News Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: 'The Kenny Speech' wins Moby Dick award

Published 20/02/2011 | 05:00

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Last Sunday, Sean O'Rourke on The Week in Politics, reacting to Labour's slide in the polls, asked rhetorically: "Where did it all go wrong?" As I was not on his show -- never have been -- his question went without adequate answer.

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Read the reasons here, before you hear them recycled. The rise of Fine Gael and the retreat of Labour is as reciprocal as a see-saw. If one goes up, the other must go down.

That's because both parties, particularly in Dublin, share some of the same middle-class base. But in the past two weeks, the coping classes, which I call Moby Dick, have moved firmly away from Labour and towards Fine Gael. Why?

To start: a general election is made up of waves and tides. The waves are the party policies, frothy, forever changing, forgettable. It is the tides, those powerful instinctive forces of fear and hope, sweeping all before them, that decide every general election.

Moby Dick is swimming towards a cold sea of short-term sacrifice in the hope of a sunnier future. Right now, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are riding high on his back.

The Labour Party is drowning in his wake, hoping for a hitch from Fine Gael. Fine Gael rode both wave and the tide to find Moby Dick. Here Enda Kenny's humility played a crucial part. In a terrible time, Irish people do not want a presidential leader like Gilmore. They want a team leader like Kenny, with lots of talent around him.

Apart from finding the flowing tide, Fine Gael's success is founded on three further factors. First, it was blessed with a brilliant backroom team -- and Kenny shrewdly choose a politician, the hard-headed Phil Hogan, to be director of elections.

The second factor was the astonishing sea change in the public's perception of Enda Kenny. Astonishing mostly to the lazy media lobby which had laid down that false image in the first place. However, the constant hammering by the media on his alleged handicaps meant Kenny needed some help in presentation.

Gavin Duffy gave him good advice, by all accounts. Perhaps he played something of the role Geoffrey Rush played to Colin Firth's king. If so it was just another example of Enda Kenny's ability to pick the right person for the job.

Here I must pause to ponder the perversity of some pundits. During the Pat Kenny show's post-mortem on the leaders' debate, both Terry Prone and Fergus Finlay agreed that Kenny had "escaped" his handlers. Clearly neither was working for him, otherwise he might not have so easily "escaped".

Two courageous commentators also helped to change the media caricature of Kenny. Two weeks ago, Eamon Keane, writing in this paper, convincingly argued that Kenny lacked the inflated ego that prevents many politicians from delegating their powers. Alison O'Connor added her influential voice in the Irish Independent and on Drivetime.

After Keane and O'Connor, you could almost feel the frozen lock of media opinion begin to move. Following the leaders' debate the lock gave way. The new media converts came charging in, praising Enda as excessively as they had previously excoriated him.

Finally, Enda Kenny made an act of faith in a future without Labour.

This caused fear and trembling among the faint hearts in Fine Gael, not to mention the RTE Labour lobby. Dr Garret FitzGerald began to talk of "wiser heads" in both parties nodding off together.

But Dr Mark Dooley, writing in the Daily Mail last week, showed the "wiser heads" were totally out of touch with the public mood. It made no strategic sense for Fine Gael to fight for a deal with a Labour party lumbered with a high tax and spend image. His analysis is confirmed by our poll today.

Luckily for Fine Gael, Enda Kenny and his backroom team believed from the beginning that Fine Gael had a fighting chance at achieving single-party government. This belief sent out a positive signal of self-confidence to Moby Dick, which began to swim towards the source of that self-belief.

Let be me clear about the constitution of Moby Dick. Most of it is made up of what I call the coping class. It consists of the 1.5 million workers in the private sector. This majority class alone creates the wealth that can pull this country out of the current recession. If they fail, we fall.

That is not to denigrate the crucial contribution of frontline public services. But the private sector pays their wages and most of their pensions. And since the private sector is paid less, pensioned less, and has no job security, it is not surprising it sees the public sector unions as protectors of the privileged.

The Labour Party is the party of the public sector unions. As Labour panicked last week, Pat Rabbitte retreated on to its public sector core vote, specifically calling on "300,000 public sector employees" to reject single-party rule by Fine Gael -- a call backed up by the Siptu sleepers who finally came out of the cupboard.

Moby Dick has a deep distrust of the public sector unions. They stand for the worst side of social partnership -- the featherbedding in Fas, the fat-cat salaries, the time-servers who shut public offices at four o'clock, not to mention the gross gap between private and public sector pay, pensions and permanency.

But the Labour Party is not just losing ground simply because it is backed by the public sector unions. The link to a comparatively cosseted class led Labour to believe that all it had to do was vent anger at Fianna Fail and look after the pay of its public sector vote. Big mistake.

Labour thought the election was about anger and protecting public sector pay. But Fine Gael knew it was more about anguish and protecting private sector jobs. Bottom line: the public sector worries about its pay but the private sector worries about its jobs.

In sum, Moby Dick does not want Labour dragging down a Fine Gael government like a log towed behind a boat. It is ready for three years of pain under Fine Gael, but not for five years of log rolling by Labour.

When Pat Rabbitte says that "Labour would certainly act as a brake in terms of defending the more vulnerable in our society", Moby Dick mentally amends it to read "Labour would certainly act as a brake in terms of defending the inflated pay and pensions of the public sector unions".

Enda Kenny should remind any of the "wiser heads" who want a love-in with Labour of one awkward fact. For the past two weeks, while Fine Gael was at loggerheads with Labour, his personal rating rose massively, and Fine Gael moved steadily ahead of Labour in Dublin.

Conversely, if Fine Gael starts a love-in with Labour, the middle class will move back into dither mode. The polls show that coping classes are putting their trust in Fine Gael, not just to govern alone, but specifically to govern without the brake of the Labour Party and the public sector unions.

Fine Gael will not be forgiven if it breaks that trust.

Sunday Independent

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