Ireland’s Labour party: popular by default

Anyone who thinks the seeming rise of Irish Labour represents a rebirth of social democracy is sorely mistaken.

Jason Walsh

Topics World

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As Britain’s Labour Party tries to put itself back together in Humpty Dumpty fashion, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not the only social democratic party on the rocks. Even one of the few left parties on the rise, Irish Labour, is more of a zombie than a mass movement of people.

Ireland’s Labour party is heading for a historic breakthrough in the polls, even being tipped to lead the next Irish government for the first time in its history. Unsurprisingly then, many are asking why should this happen some 98 years after the party was founded and just as other European social democratic parties are falling to pieces?

A Millward Brown poll for the television station TV3 saw Labour surge by 16 points to 35 per cent, which, if replicated in an election, would represent an historic high for the party. Senior Labour figures immediately crowed the figures, with leader Eamon Gilmore saying the party could win more than 50 of the 166 seats in the next election.

Admittedly, just two days later, a second poll nixed Labour’s prospects, putting the party back into its traditional role as the third wheel of Irish elections, with its support at 23 per cent. Despite this difference of opinion, though, it is clear that Labour is more popular than ever.

Until now, Labour has never been a particularly significant force in Irish politics. Despite being founded by the titanic figure of Marxist revolutionary James Connolly, throughout much of the twentieth century the party was little more than a collection of liberals and political gadflies made homeless by Ireland’s turbulent history. It has generally confined itself to propping up centre-right governments led by the conservatives of Fine Gael.

Ireland didn’t experience a traditional left-right battle of ideas during the twentieth century. Deformed by Partition and the Civil War, the country’s two main parties both grew out of wings of the IRA. Fianna Fáil represented a kind of populist conservatism while Fine Gael stood for a snootier, law’n’order conservatism. Various left-radical parties popped up, from both within and without the ranks of the IRA, but their fortunes ebbed and flowed with the times and none ever achieved anything like mass support.

All of which is ancient history, but it does go some way towards explaining the fact that Labour has spent most of its existence in the political wilderness. The party’s changed fortunes today are influenced by two events. Firstly, the astonishing and unprecedented unpopularity of the governing Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition, credited (correctly) with plunging Ireland into its worst recession in decades: unemployment has hit 13.7 per cent and the spectre of emigration is haunting the nation. In the first four months of this year alone, 27,700 people, more than any time since the dark days of 1989, have fled Ireland seeking a better life somewhere – anywhere – else. There has been a staggering 81 per cent increase in emigration since 2006 and government figures make it clear that this is not merely East European migrants returning home – an estimated 5,000 Irish people leave every month. After two decades of explosive growth, virtual full employment and net inward migration, Ireland’s dire straits have come as a total shock to many, particularly those who came of age during the boom years and don’t remember the dirt poverty of the 1980s.

Secondly, Labour ain’t what it used to be. Rather than being a rogues’ gallery of disconnected, if occasionally interesting, individuals with personal followings, Labour has become something much more recognisable as a traditional political party: focused and on-message.

However, anyone who thinks this represents a rebirth of the labour movement or social democracy is deluded. Irish Labour’s seeming rebirth has been at the hands of a group of refugees from the Workers’ Party, the Stalinist rump of the 1970 IRA split, who, having eventually abandoned their support for state socialism, merged with Labour in 1999. This group, like others influenced by the so-called ‘eurocommunist’ tendency – such as the clique surrounding the magazine Marxism Today in Britain – quickly abandoned all pretence of socialism and support for working-class voters, favouring a kind of meddlesome social engineering that would later become the hallmark of Britain’s Labour Party under leaders Kinnock, Blair and Brown.

Unlike in Britain, where this movement of prole-loathing and disillusioned ex-Marxist intellectuals had its moment in the sun under Tony Blair’s New Labour government, Irish Labour struggled to attract significant support. During the boom years, people voted for the populist Fianna Fáil, which was promising – and temporarily delivering – rapid growth and a massive increase in living standards. For the first time since it gained independence, Ireland was rich and while the spoils were hardly distributed evenly, so much money was flowing through the country that the trickle-down effect actually had an impact on people’s lives. Unsurprisingly, few then wanted to hear Labour’s message of austerity-mongering and social control.

So what has changed today? Not much, other than the fact that Fianna Fáil is now as politically bankrupt as Ireland is economically bankrupt.

Austerity has always been a minority interest in Ireland. As a result, parties that preach austere policies – such as the Greens – remain minuscule, only entering parliament at all by dint of Ireland’s system of proportional representation. Now that Fianna Fáil has been converted to the cause of austerity, cutting public services, raising taxation and undoing the growth of the past two decades, Ireland’s ‘natural party of government’ has reached an all-time low in the polls.

Fine Gael, the perennial opposition party, meanwhile, has been exposed as having nothing new to offer, its policies being little more than those of Fianna Fáil with minor technical differences. In addition, its dry and uninspiring leader, Enda Kenny, is a possible contender for a ‘most unloved man in Ireland’ contest. In such a situation, where the two main parties are seen as the same side of the same coin, it’s hardly surprising that people are coming around to considering the ‘third party’: Labour.

But the fact that Labour is rising is not significant in and of itself. The public mood is for an end to austerity and the bankruptcy of the cosy Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael establishment is plain for all to see. So it’s not just Labour that is benefiting. Sinn Féin’s left-populist message has seen it inch back from the brink of collapse in the Republic to an estimated 10 per cent of the vote; the Socialist Party is likely to return at least one member to the Dáil (Ireland’s parliament); and even the Socialist Workers’ Party-led People Before Profit Alliance has been enjoying growing public support. The idea that this represents some kind of ‘red tide’ is fanciful, however.

In the absence of a functional labour movement, there is precisely zero hope of a resurgence of labourist politics. Just as Ireland’s population is being, in pure Marxist terms, ‘immiserated’, there has been no corresponding rise in industrial militancy. A few protest marches and abortive strikes (often led directly by workers rather than the union bureaucracies) in 2007 have now melted into air, leaving behind little more than a prevailing sense of bitterness, anger, frustration and despair.

Ireland’s trade unions have been in hock to the government for three decades through corporatist ‘social partnership’ that saw regular pay rises for their ever-shrinking ranks and, as a result, have neither the ability nor the members to demand radical policy shifts. Instead, earlier this year they signed the ‘Croke Park agreement’, an official austerity plan for workers. Moreover, the unions are concentrated in the public sector, leading to the (not entirely unfair) charge that they are simply a lobby group for excessive state spending.

On economic issues, the real driving force of the nation today, Labour offers nothing different to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael other than a slightly altered form of austerity politics. Labour’s rise in popularity is occurring despite its policies, rather than as a result of them. Despite loudly supporting a ‘Jobs Not Cuts’ march through Dublin city, Labour in fact agrees with the proposed Fianna Fáil budget cuts of a further €3 billion due next month, only demurring to say there should be no additional cuts.

In the absence of a workable alternative, Labour may seem like a genuinely new political force. But in reality it is even more rootless than the main parties. Rather than making a positive case for rebuilding Ireland, the party has been reduced to recycling Fine Gael’s raison d’être: ‘Vote for us: we’re not Fianna Fáil.’

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. His website is

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