News John Downing

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Labour has only one option: to fight on within Coalition

Published 02/10/2013 | 05:00

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L-R: Alex White, Alan Shatter, Padraig MacLochlainn and Sean O Fearghail. Labour has to persist in power as rivals make moves.

SO WHAT would a 6pc showing in a general election do to the Labour Party's Dail seat total? Last time it polled such a low total – in the 1987 General Election when it got 6.4 pc of the vote – it returned a mere 12 TDs. A repeat of that outcome next time out would mean a 25-seat loss when compared with its all-time high in 2011.

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But as it assesses this latest calamitous Ipsos/MRBI opinion poll, which puts the party on 6pc, Labour strategists may fear the devastation will not stop at even those huge losses. On two occasions in the past 25 years, Labour has clambered out of electoral wreckage following a stint in coalition, and managed to regroup and prosper again.

But, in a dramatically changed electoral landscape, with Sinn Fein now rapidly devouring its left flank, Labour could face a fight for its very existence after the next election. More immediately, this grim opinion poll prediction also piles even more pressure on the party's embattled leader, Eamon Gilmore.

It looks increasingly unlikely that Mr Gilmore will lead Labour in the next election. Though he showed plenty of fight yesterday, the real question is whether he can hang on to the leadership this side of council and European elections next May.

Labour veterans will also recall that the 1987 election haul of a dozen seats was helped by a 'lucky bounce of the PR ball' and the persistence of some candidates who had appeared beaten earlier on the count day. The then party leader, Dick Spring – who had held his own seat by a mere four votes – joked that Labour would return to Leinster House in a minibus rather than on a scooter, as some adversaries had predicted.

Labour's low point of 1987 gave way to the 'Spring tide' of the November 1992 election, which gave it a 19pc share of the vote and a high of 33 TDs. Four-and-a-half years of coalition later and it took another kicking in 1997 with 10.4pc of the vote and a loss of 16 TDs.

Mr Gilmore was hailed as the most successful Labour leader ever when he brought home 37 TDs in 2011 with 19pc of the vote. It seems like a distant memory now, but Mr Gilmore followed that with victories in the presidential election and a by-election just eight months later.

From then on, however, it has been, by and large, all downhill. Seven members of its parliamentary party – five TDs, a senator and an MEP – have all refused to live with persistent budget cuts and the stresses of life with Fine Gael.

All of this is not to repeat the well-worn point that coalition is inimical to the health of Labour, both in terms of internal unity and popular support. It is to say that, twice before in the recent past, Labour has taken the heavy post-coalition fall and luckily survived to tell the tale. Can the party be so lucky third time round?

This crisis will be particularly difficult, if not bordering on the impossible, for Labour to untangle. This writer is of the view that Labour is entitled to some plaudits for its 30 months in power. But that is clearly a minority view.

It continues to reap the fruits of its wild election promises during the 2011 election when its aim was all about ensuring that Fine Gael did not achieve an overall majority. And Mr Gilmore's rhetoric about 'Labour's Way or Frankfurt's Way' was foolish and a hostage to fortune.

But the party has also had the courage of its convictions and stood its ground in doing the harsh things that most people accept were necessary to haul the economy out of a historically deep recession. Labour did well in last year's Budget when it managed to defend spending to such an extent that it got an almost equal split between welfare cuts and extra taxes.

Its difficulty is that it did not manage to bring the public with it. In government you rarely, if ever, get credit for harsh measures you actually stop or mitigate.

Labour is now pinning a lot of hope on securing cuts of €2.5bn rather than €3.1bn in the October 15 Budget. Like last year, it will be entitled to some kudos if it succeeds. But, again, that will be a hard message to get across at a time of seemingly never-ending austerity.

Labour's prognosis is not good. But one of the few positives is that, right now, it doesn't have too many choices to ponder.

The only option really is to persist in government and intensify and publicise its struggle with its larger partner Fine Gael.

Irish Independent

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