By Frank Spring
Last Friday, the voters of Ireland pinned the blame for the country’s woes – high unemployment, service cuts, and, perhaps worst of all, an IMF and EU bailout – squarely on Fianna Fail, handing the then-ruling party a crushing defeat. Fianna Fail lost over 75% of its seats, ending with 18 seats in the Dail and 15.1% of total first-preference votes (its previous historical low was 39%).
Fine Gael appears to have emerged the big winner from this election – their 70 seats (an increase of 19, with 36% of first preferences) are almost enough to form a government on their own. Labour did well out of the election, too, finishing with 36 seats (up 16, 20% of first preferences, for its best finish ever). With 154 of the Dail’s 166 seats determined at the time of writing, the two parties meet today to negotiate a possible coalition government.
This is natural. Fine Gael/Labour coalitions have generally been the alternative to Fianna Fail leadership in the past. It would give Fine Gael an unbreakable majority, and represents the closest the Labour has come to government in a generation. It would also be a mistake for the Labour Party and the Irish left.
The comparison between the Irish Labour Party and the British Liberal Democrat Party in May 2010 is clear and instructive. Both are long-time also-rans faced with a rare opportunity to govern, and both enter negotiations with shared areas of agreement with the larger potential coalition partner – in the Irish case, reforming the health care system and investing in broadband and green technology, with NHS reform and decentralisation, among others, in the British. Both parties feature hugely popular leaders, Eamon Gilmore for Irish Labour and Nick Clegg (though it seems strange now to think of a time when he was popular) for the Liberal Democrats, around whom they built their national campaigns. Even the comparative popularity of the parties is similar, the larger party at 35/36% of the popular vote, with the smaller getting 20-23%.
More importantly, both coalitions feature a smaller, left-of-centre party with a financial policy based on tax increases for the wealthy and targeted government-cuts partnering with a larger party whose financial policy is based primarily on a promise of limited or no tax increases and drastic cuts in government service. The larger party ultimately drives the coalition’s agenda, and the smaller partner must choose between voting for government cuts it opposed during the election and alienating its base, or sundering the coalition right out of the gate and appearing dithering and naive.
This has already occurred in Britain, and the popularity of the Liberal Democrat Party has collapsed as a result; the political site UKPollingReport projects that, if a general election were held today, the Liberal Democrat party would lose over 2/3 of its seats in parliament. This fate is foreseeable for the Irish Labour Party if it chooses to enter into coalition with Fine Gael, as progressive voters abandon them for colluding with an austerity-government. It is possible to argue that this could be avoided because the Irish Labour Party is much larger and stronger than the Liberal Democrats, and could exercise much more control over the coalition’s agenda. This is in part true. Liberal Democrats make up just 9% of the House of Commons, and their party is 20% the size of the Conservative Party. The Irish Labour Party meanwhile, makes up 23% of the Dail, and is just over half the size of Fine Gael. The Irish Labour Party is larger, but it is not stronger.
The reason for this is that the Conservative Party in the UK is effectively unable to generate a majority without the Liberal Democrats. It is mathematically possible for the Conservatives to cobble together a government with a smattering of smaller parties, but in practice the small parties and independents offer indifferent support at best and implacable resistance at worst. The Conservative Party needs the Liberal Democrats, an advantage that the LDs appear to have almost completely squandered.
By contrast, Fine Gael is fourteen seats shy of a majority in the Dail Eireann, a difference that could technically be made up by appealing to small parties and independents but which, as with the Conservatives, is actually unbridgeable without a coalition. Fine Gael does have one significant advantage; the party’s conservative approach frequently overlaps with that of Fianna Fail’s – indeed, they voted together on the recent, deeply contentious budget. A portion of the shattered remnant of the former ruling party would likely vote with Fine Gael on most economic matters, making Fine Gael a surprisingly strong minority government.
Obviously, this is a scenario Fine Gael is keen to avoid, hence the talks with the Irish Labour Party. By entering into coalition with Labour, they would not only guarantee the success of their legislative agenda but would also co-opt the largest opposition party, leaving Fianna Fail’s 18 members to stand against the coalition’s 106, or the various far-left parties to work together to generate an opposition that would still be smaller than the Labour Party. Fine Gael can hardly be blamed for negotiating toward such an advantageous position, but in the end, the Labour Party isn’t absolutely necessary to the larger party’s agenda; in this respect, they are actually weaker than the Liberal Democrats.
It could also be argued that Irish Labour Party does not risk severe political consequences by entering into coalition with Fine Gael because, unlike in Britain, there is no obvious progressive alternative. Tracking the fall of the Liberal Democrat Party with the increased popularity of Labour, it is clear that some members of the former are simply moving to the latter, an understandable phenomenon given that they are both left of centre parties. In Ireland, by contrast, there has been no significant progressive party other than Labour.
That may have changed with a surprising surge by Sinn Fein. For years a fringe-party in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein won 10% of the popular vote and 13 seats on Friday in part based on their leftist economic policies and anti-establishment positioning. This result does not put them in the same class as Labour at this election, but it would have four years ago, when the Irish Labour Party won 9.9% of the popular vote and 20 seats. Were they not facing a smattering of other far-left candidates, Sinn Fein might have done even better. Party leader Gerry Adams, having resigned his seat in Westminster, has campaigned vigorously for unity on the Irish left, presumably hoping to co-opt some of his party’s fringe opposition and solidify its brand as the Republic’s principal anti-establishment political organiSation.
It is possible that this result was simply a flash in the pan for Sinn Fein, a spasm of protest against perceived incompetence and complacency in the Dail, and perhaps Labour can afford to ignore them as a serious competitor; there are, after all, many reasons why Sinn Fein might never become a mainstream party, its long affiliation with violent separatists not the least. That said, a party that wins 10% of the electorate is moving out of fringe status; as Labour itself has shown, the distance from 10% to 20% can be traversed in four years.
If Irish Labour is not motivated by the spectre of what happened to the Liberal Democrats (and it should be), there are other factors to consider. There are real questions about the health of a democracy in which there is no credible opposition, as would certainly be the case if Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein were the two largest opposing parties. The regional secretary of the union Unite has already highlighted this, calling on Labour to form a left-of-centre opposing coalition.
Labour has another inducement not to join a governing coalition: the prospect of a better result at the next election. As the British Labour Party has discovered, there are advantages to being in opposition during times of austerity, as voters, having elected the party that promises to cut services, turn on their new government for doing just that. The Irish Labour Party can use this time to secure its left flank against Sinn Fein and focus on building a strong and well-resourced party machine, which it has declined to do in favour of building a campaign around leader Eamon Gilmore. This decision was understandable – Gilmore is an appealing politician – but the lesson is clear; Labour, with a popular leader, sagged in opinion polls starting as early as last fall, while Fine Gael, with one of the most unpopular leaders in Ireland, rose. Organisation and resources win elections. Fine Gael had both.
The Irish Labour Party has a chance to close the gap. Not only can they consolidate the left as leading party of the opposition, they will benefit from a campaigning rule whereby a political party is granted a portion of public campaign financing and media exposure commensurate with its performance in the last election. What this means is that the Irish Labour Party, having gotten 9.9% of the vote in the 2007 election, had to fight Friday’s general election with 9.9% of the public finance fund and 9.9% of allotted media coverage on Irish television. Next time, that figure will double to 20%, not equal to Fine Gael’s 36% but at least competitive. This advantage, paired with a concerted fundraising and recruitment drive, could position Labour as a major party for the foreseeable future.
This is only possible if the Labour Party does not go into coalition government. If it does, it stands to risk everything it has gained, alienating its base through co-option into Fine Gael’s conservative agenda and leaving the Irish left in the hands of as-yet-fringe parties such as Sinn Fein. The Irish Labour Party got the biggest decision of the last political generation right when it opposed the hugely expensive Irish bank-bailout, and benefited from it. They went their own way then. It is time to do the same again.