine Gael — and now it is struggling to present its “distinctiveness”.

One of the strongest criticisms of the party is that they promised — through their pre-election “every little hurts” ad campaign — to be the watchdog of Fine Gael.

But in its first three austerity budgets, all the things it warned against came to pass: A Vat increase, a levy on wine, a reduction in child benefit rates, and tax on savings.

The ad — which will no doubt get plenty of airing during the local and European election campaign — even warned of a €238 annual water charge — something Labour is likely to sign off on today — despite some concessions.

However it tries to present a “victory” in reducing the €50 standing charge for water charges, or the overall €240 a year bill, or the costs for vulnerable groups, it is still a tax that they promised to protect voters against and will be seen as just that.

Voters will also have every right to ask what was the point of having the party in government when lower earners have to pay proportionately more PRSI than those on high incomes; when poorer young people are getting decreased assistance to go to college, for which they will have to pay higher fees and suffer greater welfare cuts; and when the children’s allowance — once a red-line issue — has been cut.

While the impression that it is being too submissive in coalition will be hard to undo, the junior party is now beginning to display its own “distinctiveness” .

However, this is resulting in constant tensions between the coalition parties.

The difficulty in reaching agreement on a structure for water charges in recent weeks shows how difficult it is for Labour to assert itself without holding up the effectiveness of the Government, and has even lead to some questions surrounding whether it can stick out its full term.

For all its display of muscle-flexing in the run-up to the local and european elections, Labour’s power is reduced by its acceptance of being imprisoned in a partnership to which there is no alternative.

The party has always clung on to a seemingly hopeless optimism that once the country gets through the hard times, it will reap the rewards.

This has been the received wisdom in the party ever since its popularity started to plummet in the early days of the term.

Through budget after hair-shirt budget, and as its overblown election promises were broken one by one, the backbenchers who decided to stick with the party privately complained and gritted their teeth.

They did so in the belief that their fortunes would improve once the country exited the bailout, jobs were created, and the country was back on the road to economic recovery.

After the 2011 election, Labour were, as Mr Quinn said on Monday evening, “faced with a task” — somebody had to do it and they stood up to the mark. And so, as Pat Rabbitte put it, voters should “reward” them instead of Fianna Fáil, who “wrecked the country”, and over Sinn Féin — who “would wreck it if they got the chance”.

The party leader has also spoken in these terms, saying: “I don’t believe that, when people come to mark their ballot paper in 2016, they will reward the party that got us into the crisis, Fianna Fáil, and punish the party that got us out of it, the Labour Party.”

But what the party have failed to grasp is that voters don’t do gratitude. Nobody is giving Labour any credit for the slight pick-up in economic fortunes and a drop in unemployment.

A small boost from the bailout exit towards the end of last year was short- lived and any good economic news in recent months has done little to reverse its decline.

From a level of 19% of support at the 2011 general election, Labour has been down around the 10% mark in the Red C tracking opinion polls of recent months.

This week’s call by Labour MEP Phil Prendergast for the party leader to resign was an embarrassment for Mr Gilmore, but most in the party are far more cautious about anything that could bring about instability.

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton made clear she is not going to take him on for now. “There is no leadership question, and I want to be clear on that,” she said.

The question for Labour is less about who leads them and more about whether it would be better served by pulling out of government early, or grudgingly sticking it out in the Coalition in the hope of clawing back some support before 2016.

For now, it seems like the latter is the best, and possibly, only option for the party, which consider it best to hold its nerve and live in hope that the country will be in a better place in two years’ time and their narrative, that they stepped into a difficult job at a time of need, will grow stronger than the current impression that they have abandoned their voters.

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