Saturday 10 December 2016

FG will benefit most from pact, but all is not yet lost for Labour

There is hope for Labour if it can set out a future worth fighting for in a less fractious society, writes Jody Corcoran

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

IN IT TOGETHER: Joan and Enda have made a voting pact but Fine Gael is sure to get a bigger slice of the electoral cake
IN IT TOGETHER: Joan and Enda have made a voting pact but Fine Gael is sure to get a bigger slice of the electoral cake

On the face of it, a vote transfer pact between Fine Gael and Labour is unlikely to achieve its stated aim to return the current Coalition as a two-party government.

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The pact will help to save a handful of Coalition seats which would otherwise be lost; more Fine Gael than Labour seats, but perhaps also a few held by senior Labour TDs, such as Joan Burton herself.

So that is good for the leader and also for other Labour ministers - but perhaps not so good for the long-term future of the Labour Party.

At some point, Labour will need to allow real consideration to this issue: in this era, where does it stand and what does it stand for, other than at a small table alongside the blue thunder loyalty of Fine Gael.

At the moment, Labour adheres to the same principle of the former Progressive Democrats leader, Mary Harney, that the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition.

And in the current fractured landscape, that is a wiser-than-not course of action, but Labour will still face, if not fatal, then significantly reduced circumstances after the election.

In a recent analysis, I estimated that Fine Gael and Labour, combined, had lost between 20pc and 25pc in support since 2011, a scale similar to the meltdown experienced by Fianna Fail in that election.

Over the last five years Labour, in particular, has experienced the worst of days in government, but Fine Gael is also 10pc off peak performance.

In politics, you live and die by words and actions and Labour more than Fine Gael has faded but still lives by its deeds, as it should. As long as there is a pulse, however, there is hope - and a faint pulse still exists.

The issue for Labour is how to protect and strengthen that heartbeat, which would seem to be a debate for not now but another day, such is the white heat.

At issue for the Coalition, though, is a more philosophical question: how to present a picture of the country that is essentially different from the present and at the same time better?

It is a question faced by all political parties really and is not an easy one to answer in real terms that are true and meaningful, as opposed to a fake vision-thing.

To the party, movement or alliance which presents such a true picture, I bet, will attach the greater measure of electoral success.

Fine Gael is in a healthier position, which tells us that the effects of austerity have been more severe on supporters of Labour. Or to use Micheal Martin's paraphrase - Fine Gael is "too right wing".

A Labour adviser recently told me that the party should have had red-line issues when it entered government in 2011.

He referred to the infamous Tesco-style ad, which warned what Fine Gael had in store: car tax hikes, VAT increases, an annual water tax, a Dirt hike, child benefit cut and a €1 hike in a bottle of wine. That advertisement has been widely criticised, but in fact was a success at the time in that it halted a Fine Gael march towards an overall majority.

Had Labour opposed all or some of those specific austerities, it seems likely that it would not have borne the brunt of the backlash, as is now the case, or not to the same extent.

That is the past.

The lesson for all parties is to promise a future that is achievable, and not to conceal a breach of faith in the small print of a Programme for Government yet to be agreed.

The electorate is savvier, wise to such methods, and seems to me to be unlikely to fall for such cheapened politics again - although you'd never know for sure.

The Labour leadership has clearly decided that the best way to strengthen the party, in the short term at least, is to enter a formal vote-transfer pact with Fine Gael.

Given the party's situation, at around 6pc in the opinion polls, that is probably a wise decision, although, as I have said, such a pact is unlikely to return the two-party coalition.

An immediate question for both Fine Gael and Labour will be: under which of your promises will you draw a red line, if any?

The Fine Gael MEP, Brian Hayes is, therefore, also correct to point out that Fine Gael and Labour should present a broader-stoke joint policy platform. Such a suggestion has gained little or no traction in Labour, which finds itself snookered on its left and right flanks, such is the plethora of new parties, movements and alliances to have emerged.

In my view, Labour is gasping for air, damned if it does and damned if it does not, which is what comes after decades at the small table.

In an RTE radio interview last week, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny referred to the final 10 days of the election campaign, as if to say voters will migrate as a flock of birds to the Coalition when it considers the serious business of electing a Government.

This view is one borne more in hope than expectation. In this fractured political landscape, it is difficult to see a quarter of the electorate taking flight as one towards the Coalition the week before polling, although there will be some movement.

To maximise that movement, the Coalition will play its final card soon, a Budget that must surely set about reversing more of those most damaging austerity measures and not be cheapened by such politics that prioritises cash in hand over a fractious society. We shall see.

For the budget to achieve anything, it must be accompanied by a grander perspective, that picture of the country that is essentially different from the present and at the same time better.

In the view of many, such a perspective is beyond the wit or imagination of Enda Kenny, but it should not be lost on the ideals of Labour.

The scars of austerity may have a strange power to remind us that our past is real, but people tend to have different attitudes towards the past and the future.

There is scope here for Labour in an underlying attitude which tells us that the future is not fixed, can be changed and is therefore worth fighting for.

Sunday Independent

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