Most of Labourâ€™s critics, armed with a deadly cocktail of ignorance and arrogance, have dismissed it as a sideshow. There was never a strong left-wing party in Ireland, they say, because there was never a strong industrial base from which to build such a party. The only place where a true working class existed, the argument goes, was in Belfast and the surrounding area. Partition left Ireland a truncated working-class movement, and saw mainstream politics dominated by the polarities of the Civil War.
It is an historical analysis that the Irish Labour party is all too willing to endorse. The partyâ€™s official history states the following:
â€œThe Labour Party did not take part in the General Election of 1918 or the parliamentary elections of 1921. This decision was taken to facilitate a clear-cut decision by the electorate on the national question and to avoid the possibility of a split in the Labour Movement which was organised on an all-Ireland basis. This decision had serious implications for the future of the Party. In the 1918 election, two out of every three voters were voting for the first time and forming political links which were to last a lifetime. The national debate was not resolved by the elections of 1918 and 1921 or the civil war which followed. It has continued to be a part of politics in Ireland ever since.â€
The Irish Labour partyâ€™s analysis, however, is wrong.
In the 1920 local elections the Labour party emerged as the second largest party on the island. In 1922, the party went on to win seventeen seats out of eighteen candidates, with 20% of the vote. J.T. Oâ€™Farrell, secretary of the Railway Clerksâ€™ Association, only lost out on making the Labour partyâ€™s campaign a perfect success by 361 votes. That was in Dublin. In Leix/Offaly, William Davin secured two quotas for the party, topping the poll with 15,167 first preference votes. There is no doubt that the Labour party would have won more seats had it fielded more candidates and engaged in the now mandatory vote management.
In 1922/23 Irish farm labourers, railwaymen, dockers, and teachers were engaged in a full-out wage war with their employers, and voted for the Labour party to fight on their behalf. However, the partyâ€™s leader, Thomas Johnston, entered the DÃ¡il on a â€œmoralâ€ crusade. He decided that Labourâ€™s role was to protect democracy, and not fight for its votersâ€™ interests.
In the 1923 election the partyâ€™s vote shrank, leaving it with a slightly more modest fourteen seats. Thomas Johnston himself only retained his seat in Dublin North on the final count. Even with this, he failed to reach the quota, securing the seat through the elimination of the other candidates.
For the Labour partyâ€™s analysis - that the 1918 election somehow caused inter-generational voting patterns â€“ to work, the Irish electorate must have undergone a collective amnesia for five years; or by consistently voting for a Labour party only to reject it in 1923 the partyâ€™s analysis is suggesting that the Irish electorate woke up on the morning of election day and said “Hey? Shouldnâ€™t we be voting on Nationalist v Unionist patterns, like we did in 1918, even though the Unionists are gone and it is just us Nationalist here?”
That is quite a magic bullet.
Another analysis is that the Irish electorate voted for the Labour party in 1920 and 1922 to protect wages, and decided not to vote for them in 1923 when the party failed, under Johnston, to pursue that mandate.
The Labour party lost votes in 1923 through bad leadership and bad policies, and not through some mystical collective inter-generational voting pattern caused by a vote for Nationalism or Unionism in 1918.
From 1923 to 1932, bad leadership and a complete lack of vision conspired to create a labour party that was not a political party or a socialist party, or even a social democratic party.
It was trade union party - run by trade unionists for trade unionists, with trade union structures and procedures.
It organised branches only where there were trade union branches. All candidates for election had to be members of a trade union. All decisions and policies were taken with the interests of the trade union movement in mind (about 180,000 people), and not in interests of Irish labour (about 2 million people). It was a gap into which DeValera and Fianna FÃ¡il rushed in, becoming in 1932 the largest party in the country with a potent mix of nationalism and social policies. Fianna FÃ¡il became the working class party in Dublin, and apart from the odd upset- see 1992 for example â€“ it has remained so.
That is where the Irish Labour party messed up. It had seventeen years (1912-1927) ahead of Fianna FÃ¡il to secure those voters. Instead, it couldnâ€™t see past the rule book and trade membership card.
No magic bullet. No inter-generational voting patterns. Just, no vision and no ambition.
Its relevance for today is that people continue to see the Irish Labour partyâ€™s lack of success as somehow out of the partyâ€™s control; that somehow, history is to blame. Civil war politics and all that. Concurrent with this is the recent debate on Rabbitteâ€™s tax cut and the assumption that the Labour Party was, and is, a normal political party. The facts, Iâ€™m afraid, tell otherwise.
The partyâ€™s failure to see beyond its trade union template affected the party from the 1910s up to the 1980s, and continues to affect its performance today. The party needs to start looking towards becoming the largest party in any future coalition. Its analysis that the past is somehow to blame for its lack of progress in this regard is, quite simply, wrong. The prize is there, but whether the party is strong enough and ambitious enough to take it â€“ well, thatâ€™s where the failing be.