Saturday 29 November 2014

It's a tough job, but Burton may keep rivals instead of purging the Gilmore old guard

Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30

Pat Rabbitte. Photo: Tom Burke
Pat Rabbitte. Photo: Tom Burke

YESTERDAY, in possibly his last official engagement as Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore hosted a breakfast in Iveagh House for Women for Election, with guest speaker Melanne Verveer, former US Ambassador for global women's issues. Pointedly, he said he was most proud of electoral gender quota legislation introduced during his term. Later yesterday, his party elected its first female leader.

Joan Burton is an experienced Labour party politician, whose victory in the leadership campaign was widely expected internally. That is not to say she was a shoo-in. Alex White has distinct credentials, not least his personal self-confidence and advocacy skills gained through many years in the media as a producer and as a senior counsel. He was a formidable opponent and by all accounts was a persuasive campaigner. Ultimately Burton's longevity in the hard graft of elected politics and popularity with the grassroots membership won out.

But simply "changing the face at the microphone" is not going to wash with voters. Unless the new leader can improve Labour's fortunes by a visible change in style and substance, the leadership change will have been in vain. The lengthy campaign appeared to outsiders as self-indulgent, particularly in a party of government. Following immediately on the carnage of local and European elections means that Labour TDs and ministers have been preoccupied by electoral survival and internal strife for several months now.

The focus now must be on uniting under the new leadership and a refreshed team. There is talk of dropping Pat Rabbitte which would be a big mistake in my view given his appeal to middle-class voters. He and Brendan Howlin are star performers in Cabinet. The latter's position is apparently secure. Rabbitte is a year younger than the new leader, so age is irrelevant.

Moreover, as a political heavyweight it would be a waste of talent to have him disgruntled on the backbenches. Ruairi Quinn was wise to walk. After a good innings and a remarkable career he knew when to fold his tent.

After the inevitable tensions and rivalries of the campaign Ms Burton has a tough job. She may decide to keep her rivals close rather than purge the Gilmore team. As the first female leader of the Labour Party in Ireland, or England for that matter, she will be expected to promote more women to senior positions and there is surely scope for that.

Burton is a highly competent politician. To be perceived as half as good, she had to be twice as good as her male colleagues. Despite having a social welfare brief, which is a barometer of poverty in any country and arduous to manage in a recession, she has remained popular and respected even when introducing cuts. She is admired by her civil servants for her initiatives on job activation measures and tackling fraud.

Sadly, like all female leaders, she has been on the receiving end of misogynist comments about her hair, voice and manner which, to her credit, she handles with admirable humour. But Burton is surefooted and dogged in debate; well equipped to take on the populist, uncosted proposals of Sinn Fein, who hoovered up traditional Labour votes in recent elections.

Labour has taken an unfair burden of blame for the necessary austerity measures dictated not by ideology but by the demands of the troika. Their sense of duty in this regard at a time of national emergency has not served them well electorally. And as always in coalition governments, the small party emerges most damaged.

It is possible for some ground to be recovered by the party over what remains of this Government's finite term. The leadership campaign has re-energised the troops and was relatively civilised. But some doomsayers are predicting a government collapse at the next Budget over some measure which acts as a tipping point.

When the support level drops to a point which looks like decimation, there is a theory it's better to take to the lifeboats on a point of principle rather than drift into icebergs. In a coalition, a row is easily manufactured. The jockeying over the EU Commission job is a case in point. While Labour feels entitled to the plum position in the absence of prior agreement, the squabble is unedifying and leaves the public cold.

Phil Hogan may have already pocketed the Commissioner job as a cosy sinecure in the Taoiseach's gift. For Labour it would be a dignified finale for Eamon Gilmore who takes his politics seriously and has performed well on the international stage as Foreign Minister. If it goes to the wire, the Taoiseach should recognise that it is in Fine Gael's strategic self-interest to keep Labour on side.

Irish Independent

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