John Downing

Thursday 24 July 2014

Alan Kelly needs to be out saving Labour – not chained to an office in the Cabinet

Published 08/07/2014|02:30

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Labour's new deputy leader Alan Kelly
Labour's new deputy leader Alan Kelly

Why does everyone assume that Labour's newly elected deputy leader Alan Kelly has to be in the Cabinet? If he's in Cabinet what use is he as deputy leader? Surely the tough guy from Tipperary would be far more use as a political fixer in a party which needs a heck of a lot of political fixing if it is to survive as a force in the Irish political landscape?

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A repeat of the May 23 local election performance in the next general election could spell carnage and the demise of Labour.

The respected political geographer Adrian Kavanagh has done a purely mathematical transposition of those local election results into a general election context and found Labour could return with as few as three TDs.

Mr Kavanagh is the first to acknowledge that comparing local elections, by-elections, European elections, and Dail elections is often akin to comparing apples and oranges. He stresses that his calculation does not take account of things like the popularity of a long-serving Labour TD and his or her ability to buck a national trend.

But let's recall that, in the February 1987 general election, Dick Spring's Labour came out of a very unpopular coalition with Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael and duly got less than 7pc of the vote – a figure comparable with their local election score seven weeks ago.

And they were lucky on that occasion to elect just 12 TDs – including Dick Spring himself who survived a dramatic all-night recount to hold on by four votes. In the last general election Labour returned an all-time record 37 TDs. Anyway you look at things a very big fall beckons.

Labour stalwarts will point out that five years after the 1987 debacle came the "Spring tide" of November 1992. But that huge Labour turnaround came against a background of major internal turmoil in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

And Sinn Fein and Independents were not the huge force in Irish politics that they now are.

One of the problems all parties face while in government is that the organisation tends to suffer from a lack of care and attention. Joan Burton is only on her fourth day in the job as Labour leader.

Yet already she is the focus of much hope that she can lift her battered party off the floor.

And when she is finished doing that there is the additional hope that she and Enda Kenny can combine to revive this flagging Coalition.

By now she has at least three jobs: Social Protection Minister, Tanaiste, and Labour Party leader.

All signs are that she is staying with Social Protection rather than adding reading herself into a new portfolio to the considerable list of demands she faces. The job of Tanaiste is about ensuring her party's interests are upheld in government and more importantly giving Labour's input into a united and functioning administration.

After all that she must tend to a party that is at risk of being consigned to history.

So, she could clearly do with a deal of help from somebody who is free to devote all his or her energy to reviving the organisation.

For generations, when Labour was often described as the "half-party" in the "two-and-a-half-party system", it relied heavily on the political wing of the ITGWU, the forerunner of SIPTU, to keep things going. These days the nation's biggest trade union is not the force it was. But Alan Kelly has shown himself to be capable of managing a good Labour local organisation around his native Nenagh.

He has also shown an ability to get votes across the province of Munster, with more than 64,000 first preferences in the June 2009 European Parliament election; he went on to get a strong vote in the February 2011 Dail election in Tipperary North.

Most important of all, in the past month he got more than half the Labour membership to back him as deputy leader, winning the four-way contest on the first count.

Against that background he will be called upon to play a major role in reviving the Labour Party while also quite likely holding a senior government post.

He is also widely tipped by pretty well everyone for a senior government job and promotion from his current role as Junior Transport Minister where he acquitted himself well. He apparently has strong credentials to take a full cabinet post. But it is legitimate to ask whether having him serve two sets of priorities is being fair to either Labour loyalists or the general public. When Waterford TD Ciara Conway stood for the deputy leadership last month, she said she would not be seeking government office but would dedicate herself entirely to party matters. There was a great deal of honesty about her approach. But then again, she came fourth out of four candidates who stood.

John Downing

Irish Independent

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