THIS WEEKEND, THE Labour Party holds its first National Conference since entering government last year. There will be anxious conversations throughout the weekend. Away from the cameras party members will talk about the past year and the future, and what this means for Labour and the country.
While it may be easy for the party to say that government must continue as is, that we will do whatever works, that we are dealing with the fall-out from over ten years of poor government by Fianna Fáil, that cannot be the case. Labour must only stay in government if we are shaping policy according to Labour values.
For the last two years, across Europe, I have seen governments fall and rise on different platforms, promising to hold the solution to the economic turmoil in the Eurozone. Each time the replacement government fails as they follow the same control policies, and those policies are not working because they are the policies of austerity.
The Labour Party should seek to depart from this path. I believe there is no excuse not to seek more progressive solutions. At the moment, we have to be cautious to protect delicate negotiations regarding our bailout conditions. But the time for caution will soon end. Ireland is a firewall for the Eurozone; we are the buffer to stop the banking system and economies of Europe crashing. In this, we have a great deal of power and it must be used in negotiations with our EU partners, and the Labour Party holds a great part of the responsibility for this delicate situation.
At a national level in coalition government I can see the difficulties for the Labour Party in challenging the status quo. But we must assert ourselves.
I fear also, as I tentatively look to the future, reading the tea leaves as it were, that unless something changes the current power structure within the party may eventually be destabilised, and this might not be in the national interest. Recently there have been many proxy battles and internal skirmishes which are not appropriate in these times. If a power struggle is to take place in the party it should not sputter on for years, it should end soon and decisively. Time is running out for the Irish people, the party has not the luxury to indulge in internal battles.
‘We hold the government together and can cause it to fall’
Ultimately what does all this mean for the party? I believe it means that the Labour Party must have significance. Voters need to know what we are about, and what we offer, what we stand for. Many parties in Europe have suffered losses in similar circumstances, and quite possibly losses will occur for the party in the next elections, and my seat could be one of these losses. That does not mean that I can abandon responsibility, but that I should seek to act on behalf of the people in the time remaining.
Following these elections, it would be my view that Labour will return as a centre left party. However, this will not happen if the party has lost all meaning for the voters. Rather, it may face steep decline. The question is how are we to continue to be relevant. The answer lies also with the members. It is not only the Parliamentary Party who will keep the party in existence, it will also be the members.
The members must hold the party leadership to account, and protect Social Democratic policies. These policies are about protective government, looking after the vulnerable and investing in jobs. The economic survival of the country, not only the survival of the Labour party, is at stake. We can’t go on with austerity and cuts indefinitely as I think the economy will eat itself alive.
In the European Parliament, my political group the Socialists and Democrats are pushing against the mantra of cuts and austerity. We believe that we should harness EU economic power as a whole, and boost the EU budget for public investment, make the euro a real competitor to the US Dollar in global markets. We support the introduction of Eurobonds, bonds that combine strength across the Eurozone and pool together into one joint bond. We believe in fair taxation in Europe and the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax and the end of tax havens. These are the policies that are the opposite of individualism and austerity for people and unquestioning protection for the global financial sector.
In conclusion, I believe that Labour must start to behave as though we are not merely the junior partner in a coalition. We hold the government together and can cause it to fall, and we may eventually have to do this if we cannot bring about real reform, rather than hold up a flawed notion that austerity alone will bring security.
Nessa Childers is a Member of the European Parliament for Ireland East.