The Labour Party & Coalition- A Poisoned Chalice

Derry People Before Profit member and student activist, Michael Arthur, looks at the left's experience of coalition governments and why it has failed to advance the cause of left in Ireland.

Socialist Worker

The Labour Party & Coalition- A Poisoned Chalice

Derry People Before Profit member and student activist, Michael Arthur, looks at the left’s experience of coalition governments and why it has failed to advance the cause of left in Ireland:

The current political situation in Irish politics has changed dramatically and there is now the first real chance of a genuine left-wing breakthrough since the 1980’s. This breakthrough has come about through the collapse of the political hegemony of Fianna Fail, the weakness of the Fine Gael government and the long awaited downfall of the Labour Party of Ireland. It is important for the left to build on this opportunity and make mass-movement politics a real alternative to the civil war system. These are all symptoms of broader changes to Irish society and the crisis of Irish capitalism since the great recession of 2007/8.

However, this opportunity is not set in stone. For the entirety of Irish political history, coalition politics has been the dominant factor in the strengthening of the civil war system and has been a means of successfully undermining of the Irish left. The main advocate of coalition, the Irish Labour Party, is in decline others claiming to be anti-establishment or on the left, including Sinn Fein, have made it abundantly clear they are open to a coalition government with the right. Indeed, Sinn Fein point to their participation with the DUP in the North as a positive example of its willingness to share power. However, coalition with right-wing parties has consistently undermined the left.

The attraction of coalition stems from a politics that sees parliament rather than people power as the sole path to change. We need to learn from the past failures of left movements and make sure that the present rise of the radical left leads to the transformation of the system in the interests of working class people rather than the capitulation and failure of the left project.

The current state of Irish politics has been a bit of a mess. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the lifelong enemies in Irish politics have been unable to come close to a majority in the Dail, and have been forced into a relationship of confidence and supply; Fianna Fail propping up the Fine Gael government, while all the time claiming it is the true opposition, creating an Alice in Wonderland situation that allows them to claim the positives and attribute the negatives to Fine Gael.

Fine Gael’s natural ally, the Labour Party, have been wiped off the political map, to the point where they are struggling to keep above the growing Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) in the polls. This fall from grace has forced Fine Gael to pair up with the Independent Alliance, led by Shane Ross. This supposedly ‘non-ideological’ group have grown in popularity, due to their opposition to civil war politics and claim that they will not follow the government line, saying that their TD’s will have a free vote on each subject. “We will hold the government to account,” is a common phrase of partners in government and the Independent Alliance are no different.

However, since coming into government their talk of independence has disappeared. Bit by bit, the Independent Alliance have lost their free will and accepted Fine Gael’s line, the catalyst of which has been the repeal the 8th bill and more recently the issue of John Halligan and his refusal to support the anti-water charges bill.

These actions are usually not surprising. The Labour Party has spent most of its existence selling out its beliefs, to the point where the name of its former leader Pat Rabbitte has become synonymous with selling out. But for Katherine Zappone, a self-described feminist and pro-choice advocate to oppose the repeal the 8th bill shows how integrated the mind-set of the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael has become. The same goes for Halligan, a former member of the Workers’ Party and an advocate of abolishing water charges. Both of these ministers are great examples of how coalitions change parties and individuals.

The first coalition was the government of 1948. Before this election, popularity for Fianna Fail was stagnating and many of their supporters were moving to other parties, such as Fine Gael and the Labour Party. However, one party stands out in the level of support it had and the prospects of it overtaking one of the main parties.

In 1946 Clann na Poblachta was founded by Sean MacBride, the former chief of staff of the IRA. Clann was founded out of a rise in poverty, unemployment and poor health conditions under the administration of Fianna Fail. Its support came from disillusioned voters, particularly young urban voters disillusioned with civil war politics, with its support bolstered by a resentment felt by many republicans towards Fianna Fail caused by the execution of republicans during the early 40’s. Clann’s ideology was based on the rise of Social Democratic parties during the mid-40’s, particularly the British Labour Party under Clement Atlee and the creation of the welfare state. It was seen as a breath of fresh air after two decades of unending civil war politics, winning two by-elections in 1947. Noticing their growing popularity, Fianna Fail called a snap general election to catch them off guard, changing the layout of constituencies to a point where it has been described as “blatant gerrymandering”.

This election achieved its aim, with Clann only gaining 10 seats. It is unknown how successful they would have been had the election not been called. However, the party did make some gains, gaining more votes than the Labour Party, the traditional party of the left. However, with its success halted and its options limited, it caved in and joined what was to become the first coalition government, led by Fine Gael. They had earlier refused to join as the then leader of Fine Gael, Richard Mulcahy, was leader of the Free State army during the civil and accountable for the executions of many IRA prisoners, some of which would have served with MacBride. Eventually they did join after Mulcahy was replaced by John A. Costello.

To say that they achieved nothing in the coalition is a bit of an insult. MacBride as foreign secretary had achieved what Fianna Fail couldn’t in leaving the Commonwealth and declaring Ireland a sovereign republic. However, for many Clann supporters the image of them working with right wing Catholic fundamentalists in Fine Gael and the Labour Party – the surrender on key promises – was seen as a betrayal of what the party originally stood for, the breaking of civil war politics. When the 1951 general election came, Clann were not met with cheers and applause, losing 8 of their 10 seats and gaining only 4% of the vote, as opposed to the 13% they had gained 3 years earlier. After this, they faded into political obscurity, and eventually disbanded in 1965. A promising party, lured into running the system they set out to oppose. The left would not see a force like this for almost 40 years.

In 1960, Brendan Corish became leader of the Labour Party. He had inherited a party dominated by fundamentalism, anti-communism and support for coalition politics. His takeover of the party was seen by many on the left as a move in the right direction, introducing more left leaning policies and rhetoric. His declaration that “the 70’s will be Socialist” struck a chord with many who wanted change. In the 1973 general election, the Labour Party gained an additional 2 seats, though their party had lost votes. Even though votes were lost, the party could have still gained support if it stuck to its claims of a socialist 70’s and widened the gap between them and Fine Gael. Instead, Corish and the Labour Party opted for another coalition with Fine Gael, silencing their demands for socialism and change. Their ‘socialism’ wasn’t based on the mobilisation of people power and so they were lured into the trap.

Twenty years later it was the turn of Democratic Left to demoralise their supporters, a group born out of a split in the Workers’ Party in 1992. By 1994 it was in bed with Fine Gael and the Labour Party to form an administration under the leadership of the ultra-conservative John Bruton. Their mantra was of wanting to reform capitalism yet accept the free market. After failing to gain the seats necessary to win Dail privileges they unsurprisingly joined a coalition with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, merging with Labour 5 years later. In order to maintain the coalition they abandoned their promises to supporters.

During the 2000’s the Labour Party was struggling to make gains after it’s losses during the fall of the Fine Gael/Democratic Left coalition in 1997. Through the 10-year leadership of Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabitte (a former member of the Workers’ Party) they gained 3 seats. Its failure to gain any seats in the 2007 election was most likely a result of its pre-election pledge to work with Fine Gael after the election. With the takeover of Eamon Gilmore (another former member of the Workers’ Party) in 2007, the party looked hopeless.

However, their fortunes changed for the better after the 2008-9 crash. The incompetence of the Fianna Fail government in handling the economic crash was a wakeup call to many who had happily gone along with the rise of conservatism in the 2000’s, now seeing that Fianna Fail were no longer the economic guardians they had been built up to be. In the ensuing chaos, Labour were now being seen as a breath of fresh air compared to Fianna Fail. Their support soared in the polls to the highest it had ever been, at times out polling Fine Gael and becoming the highest party. There was a real feeling that Labour might become the largest party, a prospect seen as unthinkable 4 years previous. However, by the time to 2011 election came around, they did not gain what they hoped to. Fine Gael became the largest party with 76 seats, 8 seats behind the majority. Even though Labour was not the largest party, they did become the second largest party, still a massive achievement for a party relegated to 3rd place for most of its existence. This really did look like a new era for the Labour Party. However, now Labour was stuck with a difficult question; what next?

It was a question they never thought they would have to answer. They were now the second most powerful party in Ireland, so what should they do with this power. They had to choose one of two options, those being;

  1. Go into coalition with Fine Gael and re-live all the past failures


  1. Assert themselves as the largest opposition party, taking a stand against civil war politics and giving a voice to those left behind by the crash

The Labour Party, rather than stand out of the crowd, opted to work with the right wing once again, and over the next 5 years would implement austerity rivalling that brought in by previous governments. It supported water charges, alienating its voters and its members, yet seemed quite happy to implement these dictates. Meanwhile, they dropped further and further down the polls, being over taken by Fianna Fail, then Sinn Fein and finally struggled to keep ahead of the AAA-PBP. When the election eventually came about, no one was surprised at the result for Labour. All in all, they lost 30 seats (losing 4 before the election even started) over the 5 years, losing 26 in the general election and a fall from 19.5% to 6.6%, their worse result in decades. It has since then failed to pick up its fortunes, relegated to the confines of politics.

The left’s over-reliance on change through government- running the very system they promise to oppose- has led to a collapse in support, believing that by accepting reformism they are strengthening their own hegemony, when in actuality they are alienating supporters and diluting the call for change from below. This is what led SYRIZA to implement horrendous austerity measures and Podemos to adopt electoralism over building mass movements. The lesson is clear, capitalism cannot be managed or maintained by the left, so socialists must fight for an alternative.

The capitalist class can allow the left to form a government but they will then use their economic power to put a noose around the neck of the left government. The ruling class also control key facets of state power no matter who is in government- the police, army, courts and consitution remain under their control. They can use the constutional ‘right to property’ for example to declare left wing policies unlawful. The left has to choose- give in to this bullying or mobilise people power to push back.

The left must strive to be the main force against conservatism, offering a real alternative and a real fight. People want real change and real opposition, not compromise and comfortable deals. Coalitions with the right or volunteering to run capitalism do not help this struggle- in fact history shows quite the opposite to be the case.

For the left to take power, it must be on the basis of mass mobilisation and a willingness to push through the limits and intimidation coming along with the normal rules of the electoral politics that have forced the left to submit to the rule of capital and betray the struggle. This is why People Before Profit’s and the radical left’s continued growth across the North and South is crucial. 

Michael Arthur

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