Winning the Presidential and Dublin West By elections was hailed as a great day for the Labour Party. While these victories undoubtedly took some of the pressure off the party and its leader, Eamon Gilmore, a sober assessment will conclude that these amount to a small upward blip on a graph that will soon be seen to be on a consistent downward trajectory.
In Dublin West, Labour’s first preference vote was down 4.5% on last February’s general election. This shows the beginning of a disappointment with the Labour Party nationally which made strong promises in the election campaign about standing up to the agencies promoting austerity such as the European Central Bank. However since then Labour has cravenly capitulated to all the demands for savage cuts in the living standards of ordinary people and in public services while standing over the payment of billions to the gambling bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank and elsewhere.
On 6 December another budget of swingeing cuts will be introduced by Fine Gael and Labour, to be followed quickly by demands on each home for the payment of a Household Tax, followed some time later by demands for water charges. These new burdens on the shoulders of the ordinary worker or unemployed person will provoke great anger. That will quickly be reflected in how Labour in government is seen.
Whereas up to now the Coalition has attempted to shield itself from all criticism of its economic policies by blaming every problem on fourteen years of rule by Fianna Fail, that will be no longer possible. In the Budget it will be seen that this is a deliberate decision by the government to continue where Fianna Fail and the Greens left off, with the ruinous policy of austerity which is having such a disastrous deflationary effect on the economy.
On his first day in the Dail, Labour’s new TD for Dublin West, Patrick Nulty, was faced with the grim reality of Labour’s role. Because he had spoken at a party conference against Labour participation in Coalition with Fine Gael, he was labelled in some sections of the media as a “rebel”. In terms of the Dail, however, his “rebellion” must rank as the shortest lived in its history.
Nulty was in the Chamber for no more than fifteen minutes when he voted against giving the elected members of the Dail time for a debate and a vote on the payment later that day of €700 million to an assortment of unsecured speculators, a burden that must be met by the taxpayers. He was then paraded on the plinth in front of the Dail in the company of Gilmore and the Minister for (the lack of) Social Protection and promised faithfully to vote with the government.
The election of Michael D Higgins to the Presidency cannot be seen either as a major achievement for Labour or an affirmation of its role in government. Michael D was overshadowed throughout the campaign by, at different times, two independent candidates, Senator David Norris and former Fianna Fail activist Sean Gallagher posing as an outsider. It was quite clear Higgins was going to be defeated until Gallagher was exposed almost at the eleventh hour as another former tout for financial donations from business to Fianna Fail.
The days when Michael D Higgins was a radical left force in the Labour Party are long gone. Like the soft left in general he capitulated to the right in the party, participating in both a Fianna Fail and Fine Gael dominated government in the nineties. On a few occasions during the campaign he made veiled and vague criticisms of the capitalist markets. As the crisis intensifies, it is not ruled out that he might create some controversy by making some criticism of the injustices of austerity but if so he would be in the contradictory situation that it will be his former colleagues in the Dail who will be wielding the axe.