Monday 26 September 2016

'Labour pains' to go on right up to polling day

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

The sea-change could mean the end of the long-serving ‘point five’, also known as Labour
The sea-change could mean the end of the long-serving ‘point five’, also known as Labour

Labour are probably at their most lethal when you start feeling sorry for them. And there are grounds for having sympathy for the Irish Labour Party today. They 'won' Budget 2016, leaving their dabs all over the package jointly presented by their own Brendan Howlin a fortnight ago.

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But the voters are not minded to acknowledge any such thing. The Red C poll in the 'Sunday Business Post' puts them on 7pc - down three points and getting on for a mere third of the vote they got in the last general election in February 2011, returning them an all-time record of 37 TDs.

Any way you look at it, Enda Kenny's "E-A-R-L-Y spring" and the next General Election are now a span of time best denominated in weeks. Those 'Labour pains' will continue all the way until polling day.

Quite simply, the voters want their revenge and they have, in the manner of the much put-upon wife of dissolute poet Robbie Burns, been "nursing their wrath to keep it warm" all the way from spring 2011. The people of Ireland want to have their say about Labour's broken election promises.

It is perhaps too often stated that Labour's problems are mainly self-cultivated. They are in large part victims of their own lazy political way of working. But a major facet of this self-inflicted fate is rarely commented upon.

For almost 14 years in opposition, from June 1997 until March 2011, they did absolutely nothing to vary the terms of political engagement. For that decade-and-a-half, Labour majored in attacking the junior government partner - first the Progressive Democrats, and later the Green Party - when it was blatantly clear, as night follows day, that Labour would be those soldiers in the junior-government-partner end of things.

In February 2011, as in November 1992, they rode the political winds with undeliverable promises, knowing full well on both occasions that reality would soon dictate that they would cut a power-sharing deal and not be able to deliver to voters.

Labour have been in power often enough in the history of this State. Most of them are seasoned politicians, some are eloquent and erudite men and women, who have for a very long time well known that government is slower, harder and more complex than just always being right about what is wrong with the country.

Last time I aired this argument was in a radio discussion. Minutes later, I was descended upon by Labour's Pat Rabbitte, who argued that I was not a disinterested party in this matter. So let's get that out of the way quickly. I was a member of the government press team - assigned to the Green Party in government - from June 2007 until January 2011.

In that job, I was on the receiving end of what became a daily excoriation from Labour on the opposition benches. The then-party leader, Eamon Gilmore, and his colleagues were far better at dishing it out than Enda Kenny's Fine Gael - to the point that Mr Kenny's best lieutenants wanted rid of him in June 2010.

So yes, I am happy now making this point about Labour. But my happiness does not make it any less true. The harsh reality is that Labour has found government a tougher challenge than howling at the moon from the opposition seats.

I also hold the minority view that Labour has done a good job in government. I represent the fewer than one-in-12 people who believe the party played its part in putting the economy right on track. But I must say Alan Kelly is an exception here as his performance on housing generally and the rental sector in particular is alarming.

We must recall that the national recovery plan, implemented by the current Government, was framed by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in government, who stayed around far longer than they should have for their own political benefit. In fact, that government took back the widow's wheelchair in a series of unprecedented draconian budgets and then went out and asked that same widow and her family and friends to re-elect them.

Had the last government abandoned ship in late summer 2010, for example, Fianna Fáil could now be limbering up for a return to government and the Green Party would still have a presence at Leinster House. But I digress.

So, let's get back to feeling sorry, or more aptly, not feeling sorry for Labour. The party has always traded on having in or about 10pc core support on their worst day. The country's oldest political party has traded on its ability to persist.

Part of that persistence story has been several stalwarts' - Willie Penrose and Joe Costello spring to mind - ability to get votes in the most difficult situations. And, of course, that includes playing the sympathy card - from which springs the threat from feeling sorry for Labour right now.

Many Labour veterans will now be extremely worried because there are fundamental questions being asked about the very existence of their party. This Red C poll finding will be a body blow to them.

It is interesting to note that the Dáil seat estimates, based on constituency-level analysis of this Red C poll by the political geographer Adrian Kavanagh at NUI Maynooth, reads as follows: Fine Gael 63; Independents and Others 38; Fianna Fáil 33; Sinn Féin 22; and Labour just two TDs.

Could that happen? Well, let's recall that many of us felt that Fianna Fáil would make heavy losses last time. None of us felt the party was headed for the meltdown of such historic proportions.

We have entered a new era in Irish politics and the old '2.5 party system' is over. Part of that sea-change could mean the end of the long-serving 'point five', also known as Labour.

Forming a government out of that lot -combining a reliable grouping of 79-plus TDs in the new 158-member Dáil - would require considerable skill. Enda Kenny and Fine Gael would be looking for up to 20 others.

Fianna Fáil got a two-point boost in that Red C poll. Both they and the Green Party know they will not fight an election from the position of all-round negativity they were in in 2011.

Irish Independent

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