Wednesday 26 October 2016

Despite dire predictions, all is not lost for Labour - if the party can hold its nerve

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

'The party’s line for the election needs to be that for a balanced, fairer government, vote Labour'
'The party’s line for the election needs to be that for a balanced, fairer government, vote Labour'

Watching Labour TDs' rage over the leaking of internal constituency analysis brings to mind John Horgan's great line about Watergate. If it had happened in Ireland, Horgan mused, Richard Nixon would have stayed in office and everybody would have known who Deep Throat was.

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The outrage among party TDs is just silly. For Labour, of all parties, to be wringing its hands at the dreadfulness of leaks is utterly comical. No party has been more obsessed over the years about what is written about it in the media, but equally no party has been as leaky.

The finger of blame is being pointed at deputy leader Alan Kelly - which is ironic, given he generally makes little effort to disguise his antipathy towards the media - but if party history is anything to go by, there was probably more than one leaker.

The reality is it really doesn't matter who leaked the information to the papers. It should come as news to nobody that the party could potentially lose 20 seats in the upcoming election. Everybody knows that is a distinct possibility - at 7pc, it is arguably an inevitability.

There were one or two surprises, perhaps. The suggestion Sean Sherlock would lose his seat conflicts with other private polls showing him holding in Cork East. But in the main, the analysis is pretty much what any amateur psephologist might come up with.

As of now, the number of Labour TDs who would be virtual bankers in the election are few and far between. Brendan Howlin will be fine in Wexford. The same holds for Willie Penrose in Longford Westmeath. Brendan Ryan is seen as reasonably safe in Dublin North and, given it's a five-seater, Ged Nash should be OK in Louth. Despite the internal analysis, so should Mr Sherlock.

The party will also take two seats in Kildare - Emmet Stagg in Kildare North and, given the local election performance, Mark Wall will hold his father's seat in South.

After that things are a little patchy. Jan O'Sullivan will face a fight from Sinn Féin in Limerick City. Kerry is a five-seater and the family name should travel to the south of the county, but Arthur Spring is definitely under pressure. Labour has held a seat in Galway West since 1981, so Derek Nolan might make it. And it would be a brave man who would write off Alan Kelly in Tipperary.

In Dublin, Joan Burton will probably just about get there, but it wouldn't be a massive shock if she didn't. Eric Byrne and Joanna Tuffy have fighting chances in South-Central and Mid-West respectively. Kevin Humphries will be doing well to squeeze through in Dublin Bay South, as will Aodhán Ó Ríordáin across the water in Bay North, though it is a five-seater. In three-seat Dublin Central, it looks like a fight between Joe Costello and Fine Gael's Paschal Donohoe to hold a Coalition seat. Alex White looks extremely vulnerable in Dublin South.

If things went well for the party, it could conceivably end up with 13-15 seats. But on a really bad day it might be half that number. TDs know this. That knowledge, rather than the leak per se, is what's really generating the tension.

But avoiding the kind of headless chicken-style panic we've seen in recent days is absolutely vital for Labour. It hasn't always held its nerve in such situations - Frank Cluskey famously joked years ago, in relation to Michael D Higgins, that saving the world was easier than saving the Labour Party. But it must hold its nerve now.

Because there's an argument things need to get worse in the polls before they get better. Labour's best asset in the election campaign is the old Michael McDowell mantra: 'Single-party government - no thanks'. But it will take a further rise in support for Fine Gael - which the current trend suggests will happen - before it can really use that line.

If Fine Gael is at 33/34pc, then Labour can credibly warn of the dangers of a Fine Gael government on its own or supported by Independents.

Fine Gael is making a conscious and clever effort to soften its image with lower-income workers, a la Fianna Fáil of old, but Labour needs to call it out on that. The line needs to be that for a balanced, fairer government, vote Labour.

The reality is Labour needs to target reluctant, half-hearted voters. For this election at least, there won't be people excitedly casting their ballot for the junior coalition party.

In a bid to ensure it wasn't outflanked by the hard-left parties, and also to prevent an Fine Gael majority, Labour created unrealistic expectations of a painless economic recovery five years ago. It could never have delivered on that.

And, even though it did the 'right thing' in government, no amount of self-promotion about Labour's role in helping the country get back on its feet is going to totally quell the anger that many voters still feel towards the party.

But that doesn't mean all those voters are lost to Labour. Particularly if it can present itself as the best option to keep manners on Fine Gael.

It's not going to be easy. But all is not lost. And, as a first step, Labour TDs need to stop behaving like it is.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on at 10am

Irish Independent

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