Thursday 27 October 2016

Labour must choose between power broker and watchdog

Published 12/01/2016 | 02:30

Minister Brendan Howlin
Minister Brendan Howlin

In late 2010, Eamon Gilmore mused over Ireland's two-and-a-half party system and for more than a moment he thought he could change it.

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No longer would the Labour Party be considered a 'half party' - but they would enter a three-way contest to lead the government. And so was born the slogan 'Gilmore for Taoiseach'.

The campaign centred around the idea that his party could create 'One Ireland' at a time when Ajai Chopra and the gang from the IMF were staying in the Merrion.

But, as election day drew near, Labour changed the message from one of what they could achieve to one outlining what they could prevent.

Fear and a creative Tesco-style advert warning of the dangers of an overall Fine Gael majority won out, securing Mr Gilmore a record 37 TDs and five Cabinet seats.

They set high standards for themselves. Their manifesto had dripped with phrases like "transformative change", "fairness" and "equality".

Roll on five years and I'm sitting with Brendan Howlin in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Labour are struggling to get across their achievements in the past five years and are forced to hitch their trailer to Fine Gael, who are on the up.

"The Labour Party always gets a bigger bash because for some peculiar reason there is an extraordinarily high expectation of us," Mr Howlin proposes.

"They [voters] don't have the same level of expectation of other parties for some reason." There may be some truth to what he says - but it is those latter-day promises that are hurting now.

While talk of Universal Health Insurance and ending homelessness fit into the idea of that fairer Ireland proposed by the Labour Party in 2011, it was the undertaking not to cut child benefit, hike the price of wine or introduce water charges that people really engaged with.

Rightly or wrongly, they were tangible things that voters understood - and when Labour didn't follow through, the die was cast.

Mr Howlin argues that people expected Labour to "deliver beyond our capacity".

"We weren't elected to government. We were elected as a third of the government, not a Labour government.

"But they expect 100pc of Labour policies and the Labour platform to be implemented."

It's true that Labour managed to twist Fine Gael arms on marriage equality, core weekly social welfare payments were protected and the minimum wage was restored. "We certainly have had more than a third of the influence over the past five years so we have punched above our weight.

"But people are critical because we didn't do everything we set out in the manifesto but we weren't empowered by the voters to do everything," Mr Howlin says.

So as we approach another election day, the same question faces Labour again.

Should they try to boast of the things achieved - or do they remind voters of the things they stopped Fine Gael from doing?

There will be no simple answer this time.

Irish Independent

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