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Column: Labour faces the same fate as the Greens after reneging on promises

Labour will be the casualty of this government because it secured votes by promising things the party could never deliver, writes Adrian Grant.

Adrian Grant

IN THE WINTER of 1992, the ‘Spring Tide’ washed 33 Labour Party TDs onto the steps of Leinster House. The party leader, Dick Spring, riding a wave of popularity, gained the support of the party delegates to go into coalition with Albert Reynold’s Fianna Fáil.

By 1994, Spring had pulled Labour out of government with Fianna Fáil and formed the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ with Fine Gael and Democratic Left. At the 1997 general election, the ‘Spring Tide’ haul of 33 was reduced to a paltry 15 TDs. Commentators debated whether the electorate had punished Labour for going into government with Fianna Fáil or for crossing the floor and embracing the opposition.

No new phenomenon

Whatever the reason, it is just one example of a junior coalition partner being destroyed at the subsequent election. The fact that Labour had delivered on a significant amount of its 1992 campaign aims meant little to an electorate that sought a change of government. The Progressive Democrats took the hit in 2007 and the Green wipe-out of 2011 reflected a public anger that almost destroyed Fianna Fáil. However, this is not a phenomenon of the last few decades.

At the annual Labour Party meetings of the early 1930s, some members expressed concern about how Fianna Fáil was getting credit for its successes in government, while the Labour Party (which supported Éamon de Valera’s party without taking ministerial positions) took the blame for propping up the government when unpopular decisions were made.

Is it inevitable that the junior coalition partner will take the brunt of the public anger at an unpopular government? In most cases, the answer is yes. Simple mathematics will dictate that the junior partner will have fewer seats at the cabinet table, and find that less of its policies will be included in the programme for government. When the electorate (and the media) carries out an assessment after four or five years, the junior partner may appear to have reneged on many more promises than the senior partner.

Current crop

What does this mean for the current crop of 37 Labour TDs that stormed through the gates of Leinster House with the ‘Gilmore Gale’ of 2011? If the 1990s are a suitable barometer to follow, then the signs are not good. Spring’s Labour Party may have presented an opportunistic image and a lack of commitment in 1994, but the party did enjoy some success in government.

When Eamon Gilmore’s current crop of TDs go on the canvass at the next election it is unlikely that they will have much to offer by way of campaign promises delivered upon. For example, how will incumbent Labour TDs explain the party’s billboard advertisement that warned voters against supporting Fine Gael because it would result in water taxes, vat increases, hikes in car tax and tax on savings, as well as cuts to child benefit and an extra euro on a bottle of wine?

The party leadership’s current excuses don’t hold water at the minute and will only serve to infuriate voters at election time. The brazenness of senior party members like Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte will hurt the party in the long run and may contribute to even more defections from the ranks before the next election. All three have made public statements, essentially admitting that they purposely lied to the electorate in order to gain votes. Quinn’s public promise to students that he would not introduce college fees was, in his words, an attempt to stop them from voting for the ‘wrong’ party.

Labour Party

In a documentary about the history of the Labour Party during its centenary last year Quinn stated that he thought, ‘God, these people have voted for the wrong thing three times in the last fifteen years and the country has been destroyed. I just can’t afford to take any chances. I wanted to nail this down’. Rabbitte and Gilmore have made similar admissions.

The bluntness of these kinds of statements hints at a careerism in the party leaders that some in Labour may find difficult to swallow before the next election comes around. Were the leaders ready to take their ministerial positions at any cost? Would the Labour Party have been better off as a strong opposition in the current Dáil, forcing the natural allies in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to form a coalition in 2011? Perhaps this was the last chance for many in Labour to sit at the cabinet table, or maybe the old ‘sticks’ in the party thought sharing the opposition benches with a growing Sinn Féin would identify them too closely with their old ‘Provo’ enemies.

The fact that this government is following a similar course to that which saw Fianna Fáil and the Greens so heavily punished in 2011, will almost certainly mean a similar fate for the coalition partners in a few years’ time. That Labour will take the brunt of the hit is almost a given. Fine Gael may worry about losing seats due to the austere budgets the government has introduced, but the party has a support base that should see it through the storm.

Labour, on the other hand, owes its recent electoral success to ridiculous campaign promises that voters took at face value. There will be no need to worry about any curse of the junior coalition partner at the next election. The current junior partner’s fate was sealed the day it decided to mislead the voters of this country in such a disgraceful way.

Dr Adrian Grant is a labour historian, author of Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-36, and editor of the free online history magazine Scoláire Staire (History Scholar). For more articles by Adrian for TheJournal.ie please click here.

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