LABOUR took the soup of coalition and it is poisoning them.
Yesterday’s budget only underlines the party’s reputational decline. Behind a beleaguered party is the historic shattering of opportunity for the broader left and what it stands for. In eviscerating the State again and retarding its capacity to architect a different sort of society, Budget 2013 is another step on a longer march. The destination is clear. For at least a decade, and possibly a generation, the means of delivering any semblance of a social democratic society are gone.
Budget 2013 is not the darkest hour before the dawn as Eamon Gilmore promised his backbenchers; it is the beginning of the end. Labour is besieged by public protest and unfavourable polls without, and undermined by defections and division within. The party, and possibly its leader, are irretrievably holed below the water line.
From pre-school to the classroom, to an equally accessible health service for all, the means that would make the transformative changes which the left aspire to are pipe dreams. They are not only unaffordable now; they are beyond reach for the foreseeable future.
In parallel with an unprecedented downsizing of the State is a sclerosis inhibiting institutional reform. Labour will be gone and they will leave behind not only a shrivelled state: They will leave behind an institutional infrastructure remarkably similar to the one they told the electorate was not fit for purpose. Anyone who has any doubt about that can examine the budgetary process that led to yesterday.
In the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the agenda of a reduced state, and individual self-sufficiency out of either virtue or necessity, are now irreversibly ingrained. The indictment of Labour is not what they are doing in Government with Fine Gael; it is that they unnecessarily went into government in the first place.
For the first time in the history of the State, it was not necessary for Labour to join with Fine Gael’s 76 TDs to ensure an alternative government to a discredited Fianna Fáil. Although short of the 84 seats needed for a Dáil majority, a minority Fine Gael government would have been assured of the support of a shattered Fianna Fáil, determined to avoid another election at any cost. In addition, current policy is in fact the legacy of the last government, not the initiative of this one. Finally, the largest grouping of independent and left TDs ever would never have coalesced to bring the government down.
The chance for Labour was to hold its nerve, stand for its principles and become in opposition a credible alternative government with a clearly alternative programme. Instead, in its biggest strategic mistake since it opted out of the general election in 1918, Labour went into government in 2011. Not only is Labour on the back foot, Sinn Féin is more credible for its sectarianism than its socialism. The disunited left of Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly offers little beyond protest and parody. In any event, the moment is passing, and Labour — which alone might have provided a credible left government — is shackled to office and bereft of power.
Budget 2013 is our national plan in the centenary year of the historic workers’ lock-out. The effect of the policies it continues is a state where the values of William Martin Murphy, and not James Larkin, are entrenched. The ideological right, without a party to articulate its cause forthrightly, has completely triumphed over a left with an embarrassment of political players. What is important about yesterday’s budget is not the detail. It is the bigger picture of an Irish left beggared and bereft again.
* Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant and was a government adviser from 1997 to 2007
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