Why did the Labour Party select as its new leadership Pat Rabbitte and Liz McManus, two former members of Democratic Left which merged with the Labour Party only a few years ago? "Was it a takeover or a surrender?" I asked jokingly in the Dail when party leaders were congratulating the pair.
"Surrender", would be the correct answer. Desperation even. Rabbitte and McManus had a very clean cut win despite the fact that the big majority of the voters were from "old Labour." Clearly the party membership, such as it is, felt that another five years under Brendan Howlin the former Deputy Leader would be as lack-lustre as the last five under Ruairi Quinn. They felt that Rabbitte was the most effective and capable candidate and in this they were correct. But will that make a fundamental difference in propelling the Labour Party to a decisive position in Irish politics?
The reality is that personality will not be the decisive factor. The Labour Party languished at around 12% support because of its craven political opportunism. This was never more obvious than in the lead up to the General Election last June.
Ruairi Quinn's objective was to get into Government no matter what. He thought that this would fall into his lap since he expected the outgoing Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat Government would lose support leaving Fianna Fail needing Labour. Otherwise, Fine Gael would have sufficient support to form a coalition with Labour. So Labour straddled the fence, careful not to attack any of its potential partners too hard.
The Labour Party long ceased to even pretend to stand for a radically different society from the openly capitalist parties. It embraces the capitalist market-place and the role of the multinational corporations and confines its political ambition to managing these forces in the same way as Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or the Progressive Democrats.
Pat Rabbitte will keep the Labour Party on this track. He may continue to adopt a position of stated hostility to Fianna Fail and try to have an "alternative government" on offer for the next election involving Fine Gael, the Green Party and some others. But "coalitionism" will be the basic electoral strategy. This strategy will mean that the Labour Party will not appeal to an important stratum of the working class and the youth who seek an alternative to establishment politics. This was obvious in the recent General Election with strong support for Sinn Fein, the Greens, the Socialist Party and various independents.
The new government's onslaught of cuts in services and its strategy to make working people pay for the onset of economic downturn will intensify anger against Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats and also intensify the desire for a left alternative.
Undoubtedly the question of building a mass political alternative to the political establishment including Labour will come to the fore as a key issue. The Socialist Party is committed to playing a key role in bringing a new party of the working class into being - a party in which different shades of opinion among the genuine Left will be able to freely participate. But the timing of such an initiative is crucial. Launching something which is merely a shell for existing groups and a few individuals and calling it a "workers' party" would be a fiction and damaging.
A decisive new political force will arise out of a growing political consciousness which in turn arises out of struggles by workers, communities, students and youth against an offloading of the crisis onto their shoulders. Against this background, new forces come into political activity and this is what will make the fundamental difference.
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