At the Labour Party gathering for their national conference last weekend, many of the party’s activists will have wondering what has gone wrong.
Almost four years after their near wipe-out in the general election of 2016, Labour have actually become more unpopular. The most recent opinion poll put them on 4%, below the 6.6% support they still held on to at their darkest hour.
It could be worse: the same poll had the Social Democrats on just 2%. Even the supposedly high-flying Green Party only had 7% support. Parties self-identifying as centre-left are failing to achieve any breakthrough.
That is only part of the story, however, as the failure of Labour since 2016 is more attributable to Leo Varadkar than it is to Brendan Howlin.
Since Varadkar’s rise to power, Fine Gael has gradually edged closer towards a left liberal position across a range of issues.
It is this repositioning of a formerly centre-right party – which has been the subject of very little discussion within the Irish political commentariat – that has blocked a Labour comeback.
Swap Howlin for Alan Kelly and the same problem still exists for Labour; Fine Gael has stolen a good sized chunk of Labour’s voters.
At 32% in the most recent poll, and with a clear lead over a stagnant Fianna Fáil, FG are on course to win the next election. But thanks to Varadkar and others, it is not the Fine Gael of old.
During the FG leadership battle in early 2017, Varadkar laid out his own stall politically.
“I’d cast myself as a social and economic liberal, which is typically what people describe as being left-of-centre on social issues and right-of-centre on economic issues,” he told The Irish Times.
This is a common enough idea, particularly in Fine Gael’s heartland in South County Dublin.
Many a well-heeled Fine Gaeler will self-identify as “economically conservative, but socially liberal.”
In terms of social policy, Varadkar was certainly not lying.
Five years ago, few people would have believed that a Fine Gael government – without the participation of Labour – would have introduced abortion-on-demand in Ireland, funded by each and every Irish taxpayer, be they pro-choice or not.
This new departure for party and country is routinely celebrated by a large wing of Fine Gael, led by the Health Minister.
At the same, other socially liberal measures are pushed relentlessly, in part to distract from the Government’s failings in areas such as housing or healthcare.
Taxpayer funding of contraception, the new proposals to allow same-sex parents to register both names on children’s birth certs, the pointless blasphemy referendum – all of this serves a purpose in terms of political branding. This strategy will be continued into the future, so expect movement on euthanasia within a few years.
When Fine Gael and Labour entered coalition in 2011, there was still a marked difference between the parties when it came to social issues.
Now, that difference has been completely erased, to the point that Labour’s departure from government in 2016 made absolutely no difference to the government’s policy trajectory.
Importantly, it must be emphasised that this is not a matter of classical liberals deciding to ‘live and let live.’
In its enthusiasm for illiberal measures to reshape society, Fine Gael has also moved sharply in the direction of the Left elsewhere, with hate speech legislation and a ban on peaceful protests outside abortion providers expected to be introduced soon.
Additionally, Fine Gael’s support for identity politics – and in particular, the enforced use of a quota system for what used to be free elections – has blossomed under Varadkar.
The 30% threshold for female candidates in general elections is on course to be raised to 40%. What is more, Varadkar has recently suggested that the same mechanism – linking state funding to adherence to a quota – should be used to ensure all political parties run a certain number of immigrant candidates in local elections.
Treating people as groups rather than as individuals, and dividing the country up into groups who are oppressed and those who are oppressed, is another hallmark of the political Left in Western countries today, and it is being adopted by Fine Gael with great relish.
The gay son of an Indian father who had risen to lead his country’s government, Varadkar was perfectly placed to stand against this trend, and to take the same principled stand against identity politics which the British Equalities Minister Liz Truss recently took.
Varadkar has not adopted the same position though. Identity politics, quotas for certain groups and restrictions on speech are part of the leftist worldview now, and he is happy to embrace them.
So is Fine Gael, and that – more than anything else – is the problem that Labour faces.
Given Varadkar’s record in Government, what convinced progressive wouldn’t vote Fine Gael?
But what about economic issues, you might say? Surely Fine Gael remains conservative in that respect?
This is a reasonably common viewpoint, but the evidence supporting it is virtually nil.
The recent Budget was not a fiscally conservative one.
The Government increased public spending by €3.1 billion and introduced a range of tax hikes to fund this pre-election splurge.
The free (or more accurately, ‘taxpayer-funded’) GP care policy was extended to include all children under eight, and so the middle-class welfare state continues to grow.
Tax cuts which were promised by Varadkar, and Enda Kenny before him, have not materialised. Irish people continue to enter into the top tax bracket after earning just over €35,000, and changing this is not a priority for Fine Gael.
Given the chance to be Taoiseach, a real economic liberal would trim the fat in the Irish public sector and reform its working practices.
Some of the semi-states could be privatised or part-privatised, and a long deserved bonfire of the quangos could be lit to remove once and for all a permanent drain on taxpayer resources.
Varadkar has done none of this.
When Labour was in government, the conventional wisdom was that they could block such policies. Varadkar’s time in office has proved this wrong; modern-day Fine Gael is more than happy to see billions wasted each year funding a range of do-nothing public bodies.
A far more destructive profligacy has been witnessed in relation to the Children’s Hospital, which was originally expected to cost €650 million, but which will probably cost more than €2 billion before completion.
If Ireland was governed by a party acting in the interest of taxpayers, heads would have rolled, including that of the minister responsible for the project. Of course, this has not happened. Fine Gael has its priorities, and minimising government waste is not one of them.
Moreover, when it comes to nanny-state regulations on alcohol, sugar taxes and the like, Fine Gael is increasingly wedded to nanny state measures and intrusive government regulation in the economic sphere.
This is not a party for anyone who believes in a small state or that grown-ups should be left to their own devices.
Ireland has suffered, and will suffer much more in future, as a result of the policies Varadkar has pursued.
Fine Gael on the other hand has done quite well. A support base of 32% heading in to a general election, and a strong lead over the main competitor, is not be ignored.
Being devoid of principles, Varadkar has found it easy to adopt a course of action which has turned out to be politically profitable.
The fact that this means that Fine Gael is becoming increasingly out-of-step with the Christian Democratic parties which it is allied to within the European People’s Party will not matter to Irish voters.
Make no mistake about it: Fine Gael is a party of the soft Left now. And as long as it holds this position, Labour’s hopes of achieving a real revival are doomed.