Fintan O’Toole in yesterday’s ‘Irish Times’ suggests the Irish Labour Party must shift to the Left in order to capture the working class votes it needs if it is to re-establish itself as a major force in Irish politics. As a lifelong supporter of hopeless causes, including being a member of the British Labour Party in Somerset, I think he is mistaken. He assumes that the shift to the Left must be necessary because he thinks that’s where working class people are – a case, I think, of an ‘Irish Times’ writer assuming that everyone thinks as Dublin 4 intellectuals think.
O’Toole argues that the British Labour Party had a solidly working-class electorate and had to shift to the Right to capture middle class votes – a very simplistic analysis of Blair’s success from someone who is usually much more nuanced and subtle. The British Labour Party was strong in areas where there had been a tradition of heavy industry, places like Yorkshire, Lancashire and South Wales. Working class voters were solidly Labour in the counties which had seen pits and mills, Labour did not command that loyalty further south and further east. Margaret Thatcher’s great success was to garner the votes of millions of working-class people, particularly around London and the south-east. ‘Essex man’, the brash, Sun-reading, proletarian, was at the backbone of the Thatcherite revolution. Blair’s success was in re-capturing working class votes, in winning back seats in London and the south-east. Moving to a point where Labour reflected the views of tradesmen and small firm employees was what was required.
Fintan O’Toole acknowledges that the Irish Labour Party has never had a strong heavy industrial base upon which to build and believes that it is now disproportionately middle class in its support. Yet he believes that Labour will gain votes from working-class votes from Fianna Fail by moving Leftwards. Translated to a British context, this would be like suggesting that the British Labour Party could have regained Essex votes by moving further Left; his argument simply does not hold up.
The Irish working-class voters who are putting Bertie back into power at each election are the ones working for small firms and tradesmen. They are people like a carpenter I know who says that Labour is against work and against workers. Through parish experience, I know people living in public housing on social welfare benefits who have significantly more disposable income than people earning €20,000-€30,000 p.a. who pay have to pay tax, social insurance, health care, mortgages and all the costs of getting to work. This is not to argue against benefits, only to point out why many working class people feel a sense of grievance when there are calls from the Left that benefits be raised. There is a perception that the Left just does not represent working people.
As a Christian, I am under a biblical imperative to seek a just society where there is a fair chance for everyone. If the Irish Labour Party moves to the Left it will not rally working-class votes, rather it will leave the centre ground clear for a persistence of the status quo in which working-class people continue to vote for governments that are content that they drive four hours a day to go to work, and are happy that their children spend fifty hours a week in creches, and offer precious little comfort as the mortgage interest rates increase. A Left-wing Labour Party would frighten the very people whose support it sought to recruit, it would be a step backwards, a step even further away from the society that Fintan O’Toole seeks.