Wednesday, 18 July 2007

More on Labour Youth and Coalition (and Electoral Strategy)

A couple of people have been onto me asking more about Labour Youth's position on strategy and coalition. So thanks to Andrew Payne I've managed to recover a copy of Labour: Towards an Alternative Politics - the discussion document on electoral strategy written in advance of the 2005 Tralee Conference where the "Mullingar Accord" strategy was up for decision. The document was based on Labour Youth's own Conference resolutions on coalition and strategy and was written by myself and Patrick Nulty (current LY Chair). It was distributed in Tralee along with a similar but separate document written by the ATGWU but to little avail.

I also spoke on the motion (check out the 'Dodgy Sideburns' pic on the bottom of the left column) but history records it as a victory for the Mullingar Accord strategy which played a significant role in the election just gone. Clearly, as Labour moves forward, the questions raised in this document regarding this strategy are as pertinent now as in May 05.


Towards an Alternative Politics


Discussion Document
For distribution at the 2005 Labour Party Conference

Labour Youth is the active, campaigning youth section of the Labour Party which organises and represents party members between 16 and 26. Labour Youth activists are heavily involved at branch, constituency and national level within the Labour Party; they are also involved at a youth level in running campaigns, making policies and fighting for change in colleges and local communities across Ireland. Labour Youth has tripled its membership figures over the last two years – with more than 1,000 activists registered and a high number of successful campaigns, policy papers and conferences to its credit.

This document argues the progressive case against an electoral strategy based around the ‘Mullingar Accord,’ a pact between Labour and Fine Gael on Westmeath County Council. The launch of the Accord in September 2004 was overshadowed by the unveiling to the press of a pledge by Labour Party leader, Pat Rabbitte, and Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, to work together to form the basis of an alternative government. The ‘Mullingar Accord’ has hence become a byword for the proposed new electoral strategy between Fine Gael and Labour.

This document arises out of a motion passed at the 2004 Labour Youth Conference, held last November in the Mansion House, Dublin, noting that Labour Youth is totally opposed to the Labour Party presenting itself as a potential minority party in government, and calling on the Labour Party to promote itself as the leading party of government. The full text of this motion is available at

The 2005 Conference of the Labour Party gives Labour Youth a chance to put forward an alternative electoral strategy to that proposed along with the Mullingar Accord. This discussion document does not reflect the individual views of all Labour Youth activists. Rather, it seeks to summarise a particular outlook on the forthcoming general election within a long-term analytical framework which will best achieve our fundamental goals of equality, freedom, democracy and community. We believe this strategy is shared by many within the Labour Party and that it is a one that can win, not only at this Conference, but at the next general election and beyond.

We do not believe the Labour Party should enter into any pacts with Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats. We should offer a real alternative to the self-serving, right-wing policies of the current government. We do not, however, believe that Labour should thus enter into an electoral pact with Fine Gael in order to oust the current government.

We do not believe a minority status for the Labour Party in a Fine Gael-led government after the next election is realistic, given the massive differences in policy and ideology between the parties. Any such pact would require a substantial and objectionable compromise of our values.

We do not believe minority status for the Labour Party is desirable, given the nature of previous such governments, the compromises made to Fine Gael, and the subsequent losses accruing to Labour in terms of electoral strength and reputation.

We believe that the Labour Party should stand as an independent party at the next election, ruling out any coalition with Fianna Fáil and the PD’s and pushing our agenda as the leading party of government. We believe the best way to achieving our values and policies is through a Labour-led government.

We believe in a bold and historic electoral strategy for Labour – one which pushes Pat Rabbitte as the next Taoiseach, one which pushes our policies and one which pushes our candidates across Ireland as the real alternative to the incumbent government – and one that can win.

Our strategy offers more than an alternative government. It offers an alternative politics.

This document will outline the failures of the past, the inadequacies of the current proposals, and the potential of the future for Labour. Coalitions and electoral strategy have dogged this party for decades. We believe it is time for a real groundshift in Irish politics, one in which a historically-weak Labour Party can emerge triumphant with our core values intact.



At National Conference this year delegates are being asked to vote on a number of motions relating to our electoral strategy in the upcoming general election. These decisions are critical in determining what direction our party will take over the next few years. Labour Youth proposes in this document an alternative to the two commonly-held paradigms of Labour electoral strategy; ‘pro-Fine Gael’ and ‘pro-Fianna Fáil.’

We believe that the main motion proposed by the National Executive Council should be defeated – but for particular reasons. We disagree with those who oppose a pact with Fine Gael because they favour government with Fianna Fail. Labour Youth is concerned at those pushing a pro-FF agenda under a supposedly “Labour First” line and calls for a strategy that rules out any coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats from the outset.

Furthermore, we reject the isolationist anti-coalition politics that damaged Labour in the past. Given the nature of our electoral system, coalition government is a necessity – but for a successful Labour Party, so too is an end to 'civil war' politics. For this reason, our electoral strategy will see Labour presented as a leading party of government, not as an ancillary to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Only when Labour casts away its age-old inferiority complex can we emerge as the major player in Irish politics, capable of truly implementing our policies and engendering a society based on community, freedom, democracy and equality, in which social justice and economic well-being for all are prioritised above all else.

For years political scientists and commentators have noted Ireland’s uniqueness in terms of a weak Labour or Socialist Party and the dominance of two centrist catch-all parties founded on a now-irrelevant Civil War cleavage. All committed to the cause of Labour since the foundation of the state believe our party should reject the false dichotomy of Civil War politics and embrace the fight on behalf of ordinary workers and citizens, taking as our basis the famed quote from Larkin and Connolly to “close the gap between what ought to be and what is,” still included in our party constitution.

We believe that Labour can best close the gap, achieving its policies and aims, as part of a progressive government. Realistically, in the short-term, this means coalition. But in approaching the issue of coalition government, Labour needs to analyse not only the short-term consequences of such a decision, but whether Labour and Ireland are best served by such a coalition in the short term. We do not believe that minority status in any FG- or FF-led coalition will best achieve our policies and aims, nor do we believe that it will benefit Labour in electoral terms or reputation in the medium- to long-term.

Minority coalition status in which Labour is subservient to either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael has been damaging to our party in the past (see the following table). These bare statistics show that in five of the six occasions in which Labour entered government, its overall seat total was reduced immediately afterwards – on only one occasion, the short-lived 1981-82 Fine Gael-Labour coalition, did Labour even manage to hold onto its seats. For a party seeking to break out of its traditional third place in the pecking order, the falls in already-low numbers make for depressing reading.

Table 1: Labour Participation in Government and Subsequent Loss of Seats
Labour in GovtCoalition PartnersTotal Seats in Election Prior to GovtTotal Seats in Election Following GovtChange in seats
1948-51FG, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan19 (including National Labour)16-3
1954-57FG, Clann na Talmhan1913-6
1993-97FF 1993-94,FG & DL 1994-973317-16

It is our contention that Labour will continue to suffer similar losses given the Catch-22 nature of minority ‘partnership’ in coalition. Any unpopular decisions or scandals in a possible coalition government in which Labour plays the minor role are likely to have a negative impact on Labour’s vote next time around, while popular initiatives and thus outcomes are more likely to be attributed to the larger party, the party of the Taoiseach – in the case of the Mullingar Accord, Fine Gael.

Our case for an alternative politics combines both electoral and coalition strategy. Our coalition strategy should be only to enter government when Labour has sufficient critical mass to put our values and policies at the heart of the agenda, i.e. a Labour-led government. Our connected electoral strategy must then focus on achieving such an aim.

To this end, we believe that Labour should contest the next general election as an independent party without any pre-election pacts or deals with other parties. Negotiations with other parties should take place after the general election after having tried to maximise support for Labour Party policy and candidates alone.



The Mullingar Accord strategy will mean an electoral tie-in between our party and Fine Gael. But we believe that differences in ideology and policies make such a tie-in incongruous and pose enormous difficulties for a pre-election pact and any subsequent coalition. While a Special Delegate Conference of the Labour Party will decide on whether our party joins government following the next election, if such a deal has been negotiated on our behalf, no such provision will exist for any proposals that might form the basis of a pre-election pact.

As well as clear ideological differences, Labour and Fine Gael differ so fundamentally on specific policy issues that we believe make it impossible for us to legitimately ask our supporters to transfer to them. Some of them include:

1. Housing: The Labour Party is committed to a constitutional right to housing. Furthermore our Party strongly advocates regulation of the price of land for housing development. Fine Gael are firmly against both proposals.

2. Health: The Labour Party supports a universalist approach to healthcare with free GP care for all and compulsory health insurance for every citizen in the state, whereby the state pays the premiums for people on low income. Fine Gael are firmly against both proposals.

3. Civil Liberties: The Labour Party has opposed many aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill currently being proposed. In particular, our section of the party (Labour Youth) has launched a nationwide campaign against the bill. This is due to the serious threat to civil liberties posed therein. In contrast, Fine Gael have criticised the Bill for not being strong enough. This represents a clear difference between both parties’ respect and support for the protection of civil liberties.

4. Foreign Policy: Many Labour Party members strongly object to the continued use of Shannon airport by the US military. Our party spokesperson on Foreign Affairs (Michael D. Higgins) was one of the leading spokespersons in opposing the illegal war in Iraq. In contrast, Fine Gael did not support anti-war demonstrations. They also strongly support the continued use of Shannon airport by the US military. Fine Gael’s stance on neutrality is also in question, with a clear tendency towards NATO emerging from many senior party members such as Gay Mitchell TD, MEP. Such a policy would directly contradict Labour Party values.

5. Local Government: In many local authorities across the country Labour Party public representatives are central in preserving local amenities, green belts and increased infrastructure for communities within development plans and other aspects of planning and development in local government. In many cases such proposals are resisted by both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael councillors who share a similar philosophy on such matters. In addition, both these parties have not supported the rights and needs of the Travelling community in Ireland as an officially recognised ethnic group.

6. The Citizenship Referendum: The citizenship referendum that took place last year for many people was one of the most regressive, opportunistic and detrimental measures proposed by an Irish government in many years. Our party took a strong and principled stand against this referendum and campaigned against it. This contrasts sharply with Fine Gael who enthusiastically supported the constitutional amendment. Labour’s commitment to fairness for refugees and asylum-seekers is clear in the work of our Dáil spokesperson, the involvement of our members in anti-racist groups and our general commitment to equality and community – it is severely doubtful whether Fine Gael share similar policy bases.

While merely illustrative of a wider trend of policy differences, the six examples noted are in and of themselves reasons to question whether an adequate and reasonable compromise can be made in agreeing to an electoral pact with Fine Gael.

We believe our approach to electoral strategy should aim to see Labour as the second party in the State. A pre-election pact with Fine Gael undermines that ambition. Our Party Constitution states that we are a "Democratic Socialist Party," while in reality there are no major philosophical differences between the two largest parties at present. One must question whether it is acceptable for a party with our values to advocate our supporters transferring to a party we directly oppose ideologically. Within a European context both Labour and Fine Gael are members of political groupings diametrically opposed to each other (Christian Democrats and Socialists respectively).

It is also tactically questionable whether a strategy based on a FG-Labour electoral pact will achieve many gains for Labour in terms of electoral representation, if any at all. In many constituencies around the country Labour and Fine Gael are in direct competition for seats. Examples of this include Kerry North, Dublin West, Dublin Central, Dublin South and many more.

A formal pact would undoubtedly strengthen Fine Gael's position. It is not clear that a formal pact would strengthen Labour’s position at all. Certainly, one must ask whether a formal pact would lead to the kinds of Labour gains necessary for anything more than a bit-part role in the next government. It is not our intention to play the numbers game but it is abundantly clear that the proposed pact aims for a moderate increase in Labour seats – say by between 4 and 7 seats to a total between 25 and 28 – and a massive increase in Fine Gael representation aided by an on-the-day seat-bonus of up to 25 seats in order to increase their representation to the mid-late fifties.

The historical evidence suggests that Labour does better when it stands alone. It has by now been well-noted that Labour’s most successful elections – 1969 and 1992 in particular – have been characterized by independent strategies. In 2002 the Labour vote held up but common wisdom has it that Labour would have been better suited if it had ruled out coalition with Fianna Fáil.

We believe in modifying the independent Labour strategy for the upcoming election, ruling out any transfer arrangements but also ruling out any possibility of entry into coalition with Fianna Fáil or the PD’s. Labour always does best when it not only stands for an alternative government but also an alternative type of politics.

Two other relevant issues might briefly be mentioned here. Firstly, one might question the desire of Labour activists to partake in a lengthy campaign designed to see Fine Gael, its ideology, policies and personalities in power. A detrimental effect of such a strategy amongst many activists is at least probable.

Finally, given that so much of the deliberative debate occurs in the media, we must take into account the framing of the upcoming electoral campaign in terms of press and broadcasting emphasis. If Labour enters as a minority partner in a pact with Fine Gael, it is likely that the latter will receive far more coverage due to the oppositional framing so common in contemporary media.

In particular, Labour will be altogether sidelined by concentration on potential Taoisigh in the leaders of FG and FF if the proposed strategy is accepted. Our strategy would see Pat Rabbitte promoted as an alternative to the two other leaders, a scenario we believe will be ultimately beneficial to the Labour vote.


Our case for an alternative politics centres on the need to change the very nature of Labour’s position in Irish society. This document does not allow for a wide discussion on the various issues surrounding the possibilities for a Labour-led Ireland but rather focuses on the importance of electoral strategy in achieving success for the Labour Party and our core values, aims and policies.

The 2005 National Conference of the Labour Party will give hundreds of delegates an exciting chance to decide on the electoral strategy for the upcoming general election. We believe that delegates should make their decisions and cast their votes in line with a commitment to an alternative politics in which Labour no longer plays second fiddle to conservative parties in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Our analysis is based not on short-term targets but on long-term goals for Ireland, based on the key principles of our movement and on the need for Labour to assert itself as the dominant political force in the 21st century.

The key elements of our strategy are…

1.A rejection of coalition with Fianna Fáil or the PD’s;
2.An independent electoral platform free from any pacts with Fine Gael or any other party;
3.The presentation of Labour as a potential leading party of government, with the appropriate level of candidates and strategies to ensure maximum media coverage;
4.A strategy which from its outset points out that Labour will not enter as a minority partner into any post-election government with Fine Gael.

Only when Labour gains the critical mass it requires to ensure the radical change in society inherent in our core principles should be enter government. This critical mass is not sometime in the distant future, but is an achievable goal at the next general election, provided a strong, independent Labour campaign offers an alternative politics, not just an alternative government.

We ask all delegates to vote accordingly on motions 57-70, encompassing composites 5 and 6, this Saturday morning.