Aspects of the Irish Party System: Labour, the Left, and Coalition politics


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I wanted to welcome the just born Irish Labour Watch to the Irish political web scene by cross-posting this very incisive peice by Manolis Kalaitzake. Irish Labour Watch uses the byline: “Evaluating the Labour Party’s Social-Democratic credentials in government”, and as it’s mission statement declares, the site aims “to provide strong focus and public pressure on the Irish Labour party to live up to its professed Social-Democratic principles. In this context, the website will offer a left-wing critique of Labour’s actions in power as a coalition member of government with Fine Gael. The purpose of this analysis is not to unduly criticise the actions of the party, but rather to appraise their performance on their own terms; namely, as a party that is dedicated to the pursuit of fundamental leftist principles”. The site is also looking for contributors who are interested in helping to apply that focus and public pressure, which would include “all those on the left who may find common ground in holding the Labour Party accountable for keeping their promises regarding core social democratic values”. Finally they declare: “In a time of economic crisis, The Irish Labour Party cannot – and will not be allowed to – turn its back on left principles”. To contact ILW go to the Get Involved page.

Within academic literature, the Irish Party System is commonly referred to as a ‘two and a half’ party system; the ignominious ‘half’ denoting the Labour party, while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael operate as the two major players. This situation is seen as a historical product of the extremely weak electoral success of the left within Ireland, which consistently records the lowest levels of left-wing voting in comparison with other European states. The lack of a strong left has, in turn, been accounted for due to a variety of reasons. The primary reason offered within academia is that Irish politics has been dominated by the nationalist divide (pro/anti treaty), as opposed to ideological class differences (left/right politics) which characterise so many European countries. The ‘Lipset/Rokkan’ theory posits that when voting rights were first introduced into European countries, the dominant cleavages within society at that time would be ‘frozen’ into place and operate as a persistent paradigm within which party systems would develop. Thus, in countries such as France and Britain, we see a classic right/left – Labour/Conservative divide. Not so in Ireland, where the salience of the nationalist issue within Irish society during the state’s formative years was critical to the shaping of the political landscape. In addition to this, the conservative-catholic character of Irish society meant that the left has traditionally been marginalised, while two ideologically similar, catch-all parties –Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – have dominated the political landscape.

However, for a long time now, studies have shown that the Irish electorate considers socio-economic concerns (relating to unemployment, tax issues, economic growth, etc) as their primary concern, as opposed to the issue of Northern Ireland which ranks quite low on the list of voter priorities Thus, while accurate to a point, the above account does not seem to capture the modern day reality of the Irish Party System and indeed, modern Irish society, which, by most sociological accounts, seems to reflect relatively unsurprising class-based fault lines. Specifically however, the account does not consider the actions of the left itself – and in particular the actions of the Labour party, representative of the Social Democratic left – which have contributed to the continuing status quo within Irish politics. Put differently, the above account is a highly deterministic one, which places little emphasis on agency or concious human action. Like most deterministic accounts, it lends itself to a kind of fatalism, where humans feel there is little they can do to escape overarching structures and historical paths. In concrete terms, one often hears that Ireland is ‘inherently conservative’; ‘it has always been that way, there is little one can do to change it, so why bother’? However, human choices matter. The actions of political parties and their political alignments certainly matter, and these political choices bring us closer to understanding exactly why the weakness of the Irish left has been so persistent.

The proposition suggested here, is that it is precisely the actions of the Labour party which have contributed to the consistent weakness of the Irish left. This is because, instead of exposing the façade that is the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael divide in Irish politics, the Labour party has always legitimised this structure by deciding to form coalition governments with Fine Gael (and even briefly, Fianna Fáil). By doing so, the Labour party have always reinforced the status quo; namely, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should not do business with each other in order to form a national government. This consistent trend – Labour doing business with one of the right wing parties, usually Fine Gael – has been in play since the 1940’s, came up again in the 1970’s, and is by now a relatively permanent feature of the Irish Party System. The strategic logic behind entering coalition government for Labour is two-fold. First, it means the ousting of Fianna Fail from government. Secondly, it gives the labour party a rare chance to govern. Nevertheless, the long term costs are severe. First, the Labour party enters government from a position of weakness, i.e. it is the junior partner in coalition with a right-wing majority party. Secondly, they eschew the opportunity to build a strong left opposition in the Dáil, which refuses to have any dealings with the two major conservative parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and thus, attempt to create a permanent realignment within the Irish Party System. Of course, the ultimate prospect would be for Labour to force Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to enter government together, considering the ideological similarity of these two parties. This could conceivably lead to the Labour party being out of government for a considerable time. However, the potential to re-develop the Irish Party System upon right/left lines would be significant. Instead, Labour’s choice has always been to seize the opportunity for power immediately and reject the effort to nurture a broad-based left wing opposition against the two major parties. The underlying reasons for this choice are a matter of considerable debate and will be the subject of later postings. Nevertheless, the consequence of such a choice is a significant contribution to the persistence of an overarching, conservative-dominated, right wing character to the Irish political system.

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3 Responses

  1. vincent wood

    March 11, 2011 6:11 pm

    I suppose that it must be worth a try. Constructive oppostion to this government should entail a forensic questioning of Labour’s role in it.

    Holding Labour to its stated core values ‘may’ play some role in enhancing a social voice in government. It ‘may’ prompt members of the Labour party to look to what brought them into politics in the first place.

    I remain of the view (against plenty of evidence to the contrary) that Labour people are basically sound and want to see a better world. How joining with FG in any way achives this is a bit out of my grasp, but lets see what they come up with.

    There will be opposition to this conservative government inside and outside of Leinster House. If Irish Labour Watch is another weapon in the armoury, great.

  2. Simon McGuinness

    March 12, 2011 7:56 pm

    You might want to consider the way the classic left-right divide in Europe is appearing increasingly redundant. I don’t mean this in the shallow sense that “we’re all post-ideological now”. Rather, the rise of the far-right along with the development of a series of small parties on the left has made de facto grand coalitions between the main centre-left and centre-right parties increasingly common.

    Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, and Switzerland (I may be leaving others out) have all experienced versions of this arrangement in recent years. The same even goes for Italy where centre-right Christian Democrats coalesce with erstwhile Trotskyists in opposition to Berlusconi.

    Moreover, the European Union has long been governed in tandem by a pretty comfortable alliance of centre-right and centre-left.

    In sum, far from being an exception, Ireland’s new government reflects what increasingly appears to be the underlying shape of European politics. The transformation of Fianna Fail into a hard-right, Eurosceptic party (or its replacement by such an entity led by a Berlusconi-esque figure such as Michael O’Leary) would complete the circle, with Sinn Féin/ ULA occupying the same political space as the German Left Party or French Trots.