Far too many in the Labour Party are behaving like football supporters whose team has fallen on hard times. They want to revitalise, fund raise, put new structures in place, re-establish rapport with the traditional fan base, put the club firmly under the control of ordinary members etc. The purpose being to return their team to at least a mid-table position in the Big League.
For a smaller group of members this won’t do. They didn’t join the Party to play the game; they wanted to change the game. They still see this as the Party’s very purpose.
The game and left conservatism
The Irish structure of wealth, inequality of income and privilege is secured by a vibrant, healthy, system of support. Perhaps uniquely the Irish system has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism which paradoxically allows anyone who so desires to pose as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having governed for the greater part of the state’s history, can pose as anti-establishment.
The conservative mechanism operates firstly by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and secondly – more importantly, here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.
The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.
Political parties within this system tend not to offer a universal argument but vie to represent sectional interests, i.e. to be their voice against the establishment. Much of the left is more than implicated; it is comfortably part of the system. Class, if mentioned at all, is no longer concerned with values, revolution or even reform. The working class no longer has universal significance or a historic role. Having deserted a Marxist perspective in favour of accepting class as a polling category, leftists have reduced working class to a mere pressure group. The working-class as pressure group has interests which can be represented and left parties tussle to be their champion, to lead them in the competition to secure favours from variously the government, establishment or political class. Gino Kenny, a leftist T.D. (member of parliament) for Dublin Mid-West, went so far as to say that his role is that of a union shop steward representing his working class constituents in their dealings with the establishment.
The conservative path or the left path
Labour – especially in opposition – can join this and all the indications are that this is the intent; most members seem relieved and pleased to return to campaigning “on the ground”, representing “our natural” support base. Thus Labour can slot comfortably in among all of the other parties and seek to lead/represent groups seeking preferment.
In stark terms, Labour is thoughtlessly sauntering onto the inviting path to left conservatism, joining those who help maintain the structure of economic inequality by representing parts of it in pursuit of concessions.
There is a different path: become the one party of opposition in Ireland – opposition to the generally accepted structure of economic inequality and privilege. This will mean a break with Labour traditions because it will mean a stated intention to lower the height of the economic pyramid rather than defending the relative advantages of all but the distantly safe one percent.
On this path Labour would leave the club of parties who talk in terms of fairness. In contrast Labour would talk in terms of income, of reducing the shameful – no, ludicrous – gap between the minimum (or if preferred, the living or industrial) wage and the top 10%. All policy and reactions to current controversies would be formed with reference to the Party’s objective. Labour’s party spokespersons operating within their remit would know that the party had an overall objective and that their policy development and public comments were to serve it.
Moreover, any liberal or conservative party seeking Labour support in government or participation in coalition would know in advance that the price was measurable structural change.
Taking this path would mean unpopularity and withering attacks from the well off but it would also mean that all actions and statements had to be coherent and plausible – and this would change Irish politics for this reason: It’s essentially about leaving the passive approach to representation and addressing those citizens who demand to be truly republican, i.e. who are amenable to and wish to participate in argument.
Why then would anyone want to go in such a difficult direction? The answer is that there are people within the Party and in society generally who want not revolution but meaningful, measurable, visible change and who see no point in Labour at a crossroads deciding to march with everyone else.