Burton will need all of her skills to bail out Labour's sinking ship in elections
Published 17/02/2014 | 02:30
IT'S no big surprise that Joan Burton rejects suggestions that being appointed campaign director for upcoming local and European elections is "a poisoned chalice".
Around Leinster House, devotees of the conspiracy school of politics like the prospect of the Labour deputy leader being given this impossible task by her boss, Eamon Gilmore, to take some of the would-be 'future leader gloss' off her.
As we sit and talk about Labour's election prospects she does not take long to dismiss such speculation. But she does candidly acknowledge that there is a very difficult campaign ahead of voting on May 23 next.
"I think these elections are a challenge – there's no doubt about that. These are mid-term elections and it will be difficult," she said.
But she cannot publicly accept that big losses are in store for the junior coalition partner.
"I think the Labour Party has a resilience and strength which I intend to strongly encourage. I also think Labour has a good story to tell about its term in government," she said.
The 'good stories' centre around Labour in tandem with Fine Gael getting better terms on Ireland's bank debt and on the promissory note.
The other good story is that the party stood its ground on education spending. She argues, optimistically, that Labour candidates in many places will be able to point to local schools and claim credit.
On a more practical level, big council electoral areas with up to nine seats should also help. Some within the party feel these could mitigate expected heavy losses.
Labour had 132 city and county councillors elected in the June 2009 local elections and three MEPs elected to the European Parliament. This time they are fielding up to 190 council candidates and at least three Euro contenders.
The party has many local problems, with 29 councillors quitting the party over the past two years. The council defections continued even after resignations from the parliamentary party tapered off and things stabilised for the party at Leinster House.
There were public recriminations as many of the councillors left with much talk of broken promises and a reneging on old Labour values.
The level of defections by some seasoned councillors tells us that they do not believe Labour will be a winning brand in the elections which are now just 14 weeks away.
Burton argues that they have chosen a raft of good candidates, well-known and linked to local activities.
Unlike the other parties, she says they have no problems with the quota obligation of one-third women candidates.
"About one-third of Labour's candidates have been women in recent years. That has been the case for some time," she says.
The Euro contest sees none of those who won for Labour in 2009 standing again. Alan Kelly in South returned to take up a junior ministry and Proinsias De Rossa in Dublin retired in favour of substitute Emer Costello in February 2012.
Nessa Childers, their Leinster MEP, left the party and is now standing as an Independent in the three-seat Dublin constituency, providing some direct opposition for her old party.
Joan Burton is careful what she says about Childers who was scathingly critical of Labour before she quit.
"She made her own decision with which I disagree. A lot of people went out and campaigned for her. And in a tight election, combined with her own work, she got elected," Burton says emphatically.
Labour's Euro team will probably be all female.
Senator Lorraine Higgins in the sprawling 15-county Midlands North West, will join Emer Costello in Dublin, and Phil Prendergast, who replaced Alan Kelly, in South.
Burton says all parties are trying to get used to the two expanded four-seat constituencies.
But all their three Euro seats are in danger as their trio of candidates are not well known and Labour as the junior coalition partner will face some voter hostility.
The Euro and council campaigns are inter-linked and the Euro battle to some extent sets a tone for the locals. The party will have to mobilise heavily here if they are to return any kind of half-decent result.
Burton is evasive about the prospect of a transfer arrangement with Fine Gael, arguing that it is too early to discuss it.
This contrasts with Eamon Gilmore's straight assertion that they would do no such thing. But both Gilmore and Burton are on the same page when it comes to one of the local election messages from Labour.
This is best summed up by the words "attack Fianna Fail". This one might be a challenge to voters' memories.
But it turns on the argument that back in the 1980s and 1990s, Fianna Fail were already sowing the seeds of our economic downfall with deeply flawed and sometimes corrupt local planning.
It is abundantly clear that Burton is determined to guide the party in a best-foot-forward campaign. But how much she and her Labour colleagues can stave off big losses remains to be seen.