What is the meaning of the Labour Party?

by burtenshaw


During elections it makes a certain sense to describe Labour as sellouts because some of those who voted for them in 2009 or 2011 (myself included – ten Hail Marys) would not have expected them to hammer workers, the unemployed, the elderly, students, women, migrants and the young even harder in government than Fianna Fáil.

But, with their impending demise in May’s elections, I think it’s worth discussing what Labour in government has been about. In my view they are neither treacherous sellouts nor, as per Jack O’Connor’s delusions, “fighting at the gates of hell”.

Their support for austerity represents the interests of a section of Irish society – those who benefit from mediating in class conflict.

This is indicated by their slogan: One Ireland. As Eamon Gilmore summarised it in his 2010 conference speech, “this is not the time for division or conflict, this is a time where we must all pull together… One Ireland of employers and employees, farmers and business people, private sector and public sector.” In an era of historic class war initiated from above this kind of false mutuality is, as Slavoj Zizek might say, pure ideology.

Before the 2011 general election Labour’s base was mixed – middle-class and working-class – but with the former predominant, especially in the membership and leadership. Labour in government has represented that constituency, whose social position is one of mediation between capital and labour.

Some, like bureaucrats in the civil service, trade unions, semi-state bodies and NGOs seek rent from this mediation. Others, like professional and management workers in the public and private sectors have jobs that rely on administering capitalism. And a spattering of the self-employed and small-business owners occupy positions that place them in precarity if the economic order is challenged.

Labour’s leadership may have wanted mercs and perks but it was the party’s membership that voted overwhelmingly for them to enter government. By taking up the role of sub-contractors for austerity this constituency hoped to have their interests served. And – surprise, surprise – many of them have.

Ideology is not reducible to material interests alone but they play an important role in its formation. And so most of those not in the mediating bracket, like “blue-collar” workers and the unemployed, have abandoned Labour. This is why they will be decimated in working-class communities next month.

But the majority of its middle-class base has stuck around which is why, accounting for the traditional local election backlash, Labour will likely hit between 6 and 7% in May. This is down significantly from their tally of 19% in 2011 but it isn’t annihilation. Labour’s vote in 1999, 2004 and 2009 was 10%, 14% and 14% respectively.

The genesis of this post is that I had been considering starting a blog for the local and European elections detailing the litany of atrocious things that the Labour Party have done in government. With the hope (however many people it reached…) that 2014 might see the dismal enterprise buried altogether.

I think partly this was motivated by a half-formed misconception that, as the social-democratic party linked to the trade union movement, and one which was established by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, the Labour Party in Ireland was the party of the working-class. It isn’t, of course, and hasn’t been for some time.

The reality is that what remains of Labour’s vote is pretty much voting in their interests. They are allergic to Sinn Féin, who are associated with a violent, revolutionary past, and to the Trotskyist parties. Equally they haven’t been adequately accommodated into Fianna Fáil’s cross-class populism and wouldn’t benefit from pure Fine Gael Toryism.

In the longer term, if the Left in Ireland is to build a hegemony, many of these people will have to be won over to a proper socialist project. But in the immediate reminding them of how Labour has screwed workers and the unemployed won’t do much good – they are satisfied to be one or two pegs farther up the ladder.