Sunday, 13 May 2007

Lessons of the Past

Although many of us in the Labour Party are a bit obsessed by the historical ephemera of politics and elections - posters, badges, rosettes, you name it - we are very limited when it comes to items of a deeper importance - books which explain who we are, where we are and how we've gotten here. Yes, there's the gossip of Fergus Finlay's 'Snakes and Ladders,' Ray Kavanagh's 'Spring, Summer and Fall' and Stephen Collins' shaky 'Spring and the Labour Party,' but there's little in the way of serious political analysis, recently at least.

The best book I've ever read on the Irish Labour Party is "Labour: The Price of Power" by John Horgan, a former TD, Senator and MEP who's now Professor of Communications in DCU. This was written in the mid 1980's when Labour was at a very low ebb indeed. In and out of Government, with a continuous debate on electoral and coalition strategy, surpassed by the Worker's Party in Dublin and at one stage as low as 6% nationally in the opinion polls; it was an interesting choice of time to launch a major study on the party and to map out a history, analysis and outlook for Labour.

There are many memorable anecdotes, narratives and quotes, but one of Horgan's own remarks sticks out. I don't have the book to hand, but to paraphrase,

"For everyone on the left in Ireland, the Labour Party is the party you're thinking of leaving, have just left or would never dream of joining."

Now if you consider yourself left-wing but aren't in Labour, it might seem a bit arrogant to you that the likes of us to believe that the diversity of Irish socialism and associated philosophies is located entirely within the context of the Labour Party. I would argue that to a large extent that the belief is accurate. The two organisational narratives of the left as a whole in Ireland have been the relationship with nationalism and the relationship, or lack thereof, with the Labour Party. That isn't to say that issues of religion, trade unionism, locality or class are somehow not important. But while we've all heard the cliches on Labour's failure to win widespread electoral support, there's very little on the failure of projects within and outside Labour to win popular support.

We've had little in the way of analyses of Labour Left, a huge movement of left-wing and anti-coalition strategy in the 1980's; on their predecessors in the Liaison of the Left, or on agitation within Labour in the early years, or Larkin's re-entry in the 1940's.

There's been little of organisational interest written on the Socialist Labour Party, Noel Browne's engine for change in the 1970's or on the countless splits and formations of new 'mass working-class' parties that have risen and fallen over the years.

Why bother with all these history lessons? Well, when we go about agitating for change inside or outside the Labour Party, it's worth learning on the successes and failures of the past, however different the context. So whether it's a loose grouping in the Labour Party agitating for better party democracy, a Campaign for an Independent Left or any other group organising for change, you need to do two things; justify your existence in the context of the current Labour Party, and learn the lessons of the organisational past.

The former has tended to be a series of condemnations and a lot of personality-bashing rather than a deeper analysis. And the latter is usually an afterthought, partly because we lack the tools. Maybe I'm missing all these tomes, but if not, a good start for all of us would be an indepth look at these historical projects and not just a series of 'we like ice cream' demands.