I don’t usually “plump” in an election, but on Friday, in the local and European elections, I plumped for Labour candidates — my little statement of defiance, I suppose. For the first time that I can remember, not one of the people I voted for got elected.
Although this is probably as bad as it’s ever been, Labour has been here before. In the early 1980s its imminent demise was predicted, after its leader resigned and then defected to Fine Gael. It was rescued by a new leader, who shortly afterwards went into government in terrible economic circumstances. In the middle and late 1980s the party received not one but two terrible drubbings at the hands of the electorate, first in local elections and then in the general election of 1987.
It survived. It even went on to grow, massively, and then to absorb more punishment. In fact if you look at the life cycle of the Labour Party over the last half century, in almost every decade it has experienced significant growth and savage decline. The growth always coincides with the party’s time in opposition, the decline always happens in government. It seems at time like a cycle that can’t be broken.
There are reasons, of course. One of them is that the party seems always to be called on to clean up a mess created by another political party. Never in its history has Labour been lucky enough to enter government at a time when the economy was growing — the party has instead always been the bearer of bad news in government. Despite that, the people always seem to place great expectations in Labour when it enters government. And my party never succeeds in meeting those expectations.
So, how different has this past disastrous weekend been? Is it just part of the same old pattern?
It’s never a good idea to write history the day after it happens, but there are some differences in Labour’s current situation that give rise to extreme concern.
First, Labour is being blamed for everything. Alan Shatter, Phil Hogan, and James Reilly are all Fine Gael ministers — and they have been responsible for the great majority of the political cock-ups of the last few months. Although Fine Gael has taken punishment in these elections, it has still emerged with far less damage than its partner in government. That may not seem fair — but it’s a fact of politics that the smaller partner is expected to “mind” the larger partner in these circumstances.
Second, Labour has made terrible mistakes itself. It’s not just floating voters that left Labour in this election, but people who have given Labour a first preference all their adult lives. The party’s core vote has declined to a new low.
The main reason for that is that Labour has allowed itself to preside over austerity without a human face. In fact in recent months it has almost become a form of faceless austerity, driven by bureaucracy. In the weeks running up to elections mothers have been asked if their children still have Down syndrome. People with devastating medical conditions have had their medical cards taken away. Children have been added to the homelessness statistics. My party has been paralysed and incoherent in the face of all this and more, as if it was a natural outworking of the austerity mindset. But actually, all of these unnecessary outcomes of the austerity agenda would have represented the crossing of a bottom line, if only a bottom line was visible. I don’t have the slightest doubt that senior Labour people fought behind the scenes to make things better (they always do), but the perceived adherence to government stability always seems to trump any effort they make.
And thirdly, for the first time in its history, Labour is faced with a disciplined, coherent, and extremely well-organised threat, in the form of Sinn Féin. There’ll be time enough to analyse how significant Sinn Féin are in terms of government formation, but it’s pretty clear they have succeeded in putting down a lot of roots in former Labour heartlands. That may be the biggest threat of all.
Can Labour survive and recover from the body blows they’ve taken this weekend? Yes. But not if the party simply regards the weekend as just another episode in the cycle.
It must begin by Eamon Gilmore accepting responsibility. If he’s going to remain as leader of the party — and I’m afraid that must be a big if — it can only be on the basis of an honest assessment of how the party lost its way. Following that assessment, there has to be fundamental change. He needs to think long and hard about personnel, values, policy and implementation. He needs to be brave in his own choices — for example, how can he remain in the cosy environment of Iveagh House when health policy needs a much more human face? Above all, he needs to ask himself if he can really change, or is it too late?
Not for the first time, Labour is at a crossroads. No matter which fork in the road the party takes, the road ahead is difficult and dangerous. But if Labour is led down a road that isn’t informed (in government) by our own most heartfelt and basic values, it will be going into a cul de sac from which there may be no coming back.