Return to Irish politics menu
Rabbitte’s resignation reveals Labour’s impasse

Joe Craig

28 August 2007

Pat Rabbitte explained his resignation as leader of the Labour Party as being the result of failure to increase significantly the number of seats held by the party and to remove Fianna Fail from office.  The failure is not therefore primarily a personal one but a political one, reflecting the limited perspectives of the Labour Party and the narrow and crowded ground on which it competes for support.


The impasse which the party faces was demonstrated by the putative alternative strategy open to it that was raised at the press conference announcing Rabbitte’s resignation.  Why didn’t the party leave itself open to coalition with Fianna Fail instead of committing itself solely to one with Fine Gael?

When one considers that the alliance with Fine Gael failed not because of the weakness of that party, but because of Labour’s inability to expand, it is painfully clear that the problem fundamentally lies at home.  When one also remembers that it was previous leader Dick Spring’s hopping into bed with Fianna Fail that so discredited the party, from which it has not really recovered, then one also realises that there is no easy way forward.

The option of fighting elections independently, without any proposed partner for government afterwards, was tried in 2002 and failed to achieve anything more than the 2007 election.  In any case the credibility of such an approach is open to question since Labour has not, and does not, have any strategy to be a party of opposition over the medium to long term.  Why would it?  It has no fundamental objection to how the Irish State works.  It is, and has been, a party seeking office and it has a support and membership that expects it to deliver on such a outlook.

As we have noted before, the perspective of coalition arises from the political programme that an organisation fights for.  One based on overthrowing the system will find no purpose to coalition in managing the State while one based on reform will.  We have seen that the Greens, with a reform project aimed at saving the planet, have sold the projects credibility on entering coalition even while espousing an enormously radical objective.  Labour wants merely to modify the existing Irish State and if this can be done incrementally then old and wise heads in it will no doubt argue that just such a ‘mature’ approach should be adopted.


Rabbitte was an accomplished politician and will not be succeeded by anyone of greater skills or ability.  His weaknesses however are also those of any likely successor.

The ‘Irish Times’ described him ‘as one of a rare breed today: he lived a political life of conviction’; but this is only an example of not speaking ill of the (politically) dead.  He fell on his sword having failed in a prospective coalition with Fine Gael while he resigned from the Labour party in 1976 because of Labour’s coalition with that very party.

He was a junior member of a government that gave an amnesty to rich tax dodgers who held bogus non-resident accounts while it implemented budget after budget that widened the gap between the rich and everyone else.  In the 2007 election he advocated yet more tax cuts and warned darkly and wildly about 40 million Poles coming into the country.  Yet he claimed that he had entered politics to reduce inequality. 

His stance against Fianna Fail corruption is not quite so pristinely pure either, having received a £2,000 donation in 1992 from Frank Dunlop, who has appeared repeatedly at the centre of bribery and corruption allegations.  Though Rabbitte eventually sent the money back he did not tell the Flood Tribunal about the episode.  In other words he’s about as principled as the rest of his party, the main principle being to get into office.


It is not however that the party is without hope.  Its vote, at 10.01% is higher than the low of 6.4% in 1987.  Rabbitte boasts proudly that it ‘dominates the social democratic space.’  Having to an extent, and so far, seen off both Sinn Fein and the Greens this may be so, but this space is a narrow one with no perspective for growth and is characterised by degeneration in both its politics and consciousness.  This is what makes ‘left’ projects that have as their intellectual foundation a supposed vacuum in this space so reactionary.

When Rabbitte opened the press conference to announce his resignation he started by joking that he was there to ‘launch a policy document on the tumults in the financial markets with particular focus on the derivatives market.’  It was a joke, but it was uncomfortably close to acknowledging the forces that constrain Labour.  This is because any likely policy from the Labour Party on such questions would be irrelevant, both to the global forces that shape Irish society and the way that society responds.  The room for social democratic reformism gets smaller and smaller as the forces of mobile international capital get stronger and stronger.  The much heralded wealth of present day Ireland simply confirms that the creation of such wealth is not primarily for the benefit of the working majority but for the rich.  More crumbs from the table is not an attractive alternative to the parties of local capitalism, who are much more able to deliver and just as ready to do so.

This has so restricted the policies on which Labour can stand that it simply seeks to claim the same kudos more credibly claimed by others.  The early favourite for Rabbitte’s replacement, Eamon Gilmore, wants to return to Labour’s ‘core values’ while he seeks to take the credit for the existing policy consensus.  ‘Was it not a Labour finance minister who brought us the euro and who lowered corporation tax to stimulate investment?’ he asks. ‘It was the labour movement that first thought of social partnership,’ he adds.  So just where then is the alternative?


Gilmore does give a semi-alternative footing on which Labour might grow.  He claims that more than anyone else Labour modernised the Irish State, although what he actually means is modernisation of aspects of Irish society: ‘Who modernised the laws on personal freedoms and legalised contraception and divorce?  Who started equal pay for women and introduced most of our equality legislation? Labour’, he says.

Is this then the way forward for Labour to cease to be the half in the 2 ½ party system?  This is doubtful.

The achievement of equal legal rights for women, in so far as they have been achieved, have been the result more of political action by women themselves than by the Labour Party, and achieved as a result of mass action that Labour has always eschewed.  The entrance of women into the workforce and greater participation in public society is more the result of the economic demands of the booming economy than any political action.  The weakening of traditional and reactionary forces of social control such as the Church has had nothing to do with the Party and it can claim no credit for it.

The future signals the same story as the past.  Labour has no intention of waging the remaining battles for women’s rights, on abortion for example.  Despite the revelations of scandalous abuse of power the Catholic Church is reported in the papers to be attempting to make a come-back.  This come-back attempt is founded on failure to really secularise Irish society and to separate Church and State.  This too is a task Labour has flunked again and again.  Cowardice in the face of such challenges has been Labour’s real ‘core value.’


The Party nevertheless can look forward to governmental office again, as a junior partner to one of the larger capitalist parties.  Its hopes for anything else are wasted.  When Gilmore speaks of the labour movement as the origin of social partnership he reveals two things.  That this movement would rather deal with Fianna Fail than the Labour Party and that by this movement he really means the trade union bureaucracy that so keenly pushed for Rabbitte to enter coalition with Fianna Fail after the recent election.

Besides this bureaucracy there are reputedly 8,000 members of whom only half are in good enough standing to be able to vote.  Not then by any means a mass party.  When observers note that it gets half its votes from the ‘middle class’ this should not be seen as an accurate description of its class support but of its real lack of working class character.

The impasse of Labour, whose only perspective is to wait for Fianna Fail to drown in corruption or for it to display such economic incompetence or failure as to allow any other alternative to get elected, is the impasse of a certain type of politics.  The future for socialists is not to give this politics another name and repeat this failed history.  What exists is not a vacuum to be filled with the same rotten air.  What exists is not a crisis of working class representation because the majority of workers don’t realise they need class representation.  What exists is a crisis of organisation, of mobilisation, of leadership, of consciousness and of politics.

Rabbitte’s resignation is not only a personal matter but a reflection of the failure of reformist politics. The task of genuine socialists is not to muscle in with their own version of this reformist bilge, but to present the need and the possibility for a revolutionary transformation of society.


Return to top of page