GERARD HOWLIN: The big question for Labour won’t be answered by a change of leader

The plight of the Catholic Church in Ireland, beset by scandal, dwindling numbers, and rapid change in the surrounding culture, is an ironic juxtaposition — in terms of timing and context — with the Labour Party.

In comparison with Labour, Irish Catholicism is in rude good health. There is no threat of extinction.

If much reduced, the Church will continue. Seen from the outside as rigid in its orthodoxies and plodding in its processes, it is in fact the mother of reinvention.

Labour, which led our culture wars over decades, is now on life support. It has no assurance of continuity.

Across Europe social democracy is denuded — the French Socialist Party, Dutch Labour Party, Greek Socialists, and dramatic decline of the German Social Democrats (established in 1863) cast serious doubt over the future of European social democracy.

Our own Labour Party (established 1912) faces an existential crisis. It has seven seats, and maybe 6% of the vote. The retirement of Willie Penrose in Westmeath leaves little prospect of future success there.

Some Labour councillors blame the leader Brendan Howlin.

There may be some appetite for Alan Kelly as an alternative. But that analysis misses the point. Howlin and Kelly represent essentially the same stasis.

The bigger question, which will not be answered by a change of leader, is what future purpose Labour has.

In Britain, Labour revived with Corbynism. In a European context, that is a unique phenomenon driven largely by the inflexibility of the UK’s electoral system.

What elsewhere found new routes to the ballot box, in the first-past-the-post system routed by necessity and opportunity back up through a Labour Party that had decisively ditched its New Labour posture.

New Labour was essentially liberalism, with social democrat tendencies and a base of old Labour personnel.

The economic crisis exposed always deep tensions, and then destroyed the coalition between middle-class liberals and the rump of an old working class base. Their interests are not aligned any more. Brexit is one result.

Trump is another. But if the enemies are clear, it is so-called friends who may ultimately be worse. Support for social democracy across Europe has splintered. The far right and far left have clearly benefited.

It is what is closing in for the kill that Labour should fear most.

On the liberal front, Emmanuel Macron in France and Leo Varadkar here have outflanked social democracy in its claim to speak for reason and modernity.

The party of Cosgrave is the main beneficiary of same-sex marriage and abortion. To Labour’s left, and I refer only to its posture and not its content, Sinn Féin’s populism bars the road back into working class housing estates. And behind it are Solidarity, People before Profit, and Independents in every shade of cerise.

Tonight at the Collins Institute, Paschal Donohoe, the social democrat face of a Christian Democrat party, will give a keynote address on Renewing the Centre. That means several things, and one of them is eating part of Labour’s lunch.

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School, a former general secretary of Labour, Brendan Halligan, said: “Simply put, there is no longer any sustainable rationale for the separate existence of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties… If that is accepted then it follows logically that existing parties are redundant.”

To recall the historical context, Halligan was an aide-de-camp of Brendan Corish who, in 1967, announced that the ’70s would be socialist. The exit from socialism, founded by Ramsay MacDonald, into the waiting assembly of the centre-right is still a busy turnstile.

If Halligan’s is likely to be a minority view in Labour, the larger question remains unanswered. So, too, is the entirely realisable vista of an eventual end for a 106-year-old entity, at least as a viable national force.

Corbyn raises further issues for Irish Labour. Unite, the powerful trade union there, is a bulwark of his movement. Unite here is now an enlarged, viable rival for Siptu and an effective opponent of Labour.

It is the base of Right2Change, which, after that union’s break with Labour here, was intended to be for all on the left except Labour, which, in its telling, isn’t left at all.

Inarguably Sinn Féin has benefited most, and given it a significantly enhanced standing in the trade-union movement specifically and the protest movement generally.

Solidarity saw that coming, and refused the embrace of Right2Change, stating, correctly, that it would only be a staging post for Sinn Féin’s journey in an entirely different direction — namely government with an economically conservative party.

That’s no comfort for Labour, however. It is another slice of its lunch gone.

Maybe New Labour in Britain and the 1999 merger with Democratic Left here led to an Indian summer, for what was essentially unsustainable anyway. Larger changes have undermined Labour too.

Communitarianism is undermined by forces as varied as the decline in organised religion, the growth of education, and the powerful cultural change wrought by technology.

The left is increasingly defined by protest, some of it stunningly successful. Here, bin and water charges protests have abetted liberalism and served to disable the State. A stronger state, the sought-after sense of the collective the left stands for, requires a broader, stronger tax base.

In a sense, the irony of which is not appreciated, there is complete alignment between Varadkar’s people who get up early, and the cry of hey, hey we won’t pay.

However large the crowd that marches, it is essentially all about individualism.

There is no coalition on the left seeking Labour. Responding to Halligan, Howlin wrote that Ireland’s mainstream political parties already co-operate, in formal coalitions, in local government, and in the operation of the Dáil and Seanad. So no need to merge then.

The differences pointed to are ones of policy details, not fundamental vision. Labour prepared for a general election before the local elections. Old war horses unlikely to win more races — like Joe Costello in Dublin Central and Emmet Stagg in Kildare — are in situ and heavily handicapped.

Unable to articulate relevance, some in Labour foolishly blame their leader. Surrounded by wolves in sheep’s clothing in Macron-style liberalism by Varadkar, and some social democrat leanings in a largely Christian Democrat Fine Gael party in the form of Paschal Donohoe, Labour’s auld alliance has left it emaciated.

But its former partner has fattened. It is in opposition, together with Fianna Fáil, for the first time since 1932.

But the cultural differences there are bigger than the economic overlap for now. Most in Labour would eat grass before they could imitate Jeremy Corbyn. Irish Labour is now middle class people, trapped in a working class party.


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