Monday 24 November 2014

Is gospel according to Phil key to Labour redemption?

Burton's the ideal candidate to lead revival, but party seems to favour a Dullsville veteran.

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

Eamon Gilmore and Phil Prendergast
Eamon Gilmore and Phil Prendergast

Phil Prendergast is Labour's answer to John the Baptist. She is the one preparing the way for the Messiah who will come and save them all. Such forerunners rarely get to enjoy the fruits of their labour, but at least they have the satisfaction of knowing that, had it not been for their sacrifice, nothing would have changed.

In the Cork-based MEP's case, her only punishment for calling on Eamon Gilmore to step aside for a new leader has been a spell on the "bold step", as she put it. Could be worse. John the Baptist ended up with his head on a plate.

Whether she's right to deem Labour unelectable whilst Gilmore remains in the big chair is, of course, beside the point, because he's not going anywhere. At least not until after the European and local elections. Even his harshest critics – and what Phil Prendergast said in public is nothing compared to what some disillusioned Labour supporters are saying in private – don't see any benefit in a leadership election right now. You don't ditch the man who brought the party its biggest ever election victory on the eve of another election, even if Fianna Fail was so unpopular at the last election that a monkey in a suit could have led Labour to its biggest ever haul of Dail seats.

More importantly, it wouldn't make any difference even if the party did ditch the big man, because in the ensuing election they're bound to make the wrong choice when it comes to picking a replacement.

The obvious choice as next Labour leader is Joan Burton. She is, figuratively if not literally, the only one of them with the balls for the job. Burton may be as compromised as the next Labour minister by the litany of broken promises made prior to 2011 (no water charges, anyone?); but she still doesn't seem to most voters to be anywhere as cynical or opportunistic as the rest of them.

Rabbitte and Gilmore and the rest look like fat cats at this stage, brushed with a smug sheen which slicks like sweat on the skin of the career politician after too long amassing a ministerial pension. Burton may get to that point eventually, but she's nowhere near there yet. She still gives the impression of someone who believes that they can make a difference.

Unfortunately, the Minister for Social Protection has ruffled too many feathers in the Labour Party by not bothering to hide the fact that she was far better qualified to be Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform than former teacher and trade unionist Brendan Howlin. She was supposed to take that on the chin. Ambitions are like ankles. Well-brought-up ladies are not supposed to show them to the world. They're meant to be more like beauty pageant contestants, content in government to work with children and animals rather than expressing a desire to get down and dirty with the big boys.

Hence the bitchy whispers issued by her colleagues in government to journalists periodically about her being "difficult". Infuriatingly, many left-wing feminists fall into exactly the same trap when they insist on demanding female politicians who are all about consensus rather than conflict. Feminists are as guilty as any spluttering misogynist of wanting women to pretend all the time to be made of sugar and spice and all things nice rather than steel and ice.

The only good reason to get rid of Eamon Gilmore as leader would be to replace him with Joan Burton, but the Labour Party would be too scared to do it. It just wouldn't know how that would work out, and, rather than being excited by the prospect of not knowing how it would go, it would be fearful about taking a leap into the dark. Instead, it would probably do the political equivalent of painting the living room beige again by going for a compromise figure like Brendan Howlin.

Safe pair of hands, they'd think. In their minds, he'd be Labour's John Major. The Tory leader emerged as a compromise candidate after the bruising leadership battle which saw the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign. Not expected to do much more than keep the party together in difficult times, Major defied expectations by coming out fighting and winning the next election.

The fantasy would be that Howlin could do the same, beating all the odds to stop Labour being pummelled at the next election. If all went to plan, the time-serving grey men who currently dominate the higher echelons of the Labour Party might even get a short-term bounce in the polls, perhaps even enough to grant them another turn on the pay-and-pensions merry go round, congratulating themselves as they did so that they were keeping the party alive, rather than just postponing the agony, if not killing it one grubby deal at a time. Putting off the punishment just makes it worse when it finally comes.

John Major won his first election as leader, but he didn't win the next one. In fact, the Tories were more comprehensively annihilated at that election than they would have been had they taken their punishment first time round. Like the Tories, Labour only has two choices. One is to sit it out and take what's coming, then regroup as best it can afterwards and start over – though there are no guarantees in that course of action either. (Where are the Greens these days? Still regrouping?). The second is to do as Phil Prendergast advises and start the renaissance right away and at least have some control over its destiny, rather than being tossed around on the political tide like flotsam and jetsam.

If it takes the second course, there's no point changing one Labour veteran from Dullsville and replacing him with another one. Imagining that someone like Brendan Howlin could save it from political oblivion would simply be an example of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same (wrong) thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Sunday Independent

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