Saturday 27 December 2014

Hedgehog and fox in battle for the chance to save Labour's neck

Our latest opinion poll offers a little hope to the party that has been badly damaged by austerity, writes John Drennan

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

Joan Burton and Alex White
Joan Burton and Alex White

Poet Rudyard Kipling's immortal lines of 'You're a braver man than I am, Gunga Din' perhaps best summarises the courage of anyone who would try and save poor Labour now.

As it happens, two white knights have decided to take the less than easy task of calming down the fire-breathing dragons of the electorate.

It would, of course, have been nice if there were more, but we are where we are.

And it might have been nicer still, or at least more interesting, had someone in Labour actually listened to David Cameron's prescient warning that "faces from the '80's cannot reform Europe" and applied it to the somewhat more difficult Labour crisis.

Still, in the wake of Labour's and Mr Gilmore's calamity, the Millward Brown poll is not entirely discouraging for the leadership runners and riders.

Such these days is the mood of the public when it comes to Labour that it would not have been surprising had 'none of the above' rather than Joan or Alex been the most popular choice when it came to the issue of who should lead the party.

In the event Joan Burton, with 35pc, enjoyed a comprehensive two-to-one victory over Alex White.

But at 16pc, while he was a distant third behind a candidate called 'none', he has fared well enough to retain some credibility as a candidate.

In leadership races there is often many a slip between cup and lip, particularly at those dangerous hustings, and the tortoise can occasionally defeat the hare.

The other good news for a Labour Party which is lingering on the threshold of existence is that the voters still want the party to survive.

Sadly, that is as good as it gets for they have also made it clear the only way Labour can survive let alone thrive is by fulfilling the promises made by the departed Mr Gilmore.

The new leader still has the devil of a job to do, for in what is by any standards an extraordinary vote of no confidence, just 6pc of the electorate think that Labour's economic policies are credible.

But the voters have at least provided Labour with a few leads as to how they might go about securing recovery, for 73pc think that the party's role in government should be to take on those Fine Gael austerity junkies.

In a modern-day equivalent of the old theological doctrine of truth by justification, it suggests the public still has some degree of faith in Labour but are lacking the evidence to justify it.

Perhaps the most intriguing figures of all are those concerning the query as to whether Labour should pull out of government if they fail to end austerity.

Ultimately the most important message the Millward Brown poll has for the two leadership contenders is that a future is still possible for Labour.

A Sinn Fein party whose core values bear a closer resemblance to Fianna Fail sheep than the current wolfish clothes of radicalism they are wearing may have just dined on a flock of Labour councillors. But as they prepare to feed on the fatted calves of the Labour parliamentary party, there is still a chance that Labour may escape the half-life of broken serfdom that afflicts their SDLP cousins.

Whether the Government can also survive is a different matter, for ending austerity is the last throw of the political dice that Labour has.

The other slight problem the party must solve over the forthcoming weeks is who might be best positioned to lead them through the high-wire bridge to survival.

When it comes to that little dilemma, after the first week it is already clear the difference between the two characters best resembles the tale of the fox and the hedgehog.

Like so many other lawyers, the foxy Mr White knows many things blithely and is very good at the sweet-talking when it comes to Sinn Fein and others.

In contrast, Joan, the hedgehog of the duo, specialises in fundamental truths about Sinn Fein and austerity.

For now, Labour's talkative Mother Courage has the edge on the talkative lawyer, but, as the electorate present Labour with the somewhat Spartan options of death with honour or death with dishonour, nothing is decided.

Indeed, after an initial period where Mr White appeared to be battling to save his junior ministerial career as distinct from engaging in a real challenge for leadership, the tide may be turning for, while Joan is way ahead on points, Alex the fox is still in the ring.

And, after the initial battle of Rosie Hackett's bridge, that is an achievement.

Sunday Independent

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