Labour’s Rendezvous with Lisbon


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Those of us who truly want the 21st century to be European do not have the luxury of hiding behind the referendum result and insisting that Europe stop. Nor should we allow ourselves to be led by right-wing parties as they set their own agenda to deal with the current fall-out. Most of all, we cannot allow the neo-liberal, neo-clerical axis of Libertas and Coir to define the nature of the No vote.

The Left’s challenge is to forge a new progressive consensus that can address the legitimate concerns of those who lined up on whichever side. And within the divisions of the progressive camp lies the seeds for its success.

Of that division there is no doubt. As a collective body the trade union movement was diminished. While ICTU urged a Yes vote, affiliate members representing the majority of trade unionists refused to follow – with UNITE and the TEEU actively campaigning for rejection.

On the party political front Sinn Fein reaped the greatest benefit with its main spokesperson, Mary Lou McDonald, MEP, enhancing her position in the run-up to the European elections next year. The Greens, however, were so divided they couldn’t even come up with an agreed position. Their Ministers argued yea, while leading members argued nay.

Labour had its own problems. While cohesive at the top, there is little doubt the membership was divided. Indeed, Labour members took up prominent positions in the ‘No’ campaign, while in private many Labour representatives were, at best, sceptical. Certainly, among the party’s electorate, there was an emphatic ‘No’ majority.

In that respect, while there has been much trawling through the entrails of the ‘Yes’ campaign – much of it quite valid – it is debatable to what extent they could have ‘turned the campaign around’. For there is a sense that, despite any information, any guarantee the Yes side proffered, the scale and rejection of the Treaty reached a profound level that defied reassurance and articulation. Instead, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out, the Yes camp reduced itself to the most negative of messages.

While others are more qualified to assess the range of options now open to both the Government and other EU countries, clearly a rerun of the referendum is both a distinct possibility and potentially a more democratic response – certainly more than seeing a number of EU nations take advantage of either a ‘Schengen-type’ agreement or Title VII enhanced cooperation provisions to create an ‘inner track’. This would constitute an attack on the most valued aspect of the EU – the concept of negotiated outcomes (never mind what it would do to the democratic deficit – for those countries on the outside track, anyway). However, a rerun of exactly the same Treaty would be an anti-democratic manoeuvre – the proverbial gun to the head of the electorate.

So how do progressives proceed? The Labour Party passed up the opportunity to create a new credibility with the electorate in its haste to take up the catastrophist language that dominated both sides of the campaign. This is not about whether it should have supported the Treaty or not. But even campaigning for Yes it could have distanced itself from the negative ‘we have to be grateful’ and ‘we’ll become pariahs’ tone taken by the right-wing parties.

For instance, Labour could have acknowledged that, while the Treaty would not have a qualitative effect on our ‘neutrality’ (such as it is), the issue of the militarisation of Europe is a wholly valid concern, a process unaffected by whether the referendum succeeded or not. Or, again, that while the Charter of Fundamental Rights is a great advance, the extent and limitations on the right to collective bargaining will still be determined by the European Court and that more safeguards are needed. Instead of adopting an ‘all concerns are allayed’ language, it could have risen above the desultory debate, and accepted that the more thoughtful contributions from the No camp raised legitimate points – points which Labour would take on board.

Would this have changed the result? No. But it could have begun to earn for Labour that most elusive political virtue – trust, a virtue that is in short supply as the electorate turned on the main parties which, in other circumstances, it supports. Instead, Labour played the ‘no prisoners taken, no quarter given’ game that dominated the debate, dismissing any objection no matter how sincerely made or reasonably argued. When the SIPTU Executive put a condition on its support, Mr. Gilmore attacked it, labelling it a ‘sectional interest’ – only to do a U-turn a few days later, supporting the essence of SIPTU’s position. Its campaign came under criticism for using the referendum to support local government candidates (some of whose posters contained a ‘Vote Yes’ that was so small, you’d swear the font was designed by nano-technologists).

Mr. Gilmore started to redeem some of this on RTE on the day of the count, putting forward a more pragmatic and considered line. However, on the RTE news that evening and in the weekend papers Labour featured little – an also-ran on the defeated Yes side, the fate of all half-parties that don’t carve out a unique contribution to a debate.

What is necessary is for the Left to take hold of the agenda and play a pro-active role in devising strategies to see us through this current situation. And here Labour is in a strong position. It can give concrete direction, rally as much of progressive opinion as it can, and lead on issues which may not be resolvable within the Lisbon framework but, nonetheless, impact on the issues raised in the debate.

Let’s take two issues. First, the right to collective bargaining. Here, Labour will have to examine a variety of strategies. While it is unlikely that a Social Progress Clause, the option favoured by the European Trade Union Confederation, can be grafted on to the current Treaty (does anyone imagine Berlusconi or Sarkozy or Brown or even Cowen buying into that?), there may be other options. Would an opt-out, freeing up Ireland’s right to maintain control over its own labour relations, work? Or would a Government commitment to give collective agreements, Labour Court decisions and public sector procurement policies the force of law – thus constituting a legal minimum – satisfy the European Court? These are worthy of exploration.

In parallel, the demand that the Government commit itself to implementing in national law the rights contained in the Charter could be put forward. This was essentially the SIPTU position.

The second issue of neutrality is equally complex. Ireland already has an opt-out. There may be a way of reinforcing this – by extending this opt-out to the provision of increasing its defence capacity (in any event, a useless provision in the Treaty as it has no criteria by which to define such an increase, unlike the Growth and Stability Pact’s measurement of government deficits).

In addition, Labour could lead two initiatives. On the national level, it could demand that the Government withdraw all participation in NATO arrangements. After all, if we are neutral, what are we doing in this US-led relic of the Cold War? Second, through the EU Parliament, the Socialist Group and, more importantly, throughout civil organisations in Europe, it could initiate a unilateral nuclear disarmament campaign. This could be crystallised through a model Treaty based on the current non-nuclear arms treaties in South America and Africa. This would begin to refigure the debate over European militarisation and reconnect with peace and neutrality groups here at home.

Proceeding from these issues, it could work with, in the first instance, the trade union movement. This is made easier by the fact that SIPTU and UNITE are affiliated unions. To hammer out a common position on workers’ rights with trade unions would give a real dynamism to Labour’s progressive response. It should seek out the peace and neutrality groups – many of whose activists are in the Labour Party – and attempt to agree a strategy to accommodate their concerns. But it shouldn’t stop there.

The real prize would be to rally other progressive parties to its strategies. While Sinn Fein has already put forward its own remedies, on the issues of workers’ rights and neutrality there would certainly be common ground. That same common ground – on the neutrality issue, anyway – may also exist with huge swathes of the Green membership.

This ‘rallying of progressive opinion’needn’t take mechanistic forms – such as pacts or joint declarations. But for Labour to work to align the trade union movement, progressive organisations and parties on the same side, based on strategies similar to Labour’s, would be a huge fillip to the party. It would be taking the lead, sidelining Fine Gael, and forcing the Government to deal with its concerns.

And the stick would be if the Government didn’t reach the benchmark set by the progressive consensus forged by Labour, then they will face an even more determined opposition for the simple reason that Labour would oppose any rerun of the referendum. Let the Government dance to a progressive tune, for a change.

This could set up a real divide between progressives and the neo-liberal, neo-clerical opposition – many of whom find the idea of the EU anathema, and aren’t concerned with constructive post-Lisbon strategies. A rerun of the Lisbon Treaty, this time with the issue of workers’ rights and neutrality addressed in a concrete fashion and supported by the broad range of progressive opinion in Ireland would sharpen the ideological divide. For Libertas and Coir would then be exposed for what they are: the promoters of a reactionary agenda.

Such an intervention would be forensic, as opposed to drawing up a lengthy shopping list, focusing on progressive concerns in a practical way. It would also require another way of doing business for the Party. Sitting down with others to work out a common approach means recognising their legitimacy in the process – whether it be trade unions, single-issue groups or other parties. Many in Labour are sceptical of this approach. But the benefit of the process – even if post-Lisbon events veer in another direction (e.g. a postponed reformulation when Croatia joins in a couple of years) – would be immense. For Labour would be at the heart of a larger progressive consensus. This is . . . well . . .the European way of doing business.

The worst mistake for Labour would be to demand that ‘something be done’ and wait for the Government to do something and then react to that agenda. It must forge its own way, in concert with like-minded social organisations and parties that share its European vision.

That is how a full-party, a party that sets agendas instead of reacting to others’, a party seeking power in its own right, would act.

That is how Labour should act.

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3 Responses

  1. steve white

    June 21, 2008 11:39 pm

    the ad they put in the paper the day before the campaign was quite good listing lots of positives… of course suggesting the lisbon would solve world poverty is one of the most dishonest things you can do, but it was far more positive and lisbon treaty based then the ff/fg.