The annual conference of the Irish Labour Party, (13-15 April) was the party’s first conference as a party of government in fifteen years, and the conference of a party founded exactly one hundred years ago by, among others, the two great heroes of Irish socialism; James Connolly and James Larkin.
Some of us on the left, or even simply the cynical, wing of the party noted what an ignominious marker this really was, highlighting both how mundane the party’s accomplishments have been and how far it has drifted from the principles of its founders.
Last February Labour achieved its best result ever and became Ireland’s second largest party. This followed the collapse of the dominant conservative-nationalist and populist Fianna Fáil. Labour’s leadership subsequently agreed a grand coalition with the conservative Fine Gael. That was approved by about 90% of the party membership in a show of hands after a heavily manipulated debate.
In light of Labour’s success and genuinely excellent election of the party candidate Michael D Higgins to the largely symbolic position of President of Ireland last October, much of the media reported on the conference with headlines of “triumphant Labour “, outlining how “all is rosy” in the party.
For a hint of the real and very different context beyond the self-adulation of the main speeches at conference there was need only to look outside the front door of the venue. Protesters on a sundry range of issues broke through barricades and surrounded the conference. As delegates found themselves trapped inside the hall for a number of hours, outside police were using pepper spray against protesters for the first time at an Irish political event (unquestioned by most of the party).
Labour has overseen a policy of fiscal austerity and ultra-conservative economics that led devastatingly regressive first budget in December 2011. This budget was just as regressive as those of this government’s predecessor, or even more so.
It included a raft of cuts — reductions in support in areas varying from education allowances to benefits for part-time workers. Tax increases in the budget were also very regressive while still including some tax reliefs for multinational executives. Yet aside from acknowledging this as a failure, the party leadership has boasted about maintaining Ireland’s comparatively low income tax, even for higher earners.
In the meantime the government has shown little interest in political or constitutional reform. It has engaged in lacklustre negotiation with the ECB-EFSF-IMF “Troika” from which Ireland began to receive funds following the sovereign debt crisis of November 2010.
Labour’s defence is that the “Troika” is forcing them to do everything they do, that Fine Gael is the larger party and will get its way on most issues and that there is no viable alternative to compliance with the dictates of Frankfurt and fiscal austerity that hits the poor hardest and.
But there is a good degree more possible leeway with the “Troika”, and the way to get more is not to be a “good boy”that does what they are told without objection. A good place to start for Labour would be to actually disagree with Fine Gael’s general approach. Countless economists and commentators have outlined alternatives to current government policies.
The party’s position has become increasingly difficult to defend, at least to progressive elements in society. A poll on the Friday after the conference was the latest in a series to show Labour Party placed fifth nationally, behind Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and “independents/others”.
The intriguing aspects of the weekend for me, as a participant, were matters internal to the conference itself in which much of the media showed little interest: the cynical manipulation of the democratic processes of the conference to favour the government and, on a more encouraging note, brewing discontent among the party grassroots.
The primary tactic employed by the leadership was to recommend that any motion slightly critical of government policy be “referred back” to the party’s central council — a mechanism for putting it to sleep rather than killing it, and for this leadership of an ostensibly left-wing party to avoid the embarrassment of having to oppose.
In a structure designed to stifle excessive debate, a series of motions within a certain category were proposed before respondents would speak in series. A government minister with responsibility for the area in question then gave his or her personal recommendation on each motion followed by voting, again in series.
The structure made coherent debate much more difficult and most references back were passed with an overwhelming majority, even where they contradicted traditional Labour principles.
On the Friday evening, a suggestion from the standing orders committee to move motions relating to internal party matters to the end of Sunday afternoon was quietly slipped through. On Sunday afternoon it was announced that there was no more time for the remainder of motions, including one to reconsider the party’s place in government at a special delegate conference next year. They were all “referred back”.
Discontent was seen on two issues. The first was over the election of the anti-establishment figure of Colm Keaveney as party chair. Keaveney has been one of the more critical voices in the parliamentary party and his candidacy was generally opposed by the party establishment. Keaveney’s election got the support of the unions, and others who dissent from the party’s current approach. The unions are a much smaller proportion of the conference vote in the Irish Labour Party than in the UK Labour Party. But their block vote makes them a powerful voice when united with other groups. It is hoped that in his position Keaveney will be less amenable to manipulation of conference than outgoing chair Brian O’Shea.
More significant was the discontent shown over voting on motions and resistance to the clear attempts by the party leadership to override internal democracy. This culminated at one stage in a predominantly spontaneous revolt from the floor during economic motions.
Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Spending and Reform, proposed that a series of progressive motions be referred back. A recommendation to refer back a motion from Unite, rejecting austerity and calling for expansionary fiscal policy, resulted in an extremely close vote. Brian O’Shea refused to count the vote and declared the reference back passed. Uproar followed — a wave of booing, shouting and jeers from the floor as people interrupted the voting on subsequent motions to condemn the process of references back. Members made impromptu speeches from their seats while others made them from the lectern in defiance of the chair.
When the next reference back was proposed — on a motion opposing all privatisation of semi-state assets — tellers were finally called to count the vote and the reference back was defeated by six votes. The announcement was greeted with enormous cheers.
Yet more farce followed when the substantive motion needed to be voted on. Briefly consulting a visibly frustrated Howlin, O’Shea declared “motion falls” to a disbelieving conference, without even putting it to a vote. In the wake of more outrage, O’Shea decided to be generous enough to put to the motion to vote. In the face of overwhelming support for the motion, O’Shea again declared that the motion fell, before further roars of objection led him to retake the vote and admit that it had passed!
Membership resistance to the leadership position should not be exaggerated. But the elements of resistance were encouraging considering that no particularly strong or organised opposition to government policies had developed within the party in the lead-up to conference.
In spite of a well-attended Labour members’ forum in January organised around dissatisfaction with the the government, and worthy examples of opposition to government policy from TDs (MPs) such a Patrick Nulty and Tommy Broughan, such opposition remains disorganised. Few coherent groups have joined Unite and Labour Youth, the only two major organisations to oppose Labour going into government.
Unite is a smaller union in Ireland than in the UK. With larger affiliated unions such as IMPACT and SIPTU, potential for open opposition is mitigated by a government agreement not to impose further public sector pay cuts or lay-offs. They have not yet come out strongly against government policy.