Into the Valley of Death rode the 37.
It’s time it was said: Labour had a mediocre election. I’ll pause here for a moment to let the indignation rise. Best number of seats ever, etc. Yes, I know. But seriously: Fianna Fail was like Himmler at a Bar Mitzvah and Labour beat them by a mere 2%? Labour are 2% more popular than the party that destroyed the country? Seriously?
80% of Irish voters, looking at the Labour candidates on the ballot paper, decided to give their first preference elsewhere. Yes, many of them came back to Labour eventually in lower preferences, but at that stage it was probably as much an anti-Fianna Fail thing as it was pro-Labour. Which begs the question: Is this proof that Labour has finally broken through into second party status, or is this just, like 1992, a flash-in-the-pan skin deep result? Will election 2016 be where a leaner, fitter Fianna Fail punches Labour to the ground and takes second place? Is there anyone who really believes that Labour will come out of election 2016 will more seats than they had going in? Yes, I know, five years away, ridiculous to speculate, etc. But in your gut?
Today (Sunday) Labour will vote to enter government, and I don’t envy them their choice: They have to vote Yes, because to not do so will be to betray the voters whom they never seriously hinted at that they would stay in opposition. Yet they know in their hearts that going in will give Fianna Fail the prominence and the space to recover, and give Sinn Fein and the United Left a clear target to assault from the left. Labour in opposition, leading it, would be the great transformational moment in Irish politics, Left Vs. Right, and probably dooming Fianna Fail.
But, to their credit, going into government is in the national interest. Yes, there will be those who sneer about careerists and ambition, but there is nothing wrong with ambition. People go into politics to get things done (unless of course you’re Joe Higgins or Richard Boyd Barrett) and Labour are going to take one for the team, and for that we should be grateful. To those about to lose their political lives, we salute you.
Suddenly, a ghostly Dick appeared...
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I understand why Labour want to go into government. Yes, there’s a ego “Hey, look at me, I’m a cabinet minister and you bastards said I’d never amount to anything!” thing, but that’s not unique to Labour. There’s also the simple decent idea that one can do some good in government. But that is very hard when you’re trying to run the country on Tesco coupons clipped from the newspaper. Doing good costs money, and we ain’t got any. I understand why Labour wants to go into government, I really do. To their credit, it’s probably even in the national interest.
But it is not in Labour’s long-term interest. Just look at the figures: Labour got exactly 2% more in first preference votes than Fianna Fail, yet double their seats? What does that tell you? It tells me that Labour were very transfer friendly, the way Fianna Fail and the Greens were before 2007. But not much more popular than Fianna Fail. Now picture Labour 5 years from now, having gone through 5 years of cut backs and even if the recovery is in full swing, Labour will not have been able to live up to the tone it set for itself, of pain-free cutbacks and no income tax rises. Both Labour and Fine Gael will go into Election 2016 against a reinvigorated Fianna Fail (who, if the other opposition parties don’t combine against, will lead the opposition). The result: Fine Gael will take a hit, but remain the largest party. They have so many young TDs bedding in now that they have that chance. But Labour will have put up with 5 years of the United Left and the Shinners hammering them from the left, and being well organised in their constituencies to do something about it. It’s Dick Spring and 1997 all over again, the false dawn of spectacular Labour gains being wiped out faster than you can say “Master Anakin, you’re in a funny mood”
The truth is, If Labour wants to secure itself as the major or at least second party of Irish politics, it needs to lead the opposition and destroy its enemies to its left, and it cannot do that as part of a tax and cut government. But more importantly, it needs to destroy Fianna Fail, which it could do by becoming the obvious alternative to Fine Gael, and siphoning away Fianna Fail’s working class voters as Fine Gael takes their centre-right voters. But by giving Fianna Fail a lifeline, in effect shoring up the battered, tottering pillar of Civil war politics, Labour has sealed its own fate.
A few quid on Fianna Fail to be the second largest party in the state after the next election, methinks?