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Irish Labour Party leader to stand down. What took him so long?
29th August 2002
The decision of the Labour Party leader, Ruairi Quinn, to stand down as leader of the Party at the end of October comes as no surprise. He has taken a bit longer than the leader of Fine Gael, Michael Noonan, to realise the seriousness of his and his party’s failure in the general election but theirs was in some ways a worse performance than Fine Gael’s. They failed utterly to capitalise on the disenchantment of a section of the electorate angry at the meagre results of the boom for them and their families, and Sinn Fein, independents and the Green Party all gained votes from those Labour would in the recent past have considered potential supporters.
The reason for this is personified in the figure of Quinn himself. Cutting a figure very much in the style of ‘champagne socialist’ without the socialism, he oozed smug superiority which betokened an attitude that the plebs should be pleased to have him to vote for and ready to rule over them. His fondness for fine wine, cigars and fine art were just some of the personal traits that presented him as a member of the liberal middle class with a conscience that forms an important component of Labour Party support. That such a figure failed to connect with those who feel excluded and let down by the Celtic Tiger should have come as no surprise.
Quinn is above all a career politician for whom the only political career worthwhile is one as minister of government. When he hinted in his resignation statement that he was not prepared to put in the hard work over the next five years as an opposition leader he merely reflected this fact. He thus revealed that the purpose of his political activity has nothing to do with advancement of a political cause that may or may not reap obvious rewards over an indeterminate future but was simply a means to office. His reluctance to stay on as leader reflects either deep pessimism about the future prospects for the Party or impatience that he might have to wait so long for the perks of office.
Quinn’s resignation statement was also revealing about the social role played by him and his Party. He remarked that ‘I have been honoured and proud to be the leader of the Labour Party, the oldest political party in Ireland and one which has given exceptional service and commitment to the people of Ireland and the Irish State.’ That the Party has given exceptional service to the State is beyond dispute. That for a socialist such service is incompatible with service to the people is an idea completely foreign to him. Socialism has no future while it is identified with such notions and with figures like Quinn.
His political career has done nothing to advance any genuine notion of socialism. As minister of finance in the Rainbow Coalition of the 1990s he presided over budgets that fitted the consistent pattern of those coming both before and after in giving much more to the rich than the workers and thus contributing to the recent increase in inequality. In this role he also contributed to drawing up the European Union’s Growth and Stability Pact that built anti-working class policy into the fundamentals of the new Euro currency. This pact is intended to outlaw even mildly expansionary State intervention or the idea that economic policy in even the most limited sense is a proper subject for democratic debate and decision by the EU’s citizens.
Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times journalist, claims that the Party has just had bad timing by becoming involved with the establishment parties in government just when they were exposed as so corrupt. In fact if Labour, even with the Finance Ministry, could not make even the smallest inroads in inequality in the midst of an unparalleled economic boom what promises can it credibly make now in more straightened circumstances?
Joe Higgins from the Socialist Party stated that ‘Mr Quinn was among those who led the Labour Party away from any commitment to radical, socialist ideas.’ (IT28/0802) In fact the Labour Party has never been genuinely socialist, raising the disturbing question of where the SP wants to take the working class if it thinks the future is some version of where the Labour Party has been in the past. Quinn’s personal history again perfectly mirrors that of his political home, even as a student active in politics he was known as a ‘moderate.’ Almost since birth the Party has also been the epitomy of moderation. Ever consistent he promises that his last act of leadership will be to wage a ‘vigorous campaign’ for the Nice Treaty.
A New Leader
As always speculation has begun immediately on who will be the new leader. That despite the disastrous showing in the elections Quinn himself decided to call it a day rather than being forced out is testimony to the enervated state of the Party. The clear favourite, deputy leader Brendan Howlin, could hardly be more identified with the passing regime. No section of the Party or any of its leaders has indicated any substantial difference with Quinn’s leadership or his policies. Reports in the press about possible differences reflect only the origin of possible leadership candidates such as Pat Rabbitte and Eamonn Gilmore in Democratic Left which merged with Labour after splitting from the Workers Party.
Personalities and personal rivalries will therefore play the greatest role in the election and future direction of the Party. For some the future of Labour depends on principles derived from the marketing and advertising industry rather than from political principle and strategy. One Party source is quoted as saying that ‘the new leader will have to identify the market of the Labour Party and will have to target that market in a focused way.’ (Irish Times 28/08/02)
The method of real socialists is otherwise, although much of the left actually engages in its own marketing strategy by talking about ‘vacuums on the left’ or targeting certain parties supporters. It starts from the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be accomplished by the working class itself. It builds a party not to take office within the existing state or even to come to power in a completely new one. It seeks to win the leadership of the working class by identifying the tasks that the class must face in order to defend its own interests and embark on the creation of a new society established by revolutionising the existing one.
At present the sudden world wide recession impacting on Ireland is unleashing a sustained attack on working class living standards must shockingly expressed in cuts in public services. At present there appears to be a process of denial as some seem incapable of fully appreciating the extent of the attacks coming so soon after a boom where the issue appeared to be how much extra we can get. Immediately there is the Nice Treaty but soon afterwards the question of resistance to a new social partnership deal is going to be put. If the left simply repeats previous campaigns it will be irrelevant.
If these are the issues and tasks that confront socialists we can see quite easily that Labour is irrelevant in framing an alternative. There is no potential candidate that could possibly represent even the most inadequate of left alternatives to this political offensive. On every important issue the whole Labour Party supports the establishment consensus. No part of its organisation reflects even a distorted voice of dissent. For the working class the Labour Party leadership contest is therefore irrelevant to the task of forming resistance.
It is reported that only 3,500 members will be called on to vote, a number that compares very unfavourably with that of the British Labour Party which itself is a shadow of its former self. This alone demonstrates the lack of a real role the Party plays in the day to day life of the Irish working class. The exact character of this membership would doubtless reinforce such a conclusion.
The task for socialists is to build an alternative to Labour. An alternative because Labour still is held to represent some form of socialism. Alternative also because it continues to receive the affiliation of some trade unions and represents their claim to have a political voice. In fact this is bogus since the affiliation does not represent the active demands of workers in the unions but only the alibi of the trade union bureaucracy whose interests Labour mirrors in the political arena. Very often the trade union bureaucrats simply ignore the Party and go straight to Fianna Fail.
The Irish Labour Party is a dead end for socialists and so is any project based on a Labour Party mark two. A united left would be a good start in building an alternative. One which, when it is built, will look nothing like the Labour Party and have members nothing like Ruairi Quinn.