From Socialist Voice, March 2011

The crisis of Labour

If you told Labour Party supporters that there was a crisis confronting their party you would be drowned out by howls of triumphalist laughter as they celebrate their greatest electoral victory in decades. However, there is a crisis: a crisis of identity. Just as the meltdown of Fianna Fáil leaves open the question of whether it has run its course, the Labour Party too must decide its future.
     It is hard to get Labour supporters, and many trade unionists, to debate this, as the preoccupation now is with the deals of coalition and how much social protection can be spared from Fine Gael neo-liberalism.
     Having ridden to power on the back of Fianna Fáil’s unpopularity, the new Government is promising more of the same. Buried away as a throwaway line at page 16 of the 64-page coalition agreement is the statement: “We believe it is appropriate, in order to enhance international credibility, to stick to the aggregate adjustment as set out in the National Recovery Plan for the combined period 2011–2012.”
     So there it is: Labour’s complicity with the austerity measures. Sure, there will be tinkering around the edges—the minimum wage will be maintained, for example—but this has as much to do with the heroic Davenport Hotel strikers as with the conception of social justice.
     The crisis in social democracy pre-dates the present economic crisis. How does the Labour Party view itself? Is it a radical, reformist or socialist party? an agency for change in Irish society? It uses fine neutral slogans, like fairness, family, equality, etc., but never “redistribution of wealth.”
     Vincent Browne has commented: “During the period from 1994 to 1997 when Ruairí Quinn was minister for finance, Seán Healy, then of Cori, calculated that in every one of the budgets for which Quinn was responsible, it was the rich who benefited most. And, in a telling indictment of Labour’s five-year tenure in office in the 1990s (first with Fianna Fáil from 1992 to 1994 then with Fine Gael and Democratic Left from 1994 to 1997), the Institute of Public Health calculated that 5,400 people died prematurely every year because of the scale of inequality here.”
     It is too easy to classify the retreat even from basic social-democratic principles as being personal careerism and glory-hunting (although Gilmore, Rabbitte, Quinn, Burton and others did not resist the temptation of Marxism when it was fashionable). No, the malaise of Labour is deeper: it is the decline of European social democracy of the twentieth century. And it is important to examine the social and cultural changes in Europe that forced the retreat from the spirit of ’45.
     After the victory over fascism the European labour movement sought deep structural changes and political reforms. The welfare state, the nationalising of strategic resources, universal health services, progressive town planning and social housing were all acknowledged social gains on an agenda driven initially by left unity.
     The Cold War destroyed the latter, and the social gains were soon the battleground of defence. In the hard choices of class interests, the self-interest of the social-democratic part of the labour movement won out.
     This is the legacy of the modern social-democratic parties and the sections of the trade union movement allied to them—its positive and negative features, its hopes and failures.
     But in our day there was to be a further dramatic retreat. The recovery of the economies after the war saw the dominance of American capital, and the further monopolising of trade and finance, with global significance. Neo-liberalism (“free trade” and unregulated markets) and the onslaught against trade union and social gains are now crudely identified as Thatcherism.
     In the developed west, profound industrial changes were taking place, steered and shaped by technology in the hands of the employers and by governmental policies. Factories were being moved to cheap-labour countries, shipyards were being replaced by cheaper competitors, and new economic zones threatened the former homes of the Industrial Revolution. Great shifts were affecting national and local economies; and political mechanisms such as the European Union were making this seem an inevitable and unbeatable scenario.
     In the 1970s our small indigenous factories soon went to the wall, while in Britain the process was slower and deeper. Alarm bells soon began to ring in the British labour movement as the traditional Labour strongholds of reliable voters were being depopulated. Trade union membership was receding, and traditional areas of militant labourism, such as the Clyde and mining communities, were in terminal decline. Services and white-collar industries were growing, and income policies were being pushed by social-democratic thinkers as a part of “social partnership.” It was their response to the hard line of anti-working-class Thatcherism.
     This paved the way for Blair and the New Labour “third way”: the end of ideology, a mishmash of consumerism and individualism, media manipulation, US-style elections, unprincipled politics, and corrupt MPs—not forgetting imperialist wars. Social democracy was shedding its historic past and was unwilling to face the challenges of social, industrial and cultural shifts to the centre.
     But it is not alone in all this, as it fitted into a west European philosophical framework without any commitment to socialist ideas, as promoted by, among others, PASOK in Greece, the SPD in Germany, and the PS in France.
     Does the Irish Labour Party fit into this dismal picture? Even more easily, as it rarely had a permanent left stream inside it, was without an influential trade union presence, and was devoid of a coherent intellectual strategy or socialist thought. There were certainly exceptions, and still are a few; but the move to the Blairite model was pushed by a section who did understand where labour should position itself.
     This was the strategy of those who came out of SFWP, into Democratic Left and then into the present leadership. They would have read the Marxism Today debates of the 1970s, understood its implications, and were intelligent and sharp enough to undertake the revisions necessary. They would have been aware of the characterisation of the old Labour Party by the Fianna Fáil leader Seán Lemass fifty years ago: “I gather . . . that someone accused the Labour Party of going Red . . . May I straight away dissociate myself from any such suggestion? The Labour Party are, and always have been, the most conservative element in our community. Far from the Labour Party going Red, they are not going anywhere . . . The Labour Party are a nice, respectable, docile, harmless body of men—as harmless a body as ever graced any parliament.”
     Without being over-dramatic, it is safe to say that for this generation social democracy, in the form of the Labour Party, is now a liberal, centre, establishment party. It has a small left content, as witnessed by the votes against coalition, those grouped around the Dublin Trades Council, and others. Because of some radicalism in its past, the affiliation of some trade unions, and the contradictions between its stated aims and its practice, class ideas will rumble inside it.
     The broad left must recognise and encourage these rumblings into practical co-operation while exposing the opportunism of coalition. How this is to be done is another debate.

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