29 August 2002 Edition

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Quinn bows out as Labour languishes

BY MICHAEL PIERSE


     
The fact that Labour bases its strategy on individuals, rather than on principle, ideology and strategic objectives, confirms it is doomed to failure
The Labour Party "failed to convince people that you cannot have your cake and eat it", its departing leader loftily proclaimed on Tuesday, blaming the people for their failure to appreciate the logic of inequality.

"You cannot have such low tax rates and still have the public services you require," Ruairí Quinn lectured from the front gate of Leinster House.

It's amazing how, when being popular is no longer a prerequisite of keeping their jobs, the mask can slip and reveal the true face of some of our esteemed political leaders. Ruairí Quinn is no exception. A man who readily admits his passion for powerful positions, he was unlikely to see the general public in any other light.

The nickname Ho Chi Quinn was largely a misnomer for Labour's departing leader - he was never considered the reddest in its ranks, and confirmed this in Labour pre-election broadcasts this year, when he outlined its objective as that of 'civilising capitalism', rather than ending it. But that isn't unusual for today's centrist Labour leaders. Previous leader Dick Spring is now a Director of Eircom: the company responsible for taking state telecommunications out of the hands, at least theoretically, of all the people of the 26 Counties, placing it, temporarily, in the hands of some of the upper and middle classes, and then, having reduced shareholders' dreams to tatters, selling them upwards to the corporate elite: privatisation, it's called.

This mindset seems common enough in the party. One Labour source, speaking to Miriam Donohoe of the Irish Times on Wednesday, advised that the new leader "will have to identify the market of the Labour Party and will have to target that market in a focused way".

Quinn's departure should offer an opportunity for fundmental change in the party's trajectory, but is more likely to herald more of the same lame duck centre-leftism, marking another milestone on the path to political oblivion.

As Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole put it, "he leaves the stage, not in a blaze of operatic tragedy, but in the slow fade of weary disenchantment".

After six years of leadership, 56-year-old Quinn believed it was time to move on. He was expected to face a leadership challenge in October, when his term was due to expire, following a bruising general election in May. His debate with Gerry Adams on the Late Late Show typified Quinn's failure to inspire. He struggled to retain his own TD seat.

Brendan Howlin, Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Jan O'Sullivan or Joan Burton, whichever will step into the fray as Labour's new leader, faces a mammoth task.

While the merger with Democratic Left in 1998 went relatively smoothely, rifts emerged in the run up to the elections, with internal rows in constituencies such as Dublin South-Central and Cork North-Central. The general election confirmed that the rot, for Labour, has set in. Sinn Féin took seats in Louth and North Kerry at the expense of the party, relegating another of its candidates in Dublin South Central and eating into Labour's votes everywhere the party stood. The Green Party took seats in Labour's most comfortably territories, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin Mid West, Dublin South and Cork South Central, where an urban middle calss comprises much of the vote. Both the Left and the Liberal have turned against the party.

Former Labour spin doctor Fergus Finlay wrote of Quinn's departure in the Irish Examiner with uncritical reverence, but his deference was revealing of the flawed logic on which the party and most other parties in this country operate. "A fresh face and a new burst of enthusiasm will help revitalise the party for the challenge," he said, of the next general election.

This is the superficial coinage on which parties that have lost their way base future hopes. A messiah, a redemptive leader, will come to the fore, they naïvely gush, someone who can 'revitalise' what is already dead. Lazarus Labour, however, will remain firmlly in its tomb. The very fact the party bases its strategy on individuals, rather than on principle, ideology and strategic objectives, confirms it is doomed to failure. It will certainly fail to attract new blood.



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