The Laborious Labours of Mickey D

So, c’mere to me, I want to ask you a question. Do you or do you not believe in the achievement of an inclusive citizenship with a new form of social economy and universal access to the requirements of citizenship? Because if you do, you’re half-way towards qualifying as a coalition partner for the Labour Party.

The impenetrable formulation above was one of two questions party president Michael D. Higgins posed to “those who would do business with us” in the course of a rapturously-received address at the Labour Party conference in Galway last night. For the record, the other was “Do they accept or reject that speculative form of the economy divorced from any social responsibility?” Given the economic programme recently outlined by party finance bod Joan Burton, it’s tempting to wonder what answer the question is inviting.

Last night, the Labour blogosphere was abuzz with approbation for Michael D’s address. Having viewed it myself, it’s hard to understand quite what they were so excited about. Even leaving the politics aside, the import of the address was stifled by academic jargon like the periphrastic circumlocution above. Which probably isn’t that surprising, given that the rabble-rousing title Mickey D conferred on his little speechín was Labour – The Real Alternative: Towards a Political Economy Based on an Inclusive Citizenship.

Which is not to say that the speech was entirely devoid of significance. Socialism was invoked just once (tangentially, during an Irish-language preamble on the history of the Labour Party in Galway), and, extraordinarily in the circumstances, neither the ongoing public sector dispute nor even the broader trade union movement merited a single mention.

The present financial crisis was blamed on a “failure of unregulated speculative capitalism”; note the double prophylactic qualifier (just to be sure, to be sure, as the old joke goes.) Higgins never once referenced Fianna Fáil or any other party by name, but instead rounded on the populace at large for electing them.

He was quite baldly explicit about this, re-emphasising the point more than once. Responsibility for the crash, he insisted, lay with the public’s “misplaced loyalty and trust in market fundamentalism and extreme individualism”, when a Labour government “would have delivered a different Ireland.” I guess if anyone is going to evince a sense of wounded paternalism, it should be Michael D., but the comment jarred nonetheless (not least because, as I recently outlined, I don’t believe the Irish people have ever endorsed those values.)

Every time Higgins seemed to be winding up for a proper Left hook, the punch was fatally pulled. Thus we had a denunciation of “market fundamentalism” and an appeal for a “social economy”, a term notably one linguistic permutation away from the “social market” so beloved of EPP spokespeople.

Even when the decibels cranked up, the message was vague and obfuscated. “What kind of cowardliness in us”, he plaintively cried, “stops us from speaking and raging about the alternative that can be created?” (I don’t know, Michael, what kind of cowardliness in you does stop you from speaking and raging about the alternative that can be created?)

Towards the conclusion of the speech, Higgins did adumbrate a couple of specific policy points (“lest people think that I speak in the abstract all the time”, heaven forbid.) The most encouraging was a clear statement of opposition to reductions in social welfare payments and the minimum wage, particularly in the context of NAMA. This is to be welcomed. He also proposed the establishment of a business and investment bank (which would certainly have been preferable to the NAMA route) before lapsing back into platitudinous gobbledegook with an appeal for the “building of real inclusive citizenship.”

And then, just as he was winding down, came the revelatory punchline. The “real inclusive citizenship” motif which had peppered the speech was abruptly decommissioned in favour of “real republican citizenship.” Just in case anyone had missed it, he repeated it almost immediately. Suddenly, the major subtext of the speech, which I confess had largely eluded me, became clear.

Just about the only historical figures invoked in the course of the speech had been Michael Davitt and James Connolly (specifically in relation to the decision to commit the Citizen Army to the Rising.) Additionally, Higgins had begun by stating how his father had fought for Irish independence, which independence “had not been delivered.” This entire thread of the address was, of course, a plain-as-your-nose shout-out to Sinn Féin.

This was also, undoubtedly, the motivation behind the repeated juxtaposition of “Labour and the left”, particularly as the statement that there was “nothing immiseratingly materialist” about Labour’s programme was a clear rebuff to radical currents.

So what have we learned from the conference so far? That Labour is not a socialist or even a genuine social democratic party is surely news to no-one. Nonetheless, depressing little vignettes such as The Apostasy of Dr. Cowley (Dr. Jerry Cowley, former independent TD and Shell to Sea supporter, has joined the Labour Party and accordingly dropped his opposition to the pipeline, because “things have moved on”) demonstrate just how far right the currents of neoliberalism have carried the party.

Nonetheless, Labour, alone amongst the major parties, continues ostensibly to espouse social justice and resistance to the hegemony of the market, and therein lies the opportunity for the genuine left. Assiduously exposing those who merely talk the talk could help lead left-minded voters towards those who walk the walk. But not to do so until Labour posteriors are furrowing the government benches would be a critical mistake. They must be put beneath the spotlight and forced to unfurl their true colours at every opportunity.

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4 Responses to “The Laborious Labours of Mickey D”

  1. C Flower Says:

    Thanks for this. Higgins has been relatively quiet and his contribution to the Dail debate on NAMA I remember was

    Is he still interested in the Presidency ? A one size fits all speech would be in tune with that.

    Blaming the electorate for the failure of capitalism and the iniquity of the neo-liberal project has almost a religious ring to it – bless me father for I have sinned….

    The best way to reveal Labour’s real agenda (as was the case with the Greens) isto put them as soon as possible into a Left or Left Republican government – along of course, with providing a socialist alternative.

  2. C Flower Says:

    Thanks for this. Higgins has been relatively quiet and his contribution to the Dail debate on NAMA I remember was a disappointment.

    Is he still interested in the Presidency ? A one size fits all speech would be in tune with that.

    Blaming the electorate for the failure of capitalism and the iniquity of the neo-liberal project has almost a religious ring to it – bless me father for I have sinned….

    The best way to reveal Labour’s real agenda (as was the case with the Greens) isto put them as soon as possible into a Left or Left Republican government – along of course, with providing a socialist alternative

  3. That Labour love letter to… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] that sounds, albeit isn’t, almost corporatist (DublinDilettante notes this too, and in a post argues that there was some opening to Republicanism. Very possible, they’ll want to mop up as many […]

  4. And what of the new arrivals… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] The Left. trackback Again, evidence of how out of touch I was this last weekend, but the news that Dr. Jerry Cowley has joined Labour which I read here came as a bit of a surprise. As it […]

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