— Joan Burton (@joanburton) October 3, 2018
From top: The launch of the Labour Party’s alternative Budget 2019 yesterday with from left: Alan Kelly, Joan Burton, party leader Brendan Howlin, and Jan O’Sullivan; a tweet from Ms Burton during the Raise The Roof protest; Bryan Wall
Class politics still matter. The fact that this statement is being written in 2018 would likely have given Marx and his acolytes conniptions had they known this in the 1800s.
For them, class politics would eventually resolve itself in the victory of economic and social equality. Eventually, what this would engender, so Marxist theory goes, is a classless society.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would be the basic economic premise on which this new society would rest.
Worker control of the means of production in such a society also secures social equality in the sense that the property-owning class, factory owners, etc., are unable to socially reproduce.
There is no longer any inequality because the economic and social hierarchy has been either completely destroyed or extremely constrained.
Given that none of this has come to pass — for various reasons — it is argued in some quarters that this demonstrates the superior applicability of capitalism to the functioning of advanced societies.
Capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty, therefore its superiority to all other economic and social forms is self-evident, so the argument goes.
Of course this ignores the fact that the economic prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of the poor peoples of the world.
Within individual states there has also always existed a similar hierarchy upon which the economic successes of a few rested on the subjugation and exploitation of the many.
From this arises the Marxist critique of capitalism and also the solution. This solution lies in the advocacy of class politics via the party system in order to ensure an economic and social revolution further down the road.
With the continued rampage of capitalism around the world, including in Ireland, class politics is probably more important than ever before.
Any party which claims to represent the interests of the trampled-upon-classes, then, must be held to a strict moral consistency.
The needy and exploited are not baggage to be discarded at the first sign of trouble or the first sign of political power. Unfortunately, the latter has too many times been the case.
Parties, having once claimed to represent the downtrodden and economically enslaved, at the first scent of political office being offered to them, too often engage in their own form of moral expediency.
And the ones who pay for such moral calculations are the very people who put their faith in the said party in the first place.
When the Labour Party went into coalition government with Fine Gael in 2011, it was seen as a victory of working class politics in the mainstream political arena.
In the midst of a recession and mass unemployment, Labour’s election victory was seen in a positive light. Their advocacy for equality in society over the previous decades meant that their clout as an apparent voice for the voiceless, at least in terms of political parties, was well established in Irish society.
Having received 19.5% of first preference votes in the general election in 2011, it was called a “democratic revolution” in the opening paragraph of the Statement of Common Purpose document issued by the newly formed coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour.
When Eamon Gilmore, the then Labour leader, went before party delegates to secure permission to enter into coalition with Fine Gael, The Irish Times quoted him as saying that “The ‘last place’ people who voted for the party wanted it to be was in opposition.”
Joan Burton, who after the coalition was formed would become the Minister for Social Protection, said that it would be an “act of folly” for Labour not to go into government with Fine Gael.
In the Dáil, on March 15th 2011, Gilmore would lay out Labour’s goals when in government. He stated that “Those most at risk of poverty will not be made to suffer further” and that “Family incomes will be protected.”
They planned to “build up the economy again”, ensure that the workforce “is supported in gaining the skills that match the jobs of today and tomorrow,” and advocate for the creation of Irish jobs. Undergirding this would be “A fair and balanced approach to fixing our public finances.”
Admitting to his fellow TDs that “there will be some very difficult days”, it was his intent “to hand a country on to our children that is better than when we found it.”
Along similar lines, just days before their electoral success, Ruairí Quinn, Labour’s education spokesperson and soon-to-be Minister for Education, signed a Union of Students in Ireland (USI) pledge agreeing not to reintroduce or increase third level fees of any kind. Even before Gilmore’s speech was given however, portents of what was to come were already in the public realm.
Jimmy Kelly, the then Regional Secretary of UNITE, the second largest union affiliated with Labour, called on the party to abandon coalition talks.
He argued that Labour would be better positioned as the “official opposition” and would as a result be able to lead an “expanding parliamentary Left”. He was, of course, ignored.
The Statement of Common Purpose document mentioned above also showed the path that Labour would willingly trod down.
Mr Gilmore admitted as much when he told fellow Labour members, as reported in The Guardian at the time, that although the “document outlining the agreement was not the Labour manifesto, it was driven or moderated by Labour thinking.”
Logically then, it could be construed that Labour were making the argument that they played a moderating role on Fine Gael’s policies.
By moderating said policies, Labour would be protecting “Those most at risk of poverty”.
But as far back as 2004, under the leadership of Pat Rabbitte at the time, the signs of political expediency were already apparent. Labour had agreed to the so-called Mullingar Accord, in which the two parties , Fine Gael and Labour, “committed themselves to begin negotiations for an alternative Government”.
Labour’s rightward drift was not an overnight tactical manoeuvre. It was a calculated move in order to attain power.
During their tenure in government their policies, or those they had a hand in “moderating”, would result in pain and penury for large swathes of the population.
Between 2009 and 2015, the Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI) reported that the “biggest losses are to be found among those who are of working age, but not at work: those who are unemployed, non-earning lone parents, and those who are ill or have a disability.” Along with the introduction of water charges,
Labour were now seen as apologists for — and defenders of — the increasing neo-liberalisation of Irish society. A profound betrayal of the most vulnerable in society had taken place.
When questioned about this, along with Labour’s inability to keep its election promises, Pat Rabbitte, Minister for Communications, admitted lying to the electorate is something “you tend to do during an election.” But probably the most powerful example of the anger that was felt was the now infamous protest at Jobstown.
On November 15, 2014, Joan Burton, by then leader of Labour and the Tánaiste in the coalition government, was attending a graduation ceremony in Jobstown. Upon leaving the ceremony she was met with dozens of protestors and was trapped in her car as a result.
After the Gardaí attempted to remove the protestors by force, Burton and her advisor, Karen O’Connell, were moved to a Garda SUV.
After more back and forth jostling with the protestors, Burton and O’Connell would be moved to another Garda car which eventually managed to make it out past the protestors. In all, the entire event lasted roughly three hours.
Afterwards a number of people would be arrested and put on trial for their participation in the events of Jobstown, including TD Paul Murphy and a teenager. It took until June of last year before Murphy and six others were found not guilty of “false imprisonment”.
Jason Lester, the teenager mentioned who has only 15 at the time when arrested, would later have his own guilty verdict overturned by the Circuit Court.
With the arrests and subsequent trial being seen as politically motivated, it further ensured the demise of Labour as an entity of the Left.
It would emerge during the trial that O’Connell, Burton’s adviser, referred to the protestors as “fucking dregs”. Just one month earlier Ms Burton had commented on the use of smart phones by the anti-water charge protestors.
She stated that the protestors she had seen all seemed to have “extremely expensive phones,” presumably, in her mind at least, negating the argument made by many of the protestors that they would unable to pay a new water charge.
With their decimation at the polls in the 2016 general election, Labour were punished by the electorate for their behaviour in supporting massive cutbacks and the resulting inequality.
The party and its members, however, seem to have paid no heed to their critics or the people they once claimed to represent.
Brendan Howlin, the current Labour leader, was recently quoted as saying that the housing movement, Take Back the City, is “not something I would be associated with”.
And just days ago, on October 3rd, members of Labour made a rather unsuccessful appearance at the Raise the Roof protest in Dublin.
Organised to highlight homelessness and increasingly unaffordable rents, the protest attracted members of Labour, including former leader Joan Burton.
At one stage when members of Labour in the body of the crowd rose their flags, they were immediately shouted down.
Chants of “Labour, Labour, Labour, Out! Out Out!” could be heard. The small contingent would eventually be surrounded by Gardaí for their protection and were then escorted out of the march, again by Gardaí. Optically this was not entirely dissimilar to Jobstown. It played just as badly.
Ms Burton, who was not part of the contingent that was shouted down, took the opportunity to post a photograph of her appearance at the protest on Twitter.
She wrote that she was there to support the protest and “highlight homelessness”. Like the above, it was not received well. Labour’s history when in government has ensured that they are now “toxic” to the electorate.
A change in leadership and engaging in ideological window dressing by showing up to the Raise the Roof protest is not going to change that. It showed the lack of understanding the party and its supporters have.
Turning up to a protest like Raise the Roof is seen as nothing more than political opportunism by most people. Labour’s record when in government was appalling, betraying their constituency and their core beliefs all for the allure of power.
What is even more damming damning is comments that Ms Burton made on the issue of housing when she was in government.
As reported in The Times in December of 2015, the government was seen to be financially propping up landlords given the latter’s increasing profits because of rent allowance.
Instead of tackling the issue of the cost of rents spiralling, as Minister for Social Protection at the time, Ms Burton also ruled out increasing the amount of rent allowance payable.
In the same article the Simon Community reported “a 20% increase in the number of people seeking help from its services since this time last year .”
The seeds of the current rental and homeless crisis were well and truly sewn. Burton, it was reported, said she was “proud” of her government’s record on housing at the time. Is it any wonder that Labour and their message is toxic?
During the Seanad elections in 2016, two candidates who ran as independents had in fact strong links to the Labour Party. One, Luke Field, has held various roles in Labour Youth over the years, and is currently Labour’s Local Area Representative in Cork South Central.
Laura Harmon was the second “independent”, who was once President of the USI and would later hold an “advisory” role in Labour. She would go on to become Labour’s Women and Equality Officer in September 2015.
Yet during the Seanad elections, both her and Field ran as independents.
Regardless as to whether this was a move devised by senior Labour officials or decided by Mr Field and Ms Harmon themselves, it speaks volumes to the tactics Labour and their supporters are willing to use. This includes turning up to the Raise the Roof protest.
Given Labour’s deceitful and all too recent history, any attempt by them or their supporters to rehabilitate themselves and their party must be resisted.
Any fight for equality must include denying a platform to those who have willingly deceived and harmed others, especially the most vulnerable, which is what Labour’s term in government did.
Ideological unity must not come at the expense of moral consistency. Labour’s attempt at entryism, a tactic used by movements such as the Social Workers Party and People Before Profit and who both have strong authoritarian impulses at their core, must be fought.
Otherwise any movement with a social conscience and heart is likely to be diverted by those attempting to appropriate the movement for their own, and not entirely honest or legitimate, purposes.
In the case of Labour, having lost the power they so assiduously planned to attain, it is obvious that they seek to align themselves with whatever group they can in order to erase their past grievances and rehabilitate themselves.
On Wednesday it was shown that their attempts are failing, and rightly so given the price we are all paying for the decisions they made and supported when in government.
Bryan Wall is a PhD candidate in the departments of sociology and philosophy in University College Cork. His interests are in citizenship, human rights, democratic and political theory, and the history of Zionism. Read his work here