Sunday, February 19, 2012

Labour members forum

Over the weekend I attended a meeting organized by Labour grassroots members entitled "What can Labour do in Government". With two panel sessions and a lot of time allocated for contributions from the floor, the event promised to allow a lot of disgruntled members to get things off their chest. Over the course of the day I would estimate that about 80-100 people attended, mainly from the Dublin area but with some from as far as Leitrim and Galway.
I was somewhat wary of attending for several reasons. Firstly, events like this can often turn into a forum for people to rant without being constructive. Secondly, specific issues (eg local hospital, septic tanks) can hijack the event and send if off on a tangent. Thirdly, there is the fear that those attending are seen as being seditious and trying to split the party or worse, join the SWP or Socialists. A couple of McCarthy-esque jokes were cracked at the event about spying on ourselves. Finally, there is the perverse situation at these sorts of events where everyone wants to watch and listen, but nobody wants to contribute. I was at such a meeting once and it was one of the most painful hours of my life.
The morning panel was badged as a "descriptive session" where the current state of play would be outlined. Speakers from Unite, ICTU and the Women's Council set the scene with brief presentations and then the debate was opened up. The key theme was obviously the economy and the failure of the austerity regime being implemented. Other topics included youth unemployment, IBRC promissory notes and the demise of the JLC system. I'm always a bit wary of the Trade Unions preaching at the Labour Party after their continued sucking up to Bertie throughout the boom and the farce of social partnership. But unions and the party are working towards the same ends and so we have to learn to get along again.
After a quick break for tea and sandwiches (no champagne or prawns!) we settled in for the afternoon's "proscriptive" session. It featured a panel of Mags Murphy from SIPTU, Michael Taft from Unite and Mary Murphy from NUIM. Between them the presented an alternative strategy to austerity, based on targeted state investment and a re-balancing of the tax burden. A long discussion followed with many detailed and comprehensive contributions from party members.
Towards the end, the debate moved towards what could be done to bring these ideas forward. The big problem is that if, like at the Irish Economy Conference, no policy makers are there to listen, what is the point in having a discussion. Unless a concrete proposal can be drafted and then accepted by the party leadership then the effort may be in vain. Several backbench TDs attended various parts of the day, and to be fair to them, they sat quietly and listened rather than dominating the discourse. Perhaps they will report at the next PLP meeting and a constructive dialogue can begin between the top and the bottom of the party. There are plans to hold further such events and I will certainly attend if at all possible.

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