The New Year is a time for making resolutions and breaking bad habits. In my view there could never be a better time for grassroots Labour members to break their old habits of engaging in political activity in a shape and manner defined by the Labour leadership. The relationship between the Labour leadership and Labour members is in effect an oppressive relationship mired by lies, deceit and exploitation. The goals and desires of the leadership (attaining ministerial office and status) are met while the goals and desires of the members (achieving progressive change, reducing income inequality etc.) are not met.
The time has come for Labour members to recognise that this is an abusive political relationship. Like most relationships it started out well. The Labour leadership talked in progressive terms using left wing rhetoric. For example in one of his live televised addresses to Labour conference Eamon Gilmore trumpeted Keynesian policies of investment and stimulus as an alternative to cuts and austerity. Now we are told by the very same leader that there simply is no alternative to cuts and austerity.
Like most relationships gone wrong commitments and promises were made that were later reneged upon and broken.
For example in February 2011 on the RTE news Eamon Gilmore looked the Irish people in the eye and gave them a cast iron guarantee that Labour would not allow child benefit to be cut. This commitment was made a few weeks before polling day when the full extent of the fiscal constraints were long established. Furthermore the commitment was given in response to a question specifically about forming coalition with Fine Gael. It couldn’t have been clearer. Posters went up re-affirming this commitment and ads were placed in newspapers.
Other commitments were made somewhat more vaguely. When Fianna Fail and the Greens were cutting social welfare, the Labour leadership proclaimed that there would be no cuts to social welfare if Labour were in government. This was then changed somewhat quietly in the small print of the manifesto to no cuts to social welfare rates. A significant difference to no cuts at all, but one that many voters and indeed the media didn’t pick up on. Then after the election this was changed yet again to a position of no cuts to core social welfare rates. Less than two years into government and some 700 million euro is being cut from the social protection budget. Payments have been slashed, eligibility criteria narrowed, and supports aimed at the most vulnerable withdrawn. But this is meant to be acceptable because “core” rates have been maintained.
Unfortunately this is the pattern with abusive relationships. The abuse and lies creep in over time. This creeping effect means that people who spent their political lives opposing injustice now find themselves on the wrong side of the fence, attached to the party which robs from carers and the blind while protecting the wealthy and privileged.
And make no mistake this is precisely the role that the Labour Party is now playing in government. The government have introduced two regressive budgets in a row that actually increase income inequality. To put this in context this in an achievement beyond anything the Progressive Democrats or Charlie McCreevey ever attained. Income inequality in Ireland is generally stable, and most budgets are neutral on the gap between rich and poor. While many right wing governments can be criticised for failing to reduce this gap, it is a rare occurrence for a government to introduce measures that overall favour the wealthy so much that this gap grows larger. For an Irish government to widen the gap substantially over two successive budgets is almost unheard of.
Reducing income inequality is a core aim of social democratic parties across the world. The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Picket, 2009) demonstrates with scientific data that reducing income inequality is better for everyone by improving the health, happiness and well-being of society. Decreasing the gap between rich and poor is the raison d’etre of progressive parties. Failing to make progress on this core goal while in government is simply not acceptable. Supporting measures that actually increase income inequality is outrageous. This places the leaders of the Irish Labour Party firmly and unambiguously on the right of the political spectrum.
This is a difficult truth for Labour Party members to come to terms with. They have invested years in attending meetings, fundraising, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. Facing up to the fact that their leaders have lied blatantly to them and used them to further their own personal careers is a hard pill to swallow. Added to this is the lie repeated by the leadership in weekly emails to members that they are in fact upholding the values of fairness and solidarity.
Some Labour members have woken up to these facts. Others are in a state of shock or denial. Getting out of an abusive political relationship is easier said than done. There are ties, loyalties, history and personal human relationships that complicate this. There are also delusions. After years of hoping for an improvement in direction from the leadership, members will hope that things might turn around in the future. Perhaps not today, but things might improve next week, or maybe next month or possibly next year.
Members are caught in a routine of knocking on doors at elections, feeling betrayed and disappointed after commitments are broken, going to meetings and conferences to protest and complain, hoping against hope that they might be listened to. This is a negative pattern of behaviour that does nothing in terms of achieving the original goals and desires of grassroots members to work towards reducing inequality.
Breaking old habits and behaviours is not an easy task. However it can be done. There are two important steps for grassroots Labour members to take.
The first is to recognise that the current relationship they have with the Labour leadership is not a healthy relationship. It is a one way relationship based on supporting the personal goals and aspirations of the leaders, while the leaders ignore the wishes and aspirations of the wider labour movement.
The second step is to imagine an alternative future without the leadership. Things can be better if we organise ourselves collectively to pursue our goals on our terms and not within the constraints that the Labour leadership seek to impose. We are not destined to remain trapped in an oppressive relationship. There are alternatives to the business as usual model.
In practical terms what does this mean?
For a start Labour members should only support candidates in elections that reflect their progressive values in both words and actions. Members should only engage in meetings and events that are democratic. Members should refuse to attend party leader speeches at conference where lies are peddled. Instead of remaining trapped in a top down relationship members should start organising their own events, meetings and discussions. In short members need to start believing in their own capacity to build and shape progressive politics.
I am not arguing here for a withdrawal from political activity but instead a re-engagement with genuine left wing politics. Activity that is not progressive, or democratic or truthful should no longer be supported or entertained. The cycle of broken promises, betrayal and ineffectual internal dissent should be left behind. Instead we should construct our own progressive politics within the Labour movement on our own terms. A starting point would be to meet and discuss what a progressive involvement in government would look like. We need to begin to imagine a different future based on putting core left wing values and principles into action.
Breaking old habits and breaking free from an oppressive relationship is never easy. But it is entirely necessary if left politics is to thrive. Breaking free will prove to be an exciting, energising, exhilarating and liberating experience for progressives in the Labour Party. We will never look back.
Image courtesy of Irish Election Literature.
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