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Labour debates coalition proposal

Andrew Johnson

26th May 2005

This weekend’s Labour Party conference will decide on Pat Rabbitte’s proposal for a pre-election pact with Fine Gael. While Rabbitte got his pact motion through the NEC by 19 votes to 8, there have been some recent signs of dissent. Whether or not Rabbitte gets his way at conference, the debate at least provides Labour members with an opportunity to reflect on what purpose the party serves these days. Labour members sceptical of Rabbitte’s approach could do worse than study the document “Labour in its own right”, produced by a group around ATGWU regional secretary Mick O’Reilly. The O’Reilly document has a number of weaknesses, which we shall get to momentarily, but it marks an important initiative aimed at developing an alternative strategy for Labour.

Why the pact makes no sense

The O’Reilly document will make uncomfortable reading for supporters of the Rabbitte policy. It proves that, even viewed in purely electoral terms, a pact with FG makes no sense. In the first place, the mooted FG-Labour-Green coalition would need an unprecedentedly large swing of 25 seats to get even a bare majority in the Dail. There is no evidence that such a swing is likely to take place. Polling shows FG support continuing to stagnate at historically low levels. Since FG has been squeezed almost into non-existence in Dublin and is falling back on a rural conservative base which is in any case declining as the Southern state continues to urbanise, this raises the question of why any party would seek to tie itself to the rotting corpse of Fine Gael.

Secondly, the O’Reilly document provides a constituency-by-constituency reading which conclusively shows that a pact will help FG far more than Labour. By studying constituencies where the alliance could theoretically take a seat, it finds 18 constituencies where only FG could benefit and a mere four where only Labour could benefit. Of those four, two – Kerry North and Tipperary South – would be extremely long shots. Meanwhile, of Labour’s current 21 Dail seats, a whopping seven were won with very slim margins over FG candidates. Even a small swing to FG could hit Labour very hard indeed.

Even before the pact has been concluded, it is already affecting Labour negatively. O’Reilly points to the presidential election – with FG failing to present a candidate, a Labour campaign around Michael D Higgins could only have been good for the party. It would have presented Labour as the real opposition while undermining FG’s claim to offer an alternative to Fianna Fail. It would also have put serious pressure on Sinn Fein – would they annoy their nationalist supporters by backing Labour, or annoy their leftwing supporters by backing FF? What of course happened was that Rabbitte postponed a decision until the last minute, declared there wasn’t enough time to run a campaign, and threw away an opportunity to boost his own party, all for the sake of maintaining relations with FG.

There is other evidence to support this position. The Meath and Kildare by-elections, both of which should have seen Labour in contention, in fact saw the party coming a humiliating fourth in both constituencies. FG retained John Bruton’s Meath seat, while Kildare North went to popular independent councillor Catherine Murphy, a former member of the Workers Party. The Greens’ recent decision not to enter any pre-election pact shows some clear-headedness. And there is the fact, as O’Reilly points out, that Labour has done best when seen to be independent and has lost support whenever it has allied with either rightwing party.

An alternative strategy?

The main reason why the O’Reilly document comes as a breath of fresh air is that in recent years few in the Labour Party have rejected coalition with the right. Even now, most of those opposing the Rabbitte plan do so on tactical grounds, not wishing to tie Labour too closely to FG in case Bertie makes a better offer.

O’Reilly puts forward an alternative, based on the fact that FG cannot govern without Labour. “We have it in our power to make or break Fine Gael. So why don’t we break them?” The first step would be Labour declaring that it exists as a party in its own right, not as a prop for the right wing. Labour’s strategic goal should not be to elect Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny taoiseach, but to seek to win hegemony for itself. It should therefore reject a right-led coalition. This would, O’Reilly concedes, involve the unprecedented situation of an Irish political party saying what it means and sticking to its promises.

As against a pact with FG, O’Reilly moots a “progressive block” under Labour leadership, involving the Greens, leftwing independents and Sinn Fein (once the IRA is taken out of the equation). Such a block would already hold more Dail seats than Fine Gael, and would be well placed for future growth. The aim would be for the progressive alliance to become the dominant force in the state.


The O’Reilly plan is seductive, and a quantum leap forward from Rabbitte’s pact proposal. If a sizable number of Labour members rally behind it, this would demonstrate that there is life in the old party yet.

There are two main problems with the plan. The first is that it maintains the traditional reformist division between the economic and the political. O’Reilly argues that the Labour Party should strengthen its organic links with the unions, but there is no perspective of Labour becoming involved in workers’ struggles. In a context where the heavily bureaucratised unions won’t lead a campaign against partnership – indeed they act as enforcers of the partnership regime – is it really likely that the Labour Party will put itself on a collision course with the bureaucrats?

The second immediate problem is a lack of political content. Rabbitte’s lack of independence from FG finds its corollary in his embrace of a Blairite programme. If O’Reilly has a strategy for Labour to take power, fine. But take power to do what? O’Reilly’s vision of an aggressive, activist party rallying working-class support behind itself and posing a real alternative to Fianna Fail would require a political alternative, not just an organisational one.

The main task facing the working class is asserting its independence. To do so it needs a political alternative and a clear strategy. The O’Reilly documents falls down in some fundamental respects. But it does at least pose the question of independence, and that is to be welcomed. What working-class militants now need is to openly debate the best ways of building a political alternative.



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