Bye election shows that Labour is on the ropes

History repeats itself for the Labour Party in the Meath East Bye Election 2013. Just under thirty years ago the Labour Party was humiliated in a Bye election in the Dublin Central constituency against a political background uncannily reminiscent to the present day. The vacancy was occasioned by the sudden death of former Fianna Fail Minister, George Colley.

The Labour Party under the leadership of Dick Spring went into coalition government with Fine Gael under Garret Fitzgerald after the November 1982 General Election. There was a serious economic crisis with mounting unemployment and the public finances were in disarray. The capitalist establishment, true to form, was shifting the burden of yet another crisis in their system onto the shoulders of working class people – low and middle income workers and the unemployed. Public services were being hit severely.

True to form as well, The Labour Party entered government prepared to do the dirty work for the establishment. Even though there was an active, anti coalition Left in Labour at the time and the ideas and memory of the socialist founders of the party, Connolly and Larkin, were much stronger within it than today, nevertheless the right wing leadership was able to use its control of the party apparatus to get enough support for a coalitionist strategy.

From here on the parallels with today keep strengthening. Labour rapidly increased in unpopularity as cuts began to hit home. Mr Spring was Minister for the Environment and Local Government. In 1983 he introduced legislation allowing local authorities to bring in charges for water to people’s homes, for sewage leaving people’s homes and for domestic refuse collection.

There was anger and consternation among PAYE taxpayers. In particular there was a keen sense of betrayal because the 1977 General Election had the abolition of local authority rates as a central plank of discussion, to be replaced by other taxation arrangements and with local authorities to be funded from central government taxation with the rate support grant.. The ‘re-introduction of rates by the back door’ was bitterly resented.. Local authority charges were branded as ‘double taxation’ and were immediately subject to a widespread boycott.

The Bye election in Dublin Central was held in November 1983. As the political parties arrived on the doors, they found that letters from Dublin City Council demanding water charges under the new Coalition legislation were arriving simultaneously. The outrage in this very working class constituency was palpable. I know, I was one of those foot soldiers from the ranks of the anti coalition wing of the Labour Party.

Fianna Fail, then in opposition, took the seat. The labour candidate came in a humiliating fifth with 6.01% of the first preference vote, behind Fianna Fail (46.5%), Fine Gael (22.5%), The Workers Party (13.2%) and Sinn Fein (7.05%). It should have been a lesson learned by the Labour leadership had they been serious about providing an alternative to a failing economic system and to the political establishment of the State which had propped up that system from the beginning. It wasn’t, of course, because Labour’s leaders had no belief in any alternative to the capitalist status quo and had long since cocooned themselves within the very system their party was set up to challenge.

After the 1983 Bye election Labour continued in government. It sank to new lows in implementing slash and burn policies that today we would call ‘austerity’. Abolishing modest subsidies on essential foods and standing over a Garda baton charge against Dublin City Council refuse collection workers who were on strike were two of Labour’s most memorable ‘achievements’. Dublin Central was a portent of things to come. In the subsequent General Election of February 1987, Labour recorded its lowest national vote in fifty years, coming in at 6.4%.

And so to Meath East 2013. The Labour Party coming in fifth at 4.6% is reaping a bitter and just reward for its role in implementing savage austerity on ordinary people in another bailout of the system that Labour was founded to challenge, and end, with a socialist alternative. The fact that a much more serious hit on the Fine Gael vote was averted by the tragic circumstances which occasioned the vacancy does not mitigate the extent of the Labour disaster.

The implementation of the Property Tax was but the most recent betrayal of the Labour Party in government but it will prove to be by far the most damaging. A gigantic struggle is just about to be opened against this new, onerous manifestation of the austerity/bailout agenda. Hundreds of thousands of tax compliant homeowners are embarking on a major boycott. Should that be accompanied by the campaign launching a serious political challenge in the form of a national slate of anti austerity candidates in the Euro and local elections next year, not just Labour’s vote but its continued existence could be at stake.