It is well and truly open season on the Green Party. In their first private members session Fine Gael moved a motion condemning hospital co-location. Their next motion dealt with the Ringsend incinerator. It would be nice to think the largest opposition party intends to drive new public sector and environmental agendas – but it would be as well for the Left to be sceptical.
And to be cautious - about being co-opted into a strategy that may not suit its own long-term interest.
Following the formation of the Government, the immediate response of the opposition parties was predictable, if not very subtle. The Greens may be vulnerable. It’s questionable whether the coalition deal they struck will be welcomed by their electorate - especially as only 11% of Green voters transferred to Fianna Fail candidates. Recent flare-ups over Seanad votes and the EU Treaty, as discussed by WBS, suggests that only weeks into the new Government, there are difficulties in bedding down. Certainly the opposition parties will be eyeing up Green votes and Green seats.
The Dail debates, therefore, are instructive. During the co-location debate FG TDs went out of their way to attack the Greens, targeting them as much as Fianna Fail and the PDs (the proverbial owners of the co-location policy). Now clearly the Greens’ handling of the co-location issue was highly unsatisfactory – they didn’t feel the privatisation of health care rated as a ‘deal-breaker’, while the agreed review is naïve as by the time it reports it will be too late to undo the damage. However, to disproportionately target the Greens – a very minor element in the Government (or ‘guests’ as Pat Rabbitte stated) - suggests another, parallel strategy at work. This is given more credence with Fine Gael’s targeting of the Ringsend incinerator in the new Minister’s constituency in a debate that was even more rancorous.
So what? This is the stuff of opposition. Haven’t the Greens brought it on themselves? Not only are they ‘supping with the devil’, they’re now picking up a good part of the tab. If the Greens feel a little paranoid, they should be. The voices really are after them and for good reason.
However, the Left should tread carefully. Not surprisingly, Fine Gael wants ‘business as usual’ opposition, especially now that they have entrenched their position as the second largest party – opening a gap over Labour from 11 to 31 seats. In effect, they want a de facto continuance of the Mullingar Accord for the next five years. In this way, and only in this way, can they hope to win the next election. They set the agenda and Labour, the diminishing partner in this arrangement, dutifully follows.
But this ‘old school’ tactic need not be Labour’s tactic. For if Fine Gael is the largest opposition party in the Dail, Labour is the largest Left or progressive opposition and, as such, has different strategic fish to fry. Such as: the hard task of uniting progressives into a new political alignment, of which the Greens are an important element. It’s difficult enough that this requires an almost existential rethink on the part of Labour (Question One: is it forever the Left’s destiny to support a right-wing Taoiseach regardless of which civil war party they come from; Question Two: if the answer is no, then when does it start building a new destiny; Question Three: how is this done – questions, questions). But there’s another little matter.
Labour is in opposition, the Greens in Government. Ergo, confrontation. But this syllogism need not be so hard and fast. It is possible to engage in informed political opposition while reconnoitering the ground for possible co-operation, prefiguring a new set of alliances down the road. Here are some examples:
The Programme for Government calls for the establishment of an all-party committee on climate change. Labour should embrace this for there is common ground with the Greens – namely the willingness to use state and regulatory instruments to bring about the desired objectives (right-wing parties disproportionately rely on voluntarist measures). Activists from both Labour and the Greens, along with other social organisations, could sit down and draw up common proposals or, at least, support each other’s. In this way progressives could drive the agenda – despite their relative small size and the fact that they are on different sides of the House.
Labour could go one further. In a variant of the Tallaght strategy it could promise support for the Government on agreed proposals to defeat climate change. This type of ‘mature’ opposition may be greatly appreciated by an electorate who don’t want to see the environment used as a partisan football. In this way, they could set a distinct agenda to that of Fine Gael.
Another area of co-operation lies in local government reform which comes under the brief of Minister, John Gormley. Gerry O’Quigley has commented on our centralised ‘winner-take-all’ political system. If you’re not in Government, you’re nowhere. In other countries, opposition parties are invariably in the majority at many state and local levels. In pursuing their agendas they present a showpiece of what they could do at central level. But that is not possible here. Our local government system is one of the weakest in the EU.
Reform that involve a major shift in power form the Central to the Local, with an enhancement of Councillors’ roles combined with new independent revenue-raising powers, could allow alternative sources of power to emerge. This would suit the Left and progressive parties. By coalescing at local levels under a reinvigorated local government, they could begin to show people what a government led by progressives could do. It may be that this new third block will first emerge locally before it can ascend to national power.
These co-operative strategies don’t necessarily have to originate at leadership levels. Activists and even subordinate organs of the respective parties (e.g. Youth or Women sections, constituency parties, ad hoc committees) could lead this cooperation. It doesn’t have to be a top—down exercise.
But all this depends on a far-sighted, sophisticated consensus in both parties – knowing where such cooperation has the potential for mutual benefit, while still engaging in the rough-and-tumble of oppositional politics. For the Greens, it means constructing a strategy that sees its role as ‘in government ‘but not ‘of government’ – not on all issues, anyway.
For Labour it means a refusal to be co-opted into Fine Gael’s strategy of driving a gratuitous wedge between progressive parties. It means deciding what kind of future it wants for itself and, arising from that, devising its own opposition strategies.
It’s a difficult balancing act but in the end Labour should do its own thing. Otherwise, someone else will do it for them.