The Meaninglessness of Labour’s Leadership

This weekend saw the final tally of a dazzlingly lacklustre and uneventful race for the leadership of the Labour party, which seems to have raced by without anyone much noticing, or even caring. Joan Burton was elected to the shrugging shoulders of a nation infinitely more concerned with gleefully glancing at the Twitter-thingy on their phones to see if any more has come of the Garth-Brooks-debacle, while yet another World Cup match goes to penalties. It is not, I would suggest, that we don’t care who leads the junior coalition partner, in general, it is just that in specifics this race was essentially meaningless. Given that this race was essentially born out of Labour’s catastrophic showing in the local elections last May, it would not have been madness to expect some sweeping specific promises of reform, a return to core principles, but at the same time, that might have meant admitting that they had done something wrong. Despite the “shellackling” delivered by voters, there seems very little desire by sitting Labour party figures to accept what it is they have done wrong, only that some things have to change. They admit they must stand up more the Fine Gael, that mistakes have been made, but concrete proposals on the direction and practicalities of that change have been nearly none existent.

Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of the election, steps were taken to appease the wrath of the people, and indeed the party members baying for blood. There can be little doubt the end of the review of discretionary medical cards, and the enactment of legislation to enshrine entitlement for certain long term, chronic, or incurable illnesses and conditions, was purchased by the vote of 23rd May. It would be hard to argue that politicians did not know that people were angry; the stories existed in the media and anecdotally for at least a year, but the palpable consequences of that anger manifested quite clearly in the polls. Utter terror in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise created the need action. The sick got what they needed, so quibbling over the implicit logic of the act is only of so much value, but we should be careful not to pat either Labour or Fine Gael too forcefully on the back for giving in to human decency.

Also in the wake of that electoral disaster, Eamon Gilmore resigned as leader of the Labour party and Tánaiste. It was hardly a surprise. The pressure had been mounting, and everyone knew going in that the scale of the disaster would ultimately dictate the conditions of Labour’s response. Gilmore was the obvious scapegoat, though he was, and remains, by no means the only problem of Labour tenure in government. Ruairi Quinn has already stepped out of the frame, resigning before he is pushed we can infer, and it seems likely, particularly in light of his absence from Burton’s victory parade, that Pat Rabbitte will not survive Burton’s rise. Kenny has his own issues to deal with in the forthcoming reshuffle, but an obvious sop or two to Joan Burton’s sparkly new and “reformed” Labour will be necessary for appearances sake. For all her bluster though, Burton’s position is effectively weaker than Gilmore’s ever was. We know now exactly what the results of General Election would mean for Labour, rather than just being able to imagine it. Burton’s Labour has to keep the coalition alive, at least until they have an opportunity to redeem themselves, because they are facing the stark prospect of devastation.

For the Labour party, this leadership race was a chance to show that they understood why they had received such a drumming in the local and European elections. It was a chance to signal that they were both capable of and willing to reform; to essentially be something like the party they promised to be, prior to their election in 2011. Unfortunately, it appears they have elected not to take the opportunity and to continue with the current status quo. I do not say this because I think Alex White would have made a significantly better leader, but rather because I cannot really see any effective difference between them. There are some circumstantial differences, certainly. Burton is the more well-known, more senior figure. Alex White did not enjoy a particularly high public profile, prior to the race; in fact his claim to notoriety might have been a “hacked” Twitter account. However, neither one of them is untarnished by the Gilmore-administration legacy, or their own complicity within it. As a minister with a role in the Department of Health, White has been linked, at least circumstantially to the medical card scandal. Burton on the other hand was the senior minister in charge of the Department of Social Protection, a role she claims she wishes to keep and is responsible for the JobBridge programme and its uglier cousin, the Gateway scheme.

The idea behind these schemes is essentially fine; no one is disputing that work experience is valuable to the unemployed, or that the training or insight garnered could not be of real benefit in the future job-hunt. Many college courses require work-placement as a condition of conferral. Outrage at the JobBridge and Gateway programmes stems from the reality that the government-sponsored schemes utterly fail to provide these things in the majority of cases and often amount to little more than extremely low-paid skilled jobs that can last for as long as 18 months. Essentially, the Irish Labour party has colluded in the creation of a section of the work force that is mandated to provide long-term labour for little fiscal return, under the threat of losing their entitlements. Both the ScamBridge website and have done an excellent job of exposing elements of its failures, which are apparently legion. Some of the more odious examples include work with the national broadcaster which is already subsidised to the hilt with taxpayers money, coffee barista, fitters with Advanced Pitstop, filleting fish, and for good measure a full page of wait staff internships. JobBridge could have served as an effective gateway to experience and employment, if handled properly. It seems, however, the Burton is deeply uninterested in using it in such a manner. Rather, it is a cynical means to massage spiralling unemployment figures and an attractive source of cheap labour for companies, struggling or otherwise. Burton is further complicit in the failures of the scheme when you consider she refuses to release names of companies availing of the government scheme, citing privacy concerns, despite the fact that it provides government-subsidised labour to them and that she has nominal control over the terms of the scheme. No one of my peer group is voting for a Labour party led by Joan Burton, any more than we are voting for a Labour which fails to recognise that the scheme in its current incarnation flies in the face of the party’s stated ideology.

It may be a truism, but it seems noteworthy all the same; only a party of principle is punished for breaching the confines of those principles. The Labour Party is meant to be concerned with the rights of workers, with promoting social equality and fundamental human rights. In their electoral drive they promised reform, a new way of conducting politics. So far, more than half way through the Coalition’s first term, we have seen no evidence that Labour is committed to those principles or promises. JobBridge creates indentured labourers for big business. The Direct Provision System continues to dehumanise trap people in dangerous and dehumanising circumstances. Our Public Health system is utterly failing patients at every turn, not only in the medical card scandal, as chronic mismanagement leaves it bloated with middle-managers, understaffed on the frontlines, and without resources at any level. Our educational system crumbles under the weight of cuts, schools unable to hire new teachers, relying on short term, abusive contracts, or administrators to double job, holding teaching and management positions for the price of one. Administrative college fees rise yearly, putting a lie to the claim that we provide free education, while the ministers and industry figures continually push for our third level institutes to “partner” with businesses to provide education tailored to demands of businesses. Perhaps the most obvious failing of the Labour Party has been in the handling of Alan Shatter’s repeated, consistent mismanagement of the Justice Department. With every new whistle-blower, with every new scandal, Labour Ministers were falling over each other in the race to be first to have Shatter’s back, while he colluded in the cover-up of pretty awful failings in the force. The penalty points issue became onto the tip of the proverbial, as claims of failures to properly investigate murders, collusion with drug dealers and illegal recording scandals emerged. All ignored or downplayed by Shatter, backed up by Labour ministers right up until the cusp of the Local and European elections, where he became the sacrificial goat, meant to purchase back some credibility for the government parties. So much, then, for the four principles of Socialism – Freedom, Equality, Community and Democracy.

Fine Gael is not suffering the same electoral retribution because most of us did not expect them to act other than they are. Some might argue that Labour have wilfully, greedily abandoned the principles on which they were elected, in order to preserve their position in power. It’s much the same flawed methodology we have seen from the Progressive Democrats and the Green party while they were in government. Both we decimated in subsequent elections and it seems quite likely that without a serious attempt at appeasement, Labour can expect the same thing. I, for one, voted for Labour in every single election I’ve been able to vote in, bar the last one. I cannot imagine I will be voting for them in the next one. I also find it difficult to imagine a scenario where the youth of Ireland – well, those who have not emigrated – will turn out in record number s to vote for a Labour led by the woman instrumental in the running JobBridge programme. Alex White did not represent a significant divergence from the party line, but at least he might not have been quite as tarnished by failure and conformity. The real stupidity of this leadership race, however, is that no figure who was not deeply entrenched in Gilmore’s administration could be found to run. Instead it seems that Labour are content with more of the same, an act that amounts to sleep walking into their political demise. Rather than attempting to foster sense of renewal, a return to core values, Labour have chosen lip-service and appearance. While Burton may be culling certain members of the old guard, in reality little of substance looks likely to change. JobBridge and Gateway will likely remain, possibly with a cosmetic lift, if it can be managed without it reflecting negatively on Burton. The Budget will contain some concession, but still plenty of hardship. The next time a failing Fine Gael Minister stumbles into scandal, Labour will be found eagerly propping them up, saying “no, no, sure they’re a great reforming minister, yes they are, and the Coalition is stronger than ever” because if a considerable act of redemption is not achieved before the next general election, I can only envision slaughter for Labour. So no, no one bothered getting excited about this leadership race. It’s an exercise in face-saving, a little game of musical chairs, a lot of meaningless talk and nothing of substance offered, never mind followed through on.