Why Labour should own its mistakes

The party’s recovery depends on confronting its past, not ignoring it

Seán Rainford
7 min readJan 2, 2022

--

Eamon Gilmore at 2010 Labour conference in Galway (credit: Irish Labour Party, Flickr)

It’s sometimes easy to forget how far the Labour Party has fallen in the last ten years. 2011 was Labour’s best election in its history. So high were hopes that one party election slogan read ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’. It seemed at the time that Labour — the historical standard bearer of the Irish left — would no longer have to wait. That election changed the landscape of Irish politics forever and saw 37 Labour TDs elected for the first time. Election 2020, Labour’s worst, also changed the political landscape and saw only six Labour TDs elected, an historic low.

In the time since, the party has gone through a revamp of sorts — a new leader, a new logo, and a brilliant team of new TDs and Senators, including the recently elected Ivana Bacik. However, polling has only marginally improved since 2020, if at all. While it’s obvious that rebuilding support in a pandemic is difficult, the reason for the low ebb is much more straightforward: Labour’s time in government still casts a long shadow. As a party of the left, it can’t be surprising that participating in an austerity government will leave your support decimated. For those who want radical change, there’s now a wide choice available of new diverse left-wing parties and Labour’s history of participating in conservative governments is a deterrent to support.

It’s not argued in what follows that all Labour’s problems stem from our going into government with Fine Gael ten years ago — many social democratic parties have made similar mistakes and recovered (including Labour in the past). The argument is instead that in the years post-coalition, the party’s leadership made no effort to reconcile itself with the mistakes it made or to convey a sense of contrition. In short, trust in Labour has been hugely damaged. What was, and still is, needed is a recognition of the mistakes made and unequivocal remorse for the hurt they caused.

Labour’s mistakes

It’s important to acknowledge from the start that Labour had many genuine achievements in the 2011–16 government. These include the Low Pay Commission, raising the minimum wage, expanding collective bargaining rights and Marriage Equality. Critics of Labour should recognise the role the party played in these successes. But Labour should recognise that, to many people, these successes can never make up for the hurt that government caused.

Many party members sincerely believe that Labour did the right thing by going into government and thereby reduced the harm FG austerity would cause to the most vulnerable. However, there’s a slight problem with this logic. Other social democratic and left-wing parties in Europe don’t regularly go into coalition with conservative ones in order to ‘reduce harm’ like this. If this logic was fully applied, Labour should always be in government with the right. Then again, circumstances were particularly stark in 2011.

Even if we accept that going into government was necessary to protect the most vulnerable, staying in government was not. There was no justification for Labour to remain in coalition with FG after the financial emergency was over and the bailout was finished. As Eamon Gilmore reflected in his book, at this point the whole raison d’être for participation was gone and the right thing to do was pull out and force an election, where Labour could campaign on its own terms for a socially just recovery. This didn’t happen.

Arguably the most damaging policy mistakes were in this post-bailout period. Two obvious examples were the cut to the lone parent payment and the introduction of water charges — clearly problematic policies from a Labour values point of view. In helping to implement them, Labour alienated itself from the constituency they were founded to represent: the Irish working class. On top of all this, the party then campaigned to re-enter coalition with FG in 2016, making Labour the only left-of-centre party in Europe to ask its voters to give preferences to a party of the right.

Whether justified or not, going into government in 2011 inevitably undermined trust and the integrity of Labour’s policy platform — why vote for a party and its platform if it just implements its opponent’s platform instead? Work should have been done from the start to mitigate the effects this would have on Labour’s support base. By staying in government, they facilitated regressive policies. Trust in Labour was decimated and was made worse by remarks by party grandees that going back on promises to the public was “what you do during an election”.

The post-coalition narrative

As a result, a major rift opened between Labour, the broad left and wider trade union movement that has yet to be repaired. Those against government austerity said that Labour sold out and that new organisations were needed to replace it. Labour responded by defining itself and its core identity against the rest of the left. Where Labour called itself the party of ‘jobs’, the rest of the left were labelled as anti-jobs. Where Labour called itself the party of ‘doers’, the rest of the left were just ‘talkers’ — which begs the question of whether it’s good to be a ‘doer’ if what you’re doing is actually doing harm.

Along with this problem of identification, an attitude of self-righteousness regarding the coalition has crept into party leadership. The picture they painted was of a selfless party that saw its potential electoral success and chose to reject it in order to ‘do the right thing’. They knew they’d be wiped out next time but ‘put the country first’ and went into government. From this vantage point, the problem is that the Irish people don’t understand or haven’t worked out what an incredible sacrifice Labour made. Put melodramatically, Labour is a heroic party that willingly mounted the cross of electoral defeat in order to ‘save the country’ by implementing austerity.

Apart from the sheer hubris of this view, it implies that the public were wrong to reject Labour — a toxic idea for any party to have about itself. It also doesn’t do justice to the legitimate grievances of former Labour voters. Yes, Labour’s presence in government may have limited FG austerity, but the 400,000 voters who chose Labour in 2011 have gone elsewhere because of the party’s facilitation of austerity. There’s no way that Labour can win back the trust of old supporters and potential new ones by telling them that they were wrong to reject them. Any party that does this is on its way to extinction.

It’s also unacceptable for a party which sees itself as of the left to hold on to narratives that implicitly legitimise the doctrine of austerity. Austerity implies an ideological commitment to right-wing economic thinking — that the chief concern of governments must be limiting public spending and deficits. The left-wing position of Keynesianism argues that governments should spend during a downturn and save during periods of growth, because they are the only ones who can. Labour members (see Ruairí Quinn at Oxford Union) arguing that what was done was necessary or laid the seeds for economic recovery are economically illiterate. Austerity does not work. As Prof Aidan Regan of UCD has argued, foreign direct investment led to Irish recovery, not austerity cuts. And the latter has no relationship to the former.

Winning back trust

It may be reasonably argued that rehashing old mistakes and conflicts would only hurt the party, that it would further signal our weakness as a party to our political opponents — if we can’t defend ourselves who can, it might be asked. But the problem with this is that Labour’s opponents always bring up our spell in government, and it works — Labour’s support is at its lowest level ever. It would be better to have a response to criticisms that are robust and that don’t end up defending the indefensible.

Only by facing up to the mistakes that Labour made in and after government will it be able to win back the trust of the people of Ireland. It’s not unheard of for parties to do this — in fact, it’s an absolute necessity after losing an election. Examine, reflect, explain and, if necessary, apologise. Once Labour begins to do this, voters will look again at the party and take its genuinely progressive policies seriously. As the party leader likes to remind us, the Irish people have never been more on board with traditional Labour values than they are today.

The second reason for doing this is that it would disarm other, newer left parties that depend on the narrative of Labour untrustworthiness for their survival. It’s undoubtedly the case that some left parties would not exist today had Labour been able to display a more open and less monolithic attitude to criticism. If Labour publicly presented itself as a party that was open about its past mistakes and dedicated to rectifying them, other parties would be forced to ally with Labour or risk appearing petulant and unreasonable.

It’s often said that the Labour Party is a broad church. It’s important to be able to present this broadness to the public as well. It’s not self-evident, nor should it be, that every current Labour representative was on board with the party’s direction in the last ten years. The renewal of party sections like Labour Trade Unionists and new ideological groupings like Mayday is also a good step in this direction.

Labour has done a good job of working with other opposition parties in holding the government to account. It should continue to do this and work to build bridges in preparation for a possible left-led government in the next few years. For this to happen, gratuitous jibes at others on the left should be minimised. Defining Labour’s core identity in contrast to the rest of the left should stop, and this shouldn’t prevent the party from being able to show where it differs from others.

It’s not enough for Labour to rely on its historical links to Connolly and Larkin in order to guarantee itself a place in the future, as if invoking a kind of apostolic succession. Labour isn’t a church, it’s a party meant to change Ireland. It needs to truly embody the spirit of what the Labour Party was meant to be when it was founded in 1912: the voice of the Irish working class and the Socialist Movement. But this can only happen if there’s a reckoning with the experience of Labour’s last decade. Once we draw a line under the last government, Labour can begin to recover its historic role.

--

--

Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.