Sunday 28 December 2014

Grey man and his soft pink party trapped in corridor of uncertainty

A coldly indifferent electorate really doesn't care too much whether the party lives or dies, writes John Drennan.

Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

WHEN the Green Party started to go into meltdown, its opponents used to mockingly cite the old Muppet Show song about "it's not easy being green".

In the wake of last week's Irish Times poll, it appears to be just as hard being red; or more accurately being a soft pinkish sort of red.

Labour adviser Karen O'Connell might have swiftly claimed she was actually talking about the weather when she tweeted about "Black Tuesday" but the equally dark opinion poll ratings which, coincidentally, emerged that morning may yet be seen as representing the signature tune for the drawn-out ending of Eamon Gilmore's leadership of the Labour Party.

It is believed that Gilmore vehemently informed his parliamentary party that he would fight, and that they would have to "take him out".

Sadly, the declining authority of the Labour leader was epitomised by one TD's subsequent icy comment – "How do you take out the Invisible Man?"

The real difficulties faced by Labour, though, go far beyond whether Joan or another grey man replaces the current grey man.

Instead, the question increasingly being asked is whether last week's Irish Times poll constituted the signature tune for the actual demise of the oldest Irish political party.

Resilience rather than success has been the dominant feature of a Labour Party that existed well before Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Sinn Fein. For instance, in the 1987 election, where with just 6.4 per cent of the vote Labour limped home with a dozen grey men including a leader who only won his seat by four votes courtesy of a car breakdown.

However, the existential nature of the current crisis is far worse. The coldness with which the voters are eyeing up, or more accurately dismissing, Labour should send a chill through the bones of all the party's TDs.

Outside of disillusion and uncertainty, or perhaps because of its endemic prevalence, the most definitive trait of the Irish electorate is an utter viciousness in the treatment of political parties that earn its disfavour.

In 2002, the voters came damn near to destroying the party that founded the State even though poor Michael Noonan and his Fine Gael party were in no condition to do harm to anybody.

Almost 10 years later, they did an even better hatchet job on a Fianna Fail party, which having essentially run the State since 1927, had, in fairness, done a great deal of harm to everything.

Significantly, the voters also took the axe to the Greens who, unlike Fianna Fail, were guiltless when it came to the great fall of the Tiger.

This merciless nature that is quite willing to destroy parties whether they are guilty or innocent bodes ill for the increasingly windy Labour lambs.

The worse news for Labour is that even as it anxiously attempts to don the mantle of the good cop who is protecting the voters from the Fine Gael 'Heavy Gang', the voters have devised a very difficult narrative.

Paddy the Voter sees Fine Gael as being a joyless but essentially straight-talking party which does what it says on the tin. In contrast, Paddy the Voter's view on Gilmore and company consists of the whiny snarl of "Ah Labour, the party that broke all your promises".

If the electorate is prepared to massacre political parties out of sheer indifference, how much damage will it do if ,acting with malice aforethought, it decides Labour is to be the fall guy for the miseries of austerity.

And as Labour slides ever further behind the big three of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, an equally unnerving feature of the party's woes is that, as FF and FG discovered before, once you're detached from the herd, there is no threshold.

Fianna Failers may finally have straggled back in 2011 with 19 seats feeling very sorry for themselves, but they know that had the ball broken a different way, they could have been a few seats short even of that total.

The lesson from Fianna Fail, the Greens, or Fine Gael for that matter, is that if Labour believes it will survive because of history, tradition, constituency work and the basic decency of the Irish citizens, it is building a house of straw to protect itself.

If Labour is to break free from its current state before the wolves of the electorate arrive huffing and puffing, then the party must chart a definitive escape route.

Sadly, instead it is trapped in the political equivalent of what cricketers call the "corridor of uncertainty". In cricket, the "corridor of uncertainty" tends to lead to a batsman losing his wicket.

For Labour, nothing epitomises this corridor of uncertainty more than the scenario whereby the party that defines itself as being opposed to cuts finds itself imposing the deepest cuts in the Budget, courtesy of Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton.

Unsurprisingly, this means the voters are in a similar corridor of uncertainty. The electorate does not know what the party is for – except that it breaks its promises. Perhaps the most chilling feature of this uncertainty is that the Labour promise-breakers inspire cold indifference as distinct to wrath amongst an electorate who do not, as the Seanad referendum eloquently shows, have the time to be dealing with parties that cannot devise a clear message.

The voters' corridor of uncertainty over what Labour is doing means that, just like the poor Seanad, most of the electorate really do not care too much whether Labour lives or dies. The evidence for this indifference is found in the polls where the only corridor of uncertainty Labour now experiences is whether the party will be merely butchered or annihilated.

For now, it appears that Labour's main strategy is to lie as still as it can and look at the electorate with piteous eyes in the hope that this might spare it. If the party thinks that is the case, it would do well to examine the fate of that maestro of the art, Bertie Ahern – for once voters had weighed, sifted and found Bertie wanting, even the most cunning of them all could not escape their wrath.

Sunday Independent

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