The curse of the small party

 
 

With the local and European elections coming up, Stephen Heffernan asks if Labour will be dealt a fatal blow

Few things appeal to electorates in general more than the opportunity to punish junior coalition partners at election time. One only needs to look at the fate of the Free Democrats in Germany, who failed to cross the parliamentary vote threshold for the first time since 1949 in the latest general election. While, the Liberal Democrats in Britain have consistently been punished at local and regional elections since entering government with the Conservatives.

One of the most important trends in the next ten years of Irish politics will be how the Labour Party manages to recover from its spell in government and how it will present itself in the run-up to the forthcoming elections.

The broad statements made in the run-up to the last election such as ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’, not to mention ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ have come back to haunt them, even without mentioning the vast number of promises made which were later dismissed by Pat Rabbitte on The Week in Politics with more than a hint of cynicism.

Their previous attempts to portray themselves as the conscience of a potential coalition government is primary reasoning behind the anger that the electorate feels towards them. The story has become that Fine Gael were elected to make the hard cuts needed to get the country back on the track, Labour were elected to make the process as painless as possible.

Similarly, the Green Party attempted to play the same game and failed, bringing 22 years of Dáil representation to an abrupt and undignified end, foisting their policies on an electorate which had only elected them in Dublin, Carlow, and Kilkenny; while failing to ‘rein in’ Fianna Fáil as the economy collapsed.

This is not to say that worries over Labour’s future are a new phenomenon. On the contrary, the party’s century of existence in the Irish political sphere is one in which they have been ravaged by splits, amalgamations and high-profile defections, one of the most infamous being the defection of the erstwhile leader Michael O’Leary to Fine Gael in the early 1980s.

However, the defection of large numbers of county councillors in a last-ditch attempt to save their seats is a worrying trend reminiscent of the dying days of the Progressive Democrats, a party which for a brief period in the 1980s had more TDs than Labour itself.

While small parties find themselves in a position of power during elections and government formation, this often causes internal discord and alienation from the electorate. The political history of Ireland since the foundation of Free State is littered with short-lived political movements which have served in government, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and the PDs being three of the more prominent examples.

Others, such as the Democratic Left, merged into bigger parties. Many believe that they hijacked the Labour Party leadership in the process. Is it any wonder, therefore, that there exists tension between Gilmore (whose political career has brought him gradually closer to the centre with age, starting out in Sinn Féin, the Worker’s Party) and Joan Burton, who would be the most prominent representative of the ‘Old Labour’ camp?

This internal strife, in combination with Gilmore’s cabinet post of foreign affairs requiring him to spend a lot of time out of the country, means that his profile as party leader is vastly diminished. As the most important figure within the party, his media presence is vital to any success the party may have in the future.

Coupled with this tension between the two main factions is the worrying prospect of most of the party’s front bench coming close to the end of their political careers and therefore destined for retirement at the next election. Examples that come to mind are Pat Rabbitte, Ruairí Quinn and Emmett Stagg, whose seats for the party were always some of their safest.

Even if the party retains at least ten seats at the next election, many of the remaining representatives will lack the experience of their predecessors, while up-and-coming talent like Ciara Conway or John Lyons may fail to be re-elected by their constituents.

It must be considered, however, whether the party could do with an internal reshuffle before they next go to the people. It will be necessary to give a platform to their younger elected representatives to heighten their profiles within the media.

From a tactical perspective, Labour are lucky to occupy a well-defined niche in Irish politics. Sinn Féin are the only other coherent force in left-wing politics following the spectacular breakdown of the United Left Alliance, and while Sinn Féin will undoubtedly make some gains at Labour’s expense, their party organisation is far less developed than that of Labour’s in much of the country.

This niche is likely to mean that Labour will always have grassroots support which parties like the Progressive Democrats and the Greens never had. Their main issues were either not seen as important enough, or were not different enough from the mainstream parties. Though many supporters are disappointed with Labour, they are unlikely to defect to the likes of Fine Gael who are centre right and politically conservative.

While the curse of the junior coalition partner will certainly affect the electoral performance of Labour in the coming years, strategists within the party will be well-aware of this and one would expect that they are doing their utmost to minimise the inevitable damage.

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