It is a canon of modern psychology, narcology, self-help, business management and financial restructuring that the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that one has a problem to solve. The Labour Party has a problem and that problem goes beyond the many cyclical problems it faces (principally, the backlash against it by voters betrayed by the party's unrealistic 2011 election promises) and even the structural ones (principally, the disintegration of the economic and financial underpinnings of 20th century social democracy and an over-reliance on public sector support). Indeed, it may even be at the root of the Labour Party's entire web of problems that threatens the party of Connolly and Larkin's future viability like never before. The problem can be summarised in one word: Democracy.
Labour, at least since the Mary Robinson era and perhaps earlier, seems to have developed a "born to rule" complex without ever having won an election. This is unusual. Most parties which have picked up this delusion have done so precisely because they got so used to winning (e.g. the Tories prior to 1997 or Fianna Fail prior to 2011) and the consequent disconnect between self image and public standing can be chalked up to the difficulties of transition. Labour has no such excuse. Its best general election result ever has been 19% (17 points behind the leading party). In every general election bar one (2011, which increasingly looks like an anomaly), the party's best position has been third place. Only in the highly aberrant presidential elections has Labour ever won a national contest - and not once has the party been able to translate that into general, local or European election success.
No. Labour's cloying sense of entitlement seems to consist of a contempt for the stated will of the electorate. Labour believes that it is entitled to exercise decisive influence over the government of the country without winning the majority or the plurality of the vote that it needs to do so. Nothing exemplifies this attitude like Ruairi Quinn's utterly bizarre valedictory speech to Labour's parliamentary party in Wicklow. Quinn shamelessly crowed about Labour "defeating" the "Fine Gaelers", the "Free-Staters", the "Fianna Failers" and the "Nationalists", referred to his party (once derided by Sean Lemass as the most "respectable" party in the country) as "a lonely tribe of adventurers, of pioneers, of visionaries, who have said we will transform this country in a way that it never was before." This preposterous stream of consciousness from one of Ireland's most insuperably arrogant politicians demonstrates two things.
First off, a man who was first elected to the Dail in 1977 and has been a TD almost continuously since boasts of policy victories for socialism during a period that has encompassed the Thatcher/Reagan revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of post-Maoist Red Capitalism in China, the collapse of organised labour as a force in the industrial economy, the loss of the state's monopolies in airlines, telecoms, package delivery and television and radio, the privatisation of Aer Lingus and Eircom, the dismemberment of Aer Rianta and the reduction of the ratio of government spending to national output from a peak of just under half to a trough of just over a third. One does not have to be a fan of these developments to acknowledge that all of the structural change in the consensus of ideas during Ruairi Quinn's long and illustrious career has consisted of the defeat of socialist and social democratic policy prescriptions. Indeed, the reason that Labour apparatchiks crow so endlessly over their socio-cultural victories such as divorce and gay marriage is precisely because their attempts to sell their economic philosophy have been such a failure. If Ruairi Quinn regards this 38 year record of policy reversals as "defeating" the perfidious FF and FGers, his grip on reality must be tenuous.
The second phenomenon that Quinn's love letter to himself demonstrates is that he regards Labour as having defeated an ideological bloc (the centre-right) which has never failed to win twice as many votes as the Labour Party in any general election. If this were true, it would be indicative of the biggest breakdown in democracy that any western country has ever seen and the idea that Quinn believes that Labour has the moral standing to inflict "defeats" on a philosophy of government that he and his confederates have never vanquished at the ballot box can only be indicative of a belief that Labour votes morally count for more than those of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Quinn is not alone. This week, Brendan Howlin has said that a Labour Party whose best potential performance in the coming election is in the region of 8-10% of the vote and could easily be far, far worse, will insist, as a precondition to another deal with Fine Gael, on a 2:1 ratio of spending increases to tax cuts in the next Dail. In fairness to Howlin, his younger colleagues demonstrate an even greater ideological solipsism. In 2011, Dublin Mid-West TD, Joanna Tuffy demanded that any deal with Fine Gael (which won roughly two thirds of the coalition's votes and seats) would need to be "Labour-led" and "social democratic". Meanwhile, in her failed run for deputy leadership in 2014, Ciara Conway called for the coalition to reflect "pure Labour values" (with Labour having fallen to just 7% of vote). The bottom line demonstrated by these eruptions of emotional flatulence is that if Labour believes that its votes and seats have a greater moral authority than those of its opponents, it will never be able to liberate itself from its resentment of voters who have abandoned it for a harder left alternative or stayed with the traditional centre parties. There is nothing voters hate more than a belief that a party feels that they owe it and not the other way around. The question is whether Labour can learn this lesson before the tides of history sweep it away.