News John Drennan

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Labour poll wipeout could derail Coalition

'Big Brother' Fine Gael might regret relegating its lesser Labour sibling come the May elections

Published 16/02/2014 | 02:30

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Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore with Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore with Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte

Those who are wondering about a recent bout of scratching in the Leinster House wainscoting should be assured there has been no invasion of mice. Instead, the sound is the familiar brave attempt to get some of the electorate to "think of the women and children" of Labour who have been so terribly good in government.

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As the Labour brethren gathered in humble Enfield, Co Meath, rather than the RDS, even their most optimistic have conceded the struggle to reconnect with the electorate has been a Grimm sort of a nightmare.

They've tried the gay civil marriage thing, indeed they are still trying, but, that hasn't worked. Now Eamon Gilmore faces the danger that, having elected three MEPs in 2009, the party is poised to come back with none.

That possibility has set the whiskers of the Labour mice a twitching to such an extent that the Tanaiste has been attempting to secure the attention of the "coping classes".

Mr Gilmore is not a day too early for it was the harvest of votes Labour secured, in 2011, from the public sector workers who traditionally "thought Labour but voted Fianna Fail" that brought the party beyond the threshold needed for governance.

Fine Gael, of course also gathered from that same pool, but, the terms and conditions imposed on poor Labour by all those promises bears a closer resemblance to a sub-prime mortgage as distinct from the deal FG cut.

The even worse news is that "the Invisible Tanaiste" and Labour are finding their attempts to make inroads into the rich territories of the "coping classes" are being stymied by the perennial problem of their status as the second sibling of the Coalition.

This means that no matter how hard Labour tries to assert itself to gain the respect and attention of the voters, the bigger FG brother will look down amusedly as it quashes the attempts of its younger brother to take that which FG believes to be its right.

The other great problem for Labour is that while being patronised and having your curls ruffled is never enjoyable, some Big Brothers are more benevolent than others.

Unfortunately Labour is in the process of discovering that despite all the politeness FG belongs to the less benevolent class of Big Brother.

This has come as a bit of a shock, for one of the Tanaiste's central strategic objectives has been to avoid the raucous infighting of previous Coalitions in favour of the co-operative template set by the Rainbow government.

This, however, was not the best precedent to follow for a key factor in the unified nature of the Rainbow was that John Bruton had been politically "broken in" by Dick Spring. To borrow a phrase, "manners" had been put on FG to such an extent they even allowed Labour to have the Finance ministry while the rest of FG was so delighted and shocked simply to be there that for once they were incapable of the usual droit de seigneur attitude.

When it comes to this administration, however, after some initial niceties a FG party that barely missed out on an overall majority in 2011 has reverted to its "red in tooth and claw" nature.

This occurred to such an extent even Pat Rabbitte, who like Flann O'Brien's famous bicycle is at least 50 per cent FG, had sand thrown in his eyes by Enda Kenny on the pylons front.

FG is the Irish equivalent of those Downton Abbey aristocrats who talk to but don't usually marry those downstairs.

In the "all things bright and beautiful" FG world of "a place for everything and everything in its place" FG's role is to sup with the "rich man in his castle" while Labour dines on bread and cheese with "the poor man at his gate".

The political equivalent of this is that the best place for Labour is the gay marriage agenda, the dole, transsexuals, cuts in public servants' pay and if you don't like that well, just like the bad old days of Garret, we'll give you Health as well as Social Welfare.

Fine Gael, in contrast, are the party of "smart" jobs and tax cuts and any attempt by Eamon to get too big for his boots will see him experience the same cruel fate as Richard Bruton, who always seems to find that Enda is standing on his toes when all those jobs announcements are made.

Labour is, belatedly, now trying to colonise these territories, but, as the feared ducking stool of the public's wrath hastens, nothing epitomises the extent of Labour's strategic dilemma more than the party's property tax break-out.

Such a promise should have been a winner, but, the cleft stick of a merciless public dismissal of "Labour, the party that broke all yer promises'' meant that in terms of political positioning this ranked somewhere around Sinn Fein's theories on the economy in the credibility stakes.

Mr Gilmore, last week made another Valentine's Day lunge in the direction of our frigid coping classes courtesy of the plea for tax breaks for the squeezed middle.

Though plenty will respond with a cynical nod and a wink about how "yer man with all the promises is back, fair play, Eamon" – in fairness the sick man of the Coalition has recovered a little in the polls.

Ultimately, though, opinion polls are a bit like a political IOU. By contrast, elections provide us with the hard currency of a party's positioning.

And Labour's decision to adopt the Stalingrad strategy, where the party has limited its ambition to hold off the gathering hordes in Dublin and a few West Berlin-style enclaves such as Cork, means that as the battle-hymn of the European elections commences, the friends and enemies of Labour are anxiously waiting to see was Meath East a blip or a trend.

Like all older siblings, in that regard FG is, for now, serenely indifferent to the travails of a Labour Party whose balance sheet looks as healthy as that of Anglo in 2008. They might, however, be wise to remember a concept from the recent past called contagion.

When it comes to the domestic FG market the politics of a place for Labour and Labour accepting its lowly place may seem attractive.

But if Enda believes that a panicky Labour Party coming back with no seats from their European travails will facilitate the virtues of stable government he is in for a shock.

Fearful politicians are like the shark that smells its own blood in the water and lashes out because it knows no other way to survive.

Those in FG who are relishing their time of plenty and becoming ever more dismissive of their pauperised Labour colleagues would be wise to give a hand up to their "civil partners".

If they don't and Labour fails to fly they may yet learn the hard way that even a dying wasp has a sting.

Sunday Independent

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