Labour’s problem is lack of substance, not communications
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Somebody needs to tell the Labour Party that their problem with the voters in Meath East, or anywhere else in the country, has nothing to do with ‘communications’. By the time a quarter of the boxes were opened in the count centre in Ashbourne, and the extent of the collapse in Labour’s vote was becoming apparent, it was obvious the main story emerging from the Meath East byelection was going to be about a leadership crisis within Labour.
That crisis has been rumbling along beneath the surface since the resignation of Roisin Shortall in September 2012 because of her policy tussles with her senior Minister, James Reilly, in the Department of Health in which, in her own perception, she was cast adrift by the leadership of her own party. Party chairman, Colm Keaveney’s resignation of the party whip in the Dail in protest at the Budget cuts to social welfare created the next spike. Beaten into fifth place in Meath East, with 4.57% of the first preference vote – a drop of 16% on its 2011 General Election performance in that constituency – is yet another manifestation.
Embattled politicians tend to reach for ‘communications failure’ as a key weapon in their defence armoury when things go politically pear-shaped for them.They’re invariably wrong. The issue is never about failing to get the message across to the public, or how to communicate it better. The problem is usually with the ‘message’ itself, and whether the majority of voters accept or reject it. Thus, Labour’s crisis is not just about false and egregious promises it peddled to the electorate, the infamous ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way, in the run-up to the last election in a last ditch effort to prevent a Fine Gael majority and secure its own place in the next administration; nor Pat Rabbitte’s damaging admission on national TV that such false promises are par for the course in the heat of an election campaign; nor that the ‘smaller party in government’ takes the flack for unpopular decisions in mid-term contests; nor displays of arrogance and swagger by the party leadership like the same Pat Rabbitte’s blustering, personalised attack on Colm Keaveney in the wake of the latter’s rejection of cuts to Child Benefit in the 2012 Budget. The roots of Labour’s crisis go much deeper. It’s about lack of substance, which, left unchecked will herald a complete meltdown in Labour’s public credibility.
As the party of protest in opposition, Labour’s analysis of the economic crisis facing Ireland never stretched too far beyond strident negativity and ready-made ‘rabbit out of the hat’ populist remedies, the sole purpose of which was to gain headlines and votes. Labour disdained policy on the grounds that most of the electorate didn’t pay much attention to it. Anyway, the media was more interested in personality-based drama than policy platforms. Fair enough – most people, even at the best of times, have more on their minds than the policy prescriptions of politicians. As for the media, political drama inevitably trumps detailed assessment of party policy positions. Moreover, in opposition, parties and their leaders can say pretty much what they like without having to worry about the consequences. In our system, it is the government, not the opposition, that is held to account by the electorate for the outcome, good or bad, of its policies.
But there is a catch. Poorly defined, badly researched and populist-oriented ‘fantasy’ policy positions, that amount to no more than the blather and bluster of a hastily composed, flawed, analysis, peppered with catchy slogans to maximise media attention, fall apart pretty quickly once they are confronted with the reality of implementation. Labour’s problem is not that they don’t face up to their larger partner in government enough, or that Eamon Gilmore needs to take a tougher line with Enda Kenny. It’s that if, and when, they do, they appear to have no coherent alternative policy analysis to put on the table. Their policy cupboard is bare. They emptied it themselves a long time ago.
That’s not to say that Fine Gael’s performance has been up to much. Far from it, with policy failures mounting in key areas of the economy, employment, taxation, health, environment, policing and justice; no commitment or intention to reform and nepotism and cronyism as rife in our system as they ever were. Yet those cohorts of the electorate, among them young voters, public servants, the mildly progressive ‘knowledge class’, and the floating voter whose preference drifted from a scratch for Fianna Fail to a rub for Labour in GE 2011, expected that Labour should be more than a pale shadow of their government partners, in attitude, approach and policy imagination.That somewhere beneath the hustle and bustle of seeking to maximise their own vote, and potential power, in any new post-election government, Labour had a strategy and vision of what sort of Ireland should ultimately emerge from this present crisis. What’s more, they expected Labour in government to articulate that vision and embody that strategy.
What has emerged is a Labour Party that is incapable of articulating a vision or strategic direction for recovery, because they simply don’t have one. The poverty of their analysis is manifest in the defence they consistently provide of government policy choices; and their critique - usually dismissive and disrespectful – of any alternative perspectives or ideas. In terms of the economic policy, Labour act as the praetorian guard of Fine Gael. When it comes to social reform, their focus is on issues, like gay marriage, that whilst important in themselves, are well down the order of public priorities.
If you have nothing of substance to communicate, then the volume of your communications doesn’t matter. Indeed, increasing the volume may be counterproductive. Turning up the volume on the wrong issues is self-destructive, and crass efforts at promoting your own distinctivness are worst of all. That ‘last ditch’ stunt to woo the Meath electorate provides as good an example as any of political desperation and crassness in full flight.
The Labour leadership, collectively, has a lot of work to do to restore trust and credibility with voters and prevent any further erosion in popular support for the party. A good place to start might be to take constructive criticism on board, rather than filtering out any views that fail to tally with its own limited imagination. The Meath bylection result positions Labour as a weakened force within government. That’s no good for them, and not much help to the rest of us either.