News Gerard O'Regan

Friday 29 August 2014

Labour Party faces a choice between dull and uninspiring

Gerard O'Regan

Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30

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Joan Burton: favourite to land the Labour Party crown. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joan Burton: favourite to land the Labour Party crown. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"There's always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible – and wrong.'' HL Menken. This particular observation from the American writer – who fancied himself as a shrewd observer of human nature – could surely be applied to the current battle for the Labour Party leadership.

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As a political contest it can best be described as downbeat, dull and boring. It desperately needs a spark of passion, of almost any hue, to jazz things up a bit. Both candidates come across as pedestrian at best, as they resort, time and again, to the more hackneyed cliches of the moment.

The reason for this is that they are in the kind of verbal straightjacket which Menken alluded to. Their core mantra is that our more intractable and insoluble political problems are easily resolved. When it comes to the hard choices now confronting all politicians, the Labour luminaries have answers, which are indeed neat, plausible and invariably wrong. The cockpit of knife-edge decision-making, which is the health service, remains a case in point. The insensitivity of the medical cards debacle has been well thrashed out – even though it seems to have been as much driven by bureaucrats as by politicians. But the diehard problems remain. The health budget is careering out of control yet again; nurses and other staff are up in arms over cutbacks,

The number taking out private health insurance continues to decline because of draconian costs. And now it seems nobody but nobody can mention areas where medical cards are being abused – because of the understandable emotive issues involved.

Whoever is the Minister for Health going forward will find there are no options left to bring spending under control, other than by way of excruciatingly unpopular decisions. The immediate future is all to do with staff cuts, closing services and at least some monitoring of the medical card system.

The favourite to land the Labour Party crown, Joan Burton, is totally talked out when it comes to giving us her views on the economy. We listened to her for what seemed like a very long time when she was her party's opposition finance spokesman. And during her time in government she has been one of the more voluble ministers.

After all this time, she knows in her heart that there are no easy solutions – there is no low-hanging fruit to be plucked anywhere. But if there has been little by way of new thinking on offer from the Burton camp, there seems to be even less from her competitor Alex White.

The choice of the Rosie Hackett bridge, complete with fresh red roses, for his campaign launch, created an aura of unchallenged feel-good socialism, but little else. So far, there is little evidence that Junior Minister White is really raging to become Labour leader.

However, one note of consensus emerging from both sides is a determination not to provoke any kind of head-on confrontation with Fine Gael. The prospects of collapsing the Coalition and facing the electorate in its current unforgiving mood is enough to unify all Labourites as of now.

If one was taking a punt on the prospects for the Coalition during the remainder of its scheduled political life, all will depend on the next two budgets. The likelihood is there will be tax cuts for the lower- and middle-income group next time.

In the subsequent budget, both Fine Gael and Labour will have a huge shared interest in easing up on the austerity vibe – on the grounds that the economy needs further injections of cash. Such a policy will, of course, do their vote-getting prospects no harm at all. But this is based on the premise of no unforeseen banana skins on the way.

However, any easing of the austerity burden will not fit well with the mournful input from former Taoiseach John Bruton this week, who told us we are facing 10 more years of economic grimsville.

It was a gloom-filled prognosis – from a strand in Fine Gael thinking – which sees balancing the books as the be all and end all of politics. But real life is more complicated than that. We hanker after political thinkers with something novel to say about some old themes.

Out on the longer grass lurks Lucinda Creighton and her coterie. Rumour has it they were inspired – if that's not too strong a word – at the recent rumblings from voters clearly desperate for some kind of new order.

It would certainly stir things up if a new centrist party came on the scene hopefully devoid of neat, plausible – and wrong – solutions to our problems.

Irish Independent

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