When I re-tweeted Labour Councillor Cian O’Callaghan’s news statement calling on Labour not to enter coalition with Fine Gael, Brendan Ogle suggested such an eventuality was akin to pigs flying. Maybe so. But then humans don’t fly either. So let's take a hypothetical flight with our fellow unwinged mammals and see what the landscape looks like from above.
Labour has a historic opportunity to become the official opposition. This is nothing to dismiss. Up to 40 percent of the electorate voted for Left parties and independents, electing 60 deputies. This is the largest contingent of progressive TDs since the founding of the state. Given what might have been – with a number of progressive candidates just missing out, the potential for growing this progressive alliance in the short-term is high.
In many areas the Left is the dominant force. In a number of areas the combined Left vote exceeded 50 percent with some exceeding 60 percent (Dublin Central, South Central, North West). These types of results should be a game changer.
Fianna Fail’s collapse was not just an indictment on that party’s policies, but on the outdated political divide that has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s – namely, Fianna Fail vs. everyone else. That divide no longer exists. It has been substituted by a divide between the Left and the Right.
A strong, cooperative Left in the Dail could achieve many things against a Fine Gael government supported by right-wing independents and an emaciated Fianna Fail (which would have no choice but to support a party that is essentially carrying its own policies). It could build a broad alliance in civil society – bringing together trade unions and social organisations to campaign on a progressive consensus that already exists on economic issues.
It could expose the failure of austerity economics which Fine Gael is determined to carry through – public spending cuts, wage devaluation, privatisation, public sector downsizing, etc.
It could develop alternative policies – not just on the issues of investment and taxation, but on the very business model of the failed Celtic Tiger boom: the inability of indigenous enterprise to create a strong base in the international market; the failure of native private sector investors to invest in a strong industrial and enterprise sector. This could lead us into new area of policy – public enterprise, municipal enterprise, new private sector models with greater stake-holder participation.
And here’s the good news: a Fine Gael government would, from the start, be unstable and after two-three years (maybe less if they really let loose on the economy and society) would become unsustainable. Progressives united inside and outside the Dail could mount a fundamental challenge on conservatism across the broad spectrum of policy with a view to bringing down the Government in the short term.
And there would be only one alternative. A government of the Left. With 60 seats in the Dail, the finishing line becomes even closer. With greater cooperation, that finishing line is in sight. We should see the 2011 election and an election in a couple of years as part of a short-term continuum – a set of dominos falling; first Fianna Fail, then Fine Gael.
What Labour needs to do, even as they enter into talks with Fine Gael, is to keep this alternative sequence of events in mind; they must hold their nerve. There are any number of reasons why the talks between the two parties could break down, the biggest being Fine Gael’s determination to continue Fianna Fail policies under a different party logo; Fine Gael’s neo-liberal, anti-public realm politics.
What Labour needs to do is realise that their time for waiting is over. That in the very short-term they will be able to achieve something that has only been dreamed about for the last 80 years – a progressive government led by Labour itself. A little patience, a lot of determination, and a whole load of vision – that’s what it would take.
That’s what the political landscape looks like from above, flying with our mammal cousins. Back on the ground, however, it gets trickier. Pursing a broken alignment and supporting a Fine Gael-led government (hardly a historical innovation); continuing with austerity economics no matter how ameliorated; dividing the range of progressive opinion just at the moment when that opinion is on the verge becoming a dominant force: Labour should be aware. The electorate dealt with Fianna Fail in a pretty rough manner. If they are denied the change they were promised, their anger could easily turn.
Labour could end up in the barnyard, in the political muck and slurry. And that would be a shame. After all, pigs are clean, intelligent and personable creatures. Wouldn’t it be better if we took to the air with them? If only to glimpse the better future?