Why I have joined the Labour Party
For as long as I can remember, I have seen myself as a Leftist. I have always been biased towards those who advocate a more democratic and equal economy and society. Much of this is due to the political events of 2010 and a speech I watched by then Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore. My initial juvenile belief that politics was defined by Fianna Fáil v Fine Gael was shattered when he took to the stage in Galway and declared that Ireland needed a new government, led by Labour.
That Labour government never came. Since that speech, Labour let down many in its traditional base, including me. Its decision to join Fine Gael in coalition in 2011 was controversial, and I believe it was a mistake. Although Labour undoubtedly stopped Fine Gael in implementing the worst of its agenda, it arguably facilitated some of the harshest austerity in Irish history. Had Labour gone into opposition instead, it likely would have won the next election as Ireland’s united party of the Left. Fianna Fáil would not have rebuilt and Sinn Féin would not have filled the space that Labour vacated. Even if Labour had pulled out of coalition after exiting the IMF/EU bailout in 2013, it could have regained credibility sooner (I was glad to see Alan Kelly argue this recently).
Instead, Labour needlessly continued in coalition, alienated working class communities during the water charges debacle, and even ran on going back into coalition with Fine Gael. And all of this was accompanied by what seemed to be a refusal to acknowledge the hurt that the party facilitated. Too many in the party leadership had an air of self-righteousness about the coalition’s actions that hindered any potential recovery.
As you can tell, I have felt strongly about the Labour Party for as long as I have been interested in politics. But what I have come to realise is that this strong feeling comes not from a place of hatred, but from a place of yearning. I want Labour to be better, to live up to the noble purpose that it was founded upon — and I suspect that a great number of the Irish people feel the same way. Their frustration with Labour comes not from a desire to see the party destroyed, but from wanting the party live up to its name. Rather than the rag-tag band of different Left parties we have today, they want one strong Labour Party capable of changing Irish society.
Labour is the party of Connolly and Larkin. It is also the party of Thomas Johnson, who wrote the Democratic Programme of An Chéad Dáil — a document that stands in the republican tradition alongside the 1867 and 1916 Proclamations. In later years, it was the party of Michael D Higgins, Frank Cluskey, and even the great Noël Browne for a time. The party has always had an internal tradition of uncompromisingly socialist policy and scepticism of coalition with the Right. Labour has always been a broad church.
While Labour has often strayed from its democratic socialist ideal, the party’s constitution is clear on its objective:
“ Our objective is to build a society based on political, social and economic democracy. We seek to challenge and redistribute all inequalities of power and wealth in society through the empowerment of ordinary people.”
A political, social, and economic democracy is, to me, a perfect definition of democratic socialism. Political democracy is insecure without social democratic safeguards to guarantee functional equality for citizens, such as universal basic services. But social democracy is insecure without economic democracy in the form of co-operative ownership, democratic control, and fair representation of workers. Socialism is the logical conclusion to a broader democratic principle that we all accept: that decisions that affect all should be decided by all — it is no more or no less radical than this. In the words of James Connolly:
“the Labour Movement of Ireland must set itself the Re-Conquest of Ireland as its final aim, … that re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its power of wealth-production and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.”
I believe that within Labour today there are moves to recapture this radical vision, including at the parliamentary level. Because I share this vision so strongly, if I joined another political party or stayed unaffiliated, the desire for Labour to align itself with these aspirations would still animate me — and, I believe, would ultimately undo any expressions of loyalty I would make to any other parties. My loyalty has always been to the Labour Party, but not always to its praxis or policy. I want Labour to be successful, visionary, and transformative.
Labour must accept the need to change in order to regain the trust of those it was founded to represent. It should first and foremost listen to voters who left the party in recent years. It must reach out to those who were dismayed by its decisions in government. Right now, there are more TDs who are former Labour members than current Labour TDs. The party must must aspire to be the natural home of all socialists, social democrats, and progressives in Ireland.
Labour is party of the Left and should align itself with the Left. The best way of demonstrating this would be to champion the organisation of a united Left platform — including a preferential option for a Left coalition rather than one with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. As well as this, Labour should unequivocally apologise for the austerity it facilitated. Because, as Aodhán Ó Ríordáin argued during his leadership campaign, if people feel that Labour has let them down, it has. The party can finally move on from the last coalition once it does this.
It’s a big step for me to join a party and it does feel intimidating! But I believe that the Party of Connolly and Larkin can and should be the transformative socialist force that Ireland so desperately needs. I did not join Labour because of its performance to date; I joined because I believe in the aspiration it has set itself — an aspiration that has yet to be achieved.