News Analysis

Saturday 20 September 2014

Frank Cluskey was my grandfather, but Labour should not count on me for a vote

Published 02/06/2014 | 02:30

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Joan Burton is standing for the Labour party leadership. Photo: Damien Eagers
Joan Burton is standing for the Labour party leadership. Photo: Damien Eagers
Frank Cluskey

JOAN Burton doesn't speak for me. Until recently, I was one of those voters who told canvassers not to bother. Having grown up in the shadow of Frank Cluskey, the leader of the Labour Party between 1977 and 1981 and my maternal grandfather, my vote for Labour was a sure thing.

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Though he died months after I was born I feel like I knew him, having heard story after story about Frank's time at Labour and later, as lord mayor of Dublin. It feels as though anyone who was of adult age during his era has a tale to tell about him. He was a progressive, a staunch trade unionist, in favour of the separation of church and state.

Now, for the first time since I turned 18, my vote for Labour is not assured. It will be decided by whom the party selects to replace Eamon Gilmore. Having utterly failed the people who voted them in over the last two years, this is Labour's chance for redemption.

If they elect Joan Burton, my vote will go elsewhere. Joan Burton is not a bad politician. She has done good things at the Department of Social Protection. But I cannot relate to her, and I'd wager the vast majority of the under-45 voting public feel the same. The first reason is her age, 65. I accept the argument that women over a certain age are poorly represented in politics – and senior positions in virtually all industries – and that it is important to fight this trend.

But at 25 I have little in common with someone approaching 70, and they have little in common with me. Our influences, cultural norms and the way we see the world are entirely different. Most of Labour's leading lights fall into a similar age bracket to Burton; Ruairi Quinn is in his 60s, Brendan Howlin is 59 and Pat Rabbitte is in his 60s.

The party's failure to foster young talent is bizarre given that its remit is to represent the underrepresented and at risk. Youth falls firmly into that category, with young people almost entirely left out of decision-making roles both in government and industry.

Perhaps this is why the demographic has suffered so much more than older generations in the wake of the recession.

Among other things we have endured endless hikes to our most important commodity, education; a raise to the state pension age that hurts those retiring in two decades, not today; and endless increases in government-imposed levies on health insurance to cover older people.

Social necessities that our parents took for granted – like water and basic healthcare – are becoming serious drains on our income. Yet pensioners still enjoy free public transport and reduced utility allowances, without means testing. Youth unemployment now stands at 26pc – and this figure doesn't even account for the 85,000 under 35s who have left the country since Labour entered government.

As Minister for Social Protection, Burton's main effort towards addressing this was the unveiling of the Youth Guarantee Fund aimed at getting young people back to work. This included a sneaky cut to jobseeker's benefit for young people who refused to accept a Job Bridge scheme or placement, programmes which are arguably cheap labour.

The second reason that Joan Burton doesn't speak for me is that she represents more of the same, when Labour and its supporters are crying out for something different.

As a senior and influential cabinet minister, she has been an instrumental part of the two years of austerity-driven policies and political missteps that Labour was so deeply admonished for by the public in the local elections.

At the announcement of her bid for the role, she told us that "the limits of austerity have been reached" – what a patronising statement to the families whose discretionary income has been slashed by her government.

The problem is, having failed to foster young talent, Labour doesn't have any young candidates who offer something truly different. I don't have the answer. All I know is that I want to vote Labour in the next round of government elections, but don't know if in good conscience I can.

Irish Independent

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