Gilmore Gale risks running out of puff
The Labour leader is struggling to keep election pledges and see off the Sinn Fein threat, writes Eamon Keane
WILL the real Eamon Gilmore please stand up? Where is the man who dominated the Dail when in opposition?
Last week an opinion poll showed Fine Gael gaining (up to 44 per cent) at Labour's expense (down to 12 per cent). Labour is now lower than Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein. A cabinet leak portrayed Gilmore as an invisible dunce sitting quietly at the table. All in all, it hasn't been a good week for the Galway man.
The Gilmore Gale blew strongly in opposition but now only registers as some soft rustle in the wind. Kenny is King, Gilmore a mere bit player idling in the background. A harsh assessment? Maybe, but the Labour leader has worse to come if he doesn't wise up. The curse of election promises on social welfare, health and education will haunt him, as will the ever-increasing rise of Sinn Fein.
Last year, Gilmore could do no wrong. Riding high on the anger ticket, he brilliantly captured public rage at the last government. In particular, his personal targeting of Brian Cowen, whom he accused of economic treason, rang home. However, weaknesses manifested themselves during the election campaign.
Fine Gael correctly read that the voting public had a need for safety and reassurance. Labour's dumb utterances about increasing taxation opened the floodgates. Gilmore's attempts at creating a New Labour brand were in danger of collapse, as the middle classes fled to Kenny and Co. People liked Fine Gael's five-point sense of order after the Cowen chaos. In the end, Labour's strength in Dublin saw it into government.
Just where does Labour sit now? Gilmore's strategy appears to be to try to catch the middle ground, a la Blair's New Labour. Fianna Fail managed to be the friend of both the working man and the builder for years. However, while Tony Blair managed to reduce, if not eliminate, the influence of unions, Gilmore is still tied to the Liberty Hall umbilical cord.
That is fine if you are positioning yourself as a true party of the Left. Gilmore, however, has higher aspirations. Remember Jack O'Connor's intervention during the last week of the election? Gilmore, already trying to shake the 'Dodgy Left High Taxes' mantle, wasn't overjoyed but yet couldn't publicly criticise the union boss.
Gilmore's position is worsened by the performance of Fine Gael and Kenny. Kenny claimed the Holy Ground in the race to beat the Vatican, post-Cloyne. Attack was Gilmore's forte in opposition, and as Minister for Foreign Affairs this was his territory. Yet he was late out of the blocks. Richard Bruton also appears to have had his way on the Joint Labour Committees and contract workers.
So the public sees Fine Gael as the real movers, taking hard but necessary decisions. Meanwhile, rightly or wrongly, Gilmore is portrayed as being out of touch.
Gilmore and Labour haven't helped themselves with their cabinet portfolio choices.
Labour is responsible for areas that will leave it vulnerable on its core vote. Fine to take social welfare if you've got billions to give away, but not if you have to cut the heart out of it over the next four years. What then happens to the party's election promises?
Joan Burton took this poisoned chalice. She was the only senior politician to warn from day one about the insanity of the bank guarantee but was sidelined from economic portfolios. Apparently, Joan was a tad too radical. Fine Gael was seemingly heartened to see her take social welfare.
Joan is now painted in some quarters as a latter-day right-winger with her clampdown on welfare fraud. Maybe this gets the middle-class vote Labour wants but it also threatens the core working-class constituencies. They can justifiably look angrily at the lack of banker fraud crackdown.
Inevitably, the internal sniping has begun. A few months ago, Ruairi Quinn began it when he said that ministers needed to up their game. A day before the Labour Party's think-in someone leaked to the Irish Independent that Gilmore is basically a quiet dunce who hides at the cabinet table.
The timing was done to inflict maximum damage. Did it come from within the Labour Party, and does Gilmore know the source?
But the biggest threat of all -- and Gilmore is acutely aware of it -- will come from Sinn Fein. It is fascinating to watch the party move towards the centre ground while at the same time using rhetoric to glue the Left to its coattails. After a harsh Budget, Labour will get it in the neck. It won't matter that Sinn Fein has never managed to come up with a plausible explanation as to how it would square the deficit issue.
Which brings us to the final problem. The Government seems to have decided on an economic philosophy that cutting the deficit has to come first if there is to be growth. There is an alternative school of thought that says if you cut too much you take the heart out of the economy -- low domestic demand means more jobs losses will ensue.
The gamble for Gilmore is that the deficit reduction dividend will have come into effect before the next election and that the party's voters will thank it for its actions. Even if this unlikely economic growth scenario were to come true, political history shows voters won't be grateful.
Gilmore needs to cast his mind back to the 1997 election. The Rainbow Coalition, of which he was a member, introduced tough economic stabilising measures but got dumped by the electorate. The fate of the Greens and the PDs as minority partners in government cannot be too far from his mind.
Where is the hope? The Presidency is Labour's, so much so that Michael D's camp sees no need for any Gilmore interference in the campaign. At 36 per cent in the polls, they should not lose it from here. However, Phil Hogan's Thursday election date will make it more difficult for Labour-biased students to vote. There will also be the Dublin West by-election. A strong Sinn Fein showing will set alarm bells ringing.
So how does Gilmore move forward? He needs to rediscover the passion and purpose he had in opposition. Gilmore has a high personal satisfaction rating and needs to back himself as a proactive leader. Most of all, just as I suggested Micheal Martin has to, he must identify what exactly he and his party stand for. Fine Gael is clearly and easily branded.
Otherwise a failure to act will see the Gilmore Gale blow itself out.