Minor victory for Labour but major battle awaits on doorsteps
LABOUR may have to revert to the straight version of that supermarket slogan – "every little helps" – when they try selling this one on the doorsteps over the final fortnight of these local and European election campaigns.
Their February 2011 General Election parody of the slogan – "every little hurts" – has proved dangerously accurate. The Labour campaign claimed Fine Gael would whack voters with a €238 per year water charge among other horrors.
Well, the prediction was only €2 out. But the problem is that they were also predicting their own story.
The 2011 slogan should have adverted to Fine Gael and Labour. Put more simply, Labour should not have told voters in February 2011 that there would be no water charges. It was simply a piece of reckless election rhetoric. And the Irish public are markedly slower with their forgiveness given what they have been through over the past seven years.
Seasoned Labour campaigners are unlikely to be voluntarily shouting the concessions they won in yesterday's compromise package. Granted, they have gonged the €50 standing charge, and got €100 welfare money towards the bill for people on low incomes, among other concessions.
Any way you look at it, however, this is still an extra €240 per year most householders will have to find. The good work done by Labour – and there is a deal of good work contained in the detailed changes – will take some explaining. And explaining is a political bugbear.
A government spokesman yesterday presented the charges package as a "whole of government decision". Noticeably, it was published by Environment Minister Phil Hogan, accompanied by a senior department official.
Mr Hogan described this as the "most important decision to be taken by this Government". Given that it is a first in the history of the nation with the potential to change people's attitudes to water, he was not wrong.
That being said, Irish Water's role in all of this is rather puzzling. Yesterday they "welcomed" the Government announcement. That seemed odd since they sought €100 in a standing charge – more than one-third of the annual tariff – even before anyone got near a tap. The Taoiseach's original announcement – which did not have Labour's backing – put the standing charge at €50.
By yesterday there was no standing charge at all. That is hardly something to be "welcomed" by an entity tasked with ending boil water notices for 23,500 people and correcting the astonishing 40pc leakage rate in the networks.
Another dichotomy for Labour is that middle Ireland broadly accepts the need for water charges. The national mood is such that, of things people have to pay for, a fair water charge is seen as reasonable enough. Mainstream Fine Gael voters, and residual Fianna Fail voters, can grumblingly live with water charges. But they know that any concessions given to people on low incomes have to be funded from taxes paid by the middle classes.
The elimination of the standing charge is a popular move and can be argued for as something which gives people incentives to conserve water. But over time it may also impact on the financial well-being of Irish Water and damage its ability to borrow for future investment. The abolition of the standing charge may prove to be short-lived.
In the more immediate term we are looking at an election in a fortnight which will be very difficult for both governing parties. They will argue that they did not try to gull people by delaying the announcement of these charges in the teeth of elections. But it is nearer the truth to say that they could not legitimately continue to keep them hidden ahead of the vote on May 23.
For Labour, yesterday's outcome is at best a minor victory. But they must do what they can with it.