News Analysis

Friday 29 August 2014

Labour still populated by hearts of pure stone

Alex White's handling of medical card fiasco fails to inspire

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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Alex White announced this week he was contesting the leadership contest of the Labour Party.  Picture: GERRY MOONEY
Alex White announced this week he was contesting the leadership contest of the Labour Party. Picture: GERRY MOONEY

In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. Joan Burton got credit for being first out of the blocks. That showed decisiveness – or excessive ambition in the eyes of her critics. Minister of State Alex White waited until the end of the week before making his move, meaning he'll now be seen as the "Stop Joan" candidate – not a bad part to play in a party which still has issues with the Social Protection Minister.

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It's hard to believe that Labour members would be foolish enough to fall for such a blatant bit of populism, but it wouldn't be the first time; and the idea of White as Labour leader does have a certain hokey inevitability to it. He appeals to a certain strand amongst the self-styled left intelligentsia who'd do anything for the working class except invite them to their dinner parties.

White strikes me as very much their kinda guy. His CV is like an application form for a job at Cliche Central. Trinity College. King's Inn. President of the Students' Union. National officer with the USI. Bit of youthful Trotskyite radicalism. RTE. The Senate. In left-wing terms, this is the equivalent of being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Some might say that White's never had a proper job in his life, but, to Labour types, these jobs are as real as they ever want life to get.

He was certainly doing all he could to court this demographic last week, announcing his candidacy at 11am on Friday, perfectly timed to fit in with Today With Sean O'Rourke. He was soon being interviewed by stand-in presenter Keelin Shanley. You can't buy publicity like that. Never mind the quality, just feel the width of your coverage.

The 55-year-old veteran's supporters present their man as a fresh face, a new voice, a younger generation to the 65-year-old Burton. It's the ultimate triumph of image over substance, which may be no bad thing for White, considering the reality is of a politician who was intimately involved in the fiasco over medical cards. He got a lot of easy publicity last week for revealing, in advance of the launch of his leadership bid, that the controversial review of medical cards currently being undertaken by the HSE would be halted. It's like the people who start a fire getting praise for calling the fire brigade, even though the building is already burned to the ground.

As recently as April, White was still insisting to GPs that only those who were "wealthy or relatively wealthy" were having their cards taken away, when he'd been told repeatedly that this was not the case.

Last October in the Dail, a stream of deputies gave details of appalling stories of discretionary medical cards being taken away from people with serious conditions.

White's only response was to patronise members by suggesting they were mixing up discretionary with emergency medical cards. Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher, who tabled the motion asking for the withdrawal of cards to be stopped, addressed White directly: "I know the vote will be lost but I urge the Minister of State to re-examine this matter."

Of course it wasn't re-examined – until Labour had its backside handed back to it on a plate by the voters. It remains inexplicable that Labour did not see the seriousness of this situation until they started losing colleagues at the polls. Even now, when announcing to the Dail that the medical card cull had been halted, White said the Cabinet had done so in order "develop the policy framework governing eligibility in a manner that will also take account of medical conditions" – as if taking account of medical conditions when deciding who's eligible for medical cards was some startling new insight.

It all brought to mind the famous speech made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock at his party's conference in 1985 when he delivered a long overdue kicking to the hard left for presiding over "the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers".

Why was there no equivalent in Irish Labour to Kinnock these last months, prepared to stand up and denounce the equally grotesque chaos of Labour ministers – Labour ministers! – presiding over the snatching of medical cards from sick children and the elderly, instead of scuttling around to radio studios defending the indefensible?

Kinnock made another pertinent point during that speech. "Principle without power is idle sterility," he said to those who preferred the purity of socialist dogma to the messy business of compromise involved in government – but, equally, "power without principles is ruthless, sour, empty and vicious". The Irish Labour Party is now in that ruthless, sour, empty, vicious place.

It may be good that White finally moved away from the idle sterility of his earlier flirtations with groups of malignant messers, but political maturity should have a purpose beyond simply being a roadmap to personal betterment in the Labour movement.

It's still not entirely clear that Labour understands this yet.

Last weekend, reflecting on the party's crushing electoral defeat, minister of state Joe Costello quoted Yeats's line "too much sacrifice makes a stone of the heart". The implication seemed to be that the sacrifice which the people were making through austerity had made stones of their hearts and rendered them cruel towards poor ickle Labour, whereas in truth it's too much power that makes a stone of the heart. Alex White's handling of the medical card controversy suggests that too many Labour ministers still have granite in their breasts.

Sunday Independent

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