News John Downing

Monday 15 September 2014

New Labour leader must have courage to drag the party out of its comfort zone

Published 27/05/2014 | 02:30

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Joan Burton may be in the running to take the top job. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joan Burton may be in the running to take the top job. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alan Kelly: also in the running. Photo: Tom Burke
Alan Kelly: also in the running. Photo: Tom Burke

As Eamon Gilmore joins the two other former party leaders in the parliamentary party ranks, Labour has a date with fate.

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The new Labour leader is to be picked by July 4 and the focus will switch to the party's 5,000 members, each of whom will have an equal say in that choice.

The names of at least some potential successors were on the corridors of Leinster House within an hour last night.

There is Social Protection Minister and deputy leader Joan Burton, who brought displays of ambiguous loyalty to high art in recent times; Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, a veteran of many Labour wars; and Junior Health Minister Alex White, Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly, and Junior Enterprise Minister Sean Sherlock.

There will be very much more about all of that very soon. But three more profound questions must not be lost sight of. Firstly, does Labour stay in Coalition? Secondly, on what terms and to what effect? Finally, can a change of leader help in any meaningful way to stave off the threats to the party's existence?

The answer to the first question is that Labour is most unlikely to quit Government right now. It would be political suicide to rush from a local and Euro election massacre to grab the same again in a Dail election.

Labour's only option right now is to stay, hustle internally, and then hope to wring some political good from a slow-burning economic recovery ahead of an inevitable general election in spring 2016.

The answer to the second question is key to the party's survival or otherwise. Labour needs to acknowledge the error of those past foolish promises and move in a new, more realistic direction.

It needs to hone a small, realistic list of priorities for the next 18 months, which it can entrust to a new leader and government team utterly determined to pursue these goals. Success here also involves forging a new relationship with Fine Gael, which got a similar election kicking.

This involves reframing a common set of goals with the senior partner. None of this will be easy. And neither will be the unspoken element that has crept in: keeping a weather eye out for a good reason to jump ship if the future does not stack up.

The experience so far suggests that revamped Labour must trust Fine Gael – but only up to a point.

The third question answers itself. A new leader will do little beyond bring a small, temporary opinion poll boost if the party cannot reorientate and recommit to some pretty basic political work.

The real thing a new leader must bring Labour's politicians and supporters is courage, the courage to tell their own story and avoid reverting to the comfort zone of doing opposition in Government.

Eamon Gilmore's story over the past three years is in itself a salutory illustration of the huge volatility that is at the heart of Irish politics right now.

At Dublin Castle on November 11, 2013, a beaming Mr Gilmore was framed in photographs close to newly inaugurated President of Ireland Michael D Higgins.

Labour had also become the first party of government to win a by-election in almost 30 years as Patrick Nulty took the Dail seat in Dublin West.

And from then on, downhill it went with a scarifying swiftness, culminating in this past weekend's murderous kicking for the party.

The level of Labour wipe-out has been well-documented and it would have been difficult to see a party leader having the effrontery to do other than quit. These losses go way beyond the cyclical voter kicking given Labour in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as it emerged from less than popular coalitions. The presence of an exultant soar-away Sinn Fein on Labour's left flank could be a portent of a terminal malaise.

The reckless promises flung about by Mr Gilmore and Labour in the run-in to the 2011 general election have similarly been well rehearsed. They have rebounded with a pernicious vengeance on Mr Gilmore's Labour.

It is, however, also true that Labour has been unduly penalised. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte is quite right to argue that Labour got 20pc of the vote in the general election and was given many multiples of that in blame for the harsh decisions foisted upon this Government.

But, while a good deal of all that is self-inflicted, it is time to catch up with volatile Irish politics and move swiftly onwards.

There is one ironic historic footnote to Mr Gilmore's departure as leader. It relates to some in Labour describing the water charges as a key part of the party's tale of woe.

But it was Brendan Howlin as Labour's Environment Minister who put the kibosh on those same water charges back in 1996.

Irish Independent

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