Thursday 25 December 2014

Labour needs a McDowell-style 'influential windbag' to appease members and voters

Published 07/06/2014 | 02:30

Roisin Shorthall

There is no shortage of contenders for leadership positions in Labour. This could be a sign of optimism and vitality. But it could also suggest an unsure and fractured party. In the field are the old guard set against a scattering of young bloods, ambitious career politicians who have more to lose than the elders. It is not so much a difference of ideology that divides these groups, more a matter of seniority and opportunity. The elders, as in all parties, have been hogging power and calling the shots for too long.

Even in Opposition, it was a hierarchical organisation with cabals. There is now talk of a return to "core Labour values", whatever that means. Socialism in Ireland never took strong electoral hold, given church resistance to secularism and Communist ideology. So what exactly does Labour Nua stand for?

The draining of votes to Sinn Fein and other left-leaning extremes would suggest many of its followers prefer protest to government. The facts don't lie; each time Labour goes into Government it gets mugged by the electorate. The recent chastisement of the party is partly due to a perceived overly compliant relationship with Fine Gael.

Looking back, mistakes started early. Roisin Shorthall was casually abandoned, when she challenged Fine Gael Minister James Reilly for favouring his constituency in funding health centres. The junior minister was widely viewed as right but Labour colleagues failed to back her. When other TDs resigned, dismayed by austerity, they too were viewed as collateral damage as they "pirouetted off the plinth".

Some in Labour want to take to the lifeboats. But jumping ship from a holed vessel at this stage would be reckless. Both contenders for the leadership, Burton and White, are at pains to stress commitment to 2015 fiscal budgetary commitments and government stability. Although White, by squaring up to the Taoiseach about his role in the "retirement" of the Garda Commissioner, now seems more combative. That would appeal to those who want more than a simple change of face at the microphone.

What Labour needs is the nerve to decouple from Fine Gael when it gets things wrong, as with the medical cards, and the police and justice controversies. Coalition is not about being tethered to each other at all cost, but rather an agreed programme by two parties, with each holding on to their fundamental credo.

Ironically it was Michael Noonan, not a Labour minister, who quoted Yeats in last year's Budget speech: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

It would appear from the recent elections that Labour voters have had enough of Fine Gael-type Budget cuts, particularly in health.

Although basic social welfare rates have been protected thanks to Joan Burton's determination, Labour ministers have had to preside over unprecedented public service pay and pension cuts, property and water charges and the disastrous medical card review.

In their defence, they plead "patriotic duty" and demands of the Troika but, as Alex White says, staying in government cannot be sacrificed at any cost.

Burton's slathering Brendan Howlin with praise suggests he will survive the reshuffle, an important sign Labour under her leadership would not go off the fiscal rails. But those who want a visible change in direction could see this as weakness. Burton has a delicate space to navigate as she turns the ship around without unduly frightening the passengers. To date, she has been careful not to dump on Fine Gael for errors made, even when provoked.

Losing party identity when in coalition is always a challenge for the smaller party. The McDowell rule of being radical or redundant comes to mind. Talking vaguely of jobs and "modest recovery" will not be enough to lift Labour's sails. But Burton's promise to review the USC and do something for the working poor is more like it. Her theme of "social repair" as well as economic repair captures the public mood.

Ciara Conway has cleverly pledged not to take a ministerial position, if elected Deputy Leader. What Labour has lacked up to now is a loyal but influential windbag who can sound off about party values in an independent way. Ministers are compromised by a duty to provide stability. But a McDowell-style outrider with a party mandate could play that role.

Alan Kelly certainly has the confidence and ambition to kick ass were he to be Deputy Leader. Someone is needed to act as the party conscience and to voice qualms on controversial measures as the late Jim Kemmy did so effectively in the past.

Joan Burton is now frontrunner. She is a skilled and experienced minister more than ready for leadership. But the lengthy election campaign could benefit relative newcomer Alex White, who may take a more radical approach.

Irish Independent

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