Labour's battle to avoid death by a thousand cuts
Published 19/08/2013 | 05:00
POLITICS is a cruel business. This time three years ago, Eamon Gilmore could do no wrong. Labour, at 32pc in the opinion polls, was the State's most popular party for the first time ever. Gilmore's personal satisfaction rating was a multiple of the leaders of the traditional big-two parties.
Today, Gilmore's satisfaction rating, at 16pc, is below Brian Cowen's 2010 level. The party's support, meanwhile, is one quarter of what it was back then.
Not even property prices have fallen that far, that quickly.
Just over a couple of years after Labour's best-ever seat return in a general election, TDs are reading headlines forecasting electoral "meltdown".
Whisperings about Gilmore's security as leader stubbornly persist.
Yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' Millward Brown opinion poll shows that even in the party's heartland of Dublin – where it has 18 seats – Labour is facing heavy losses.
Diagnosing what's gone wrong for the party is easy. Attempting to repair the damage will be a lot more challenging.
It was always going to be hugely difficult for a centre-left party in government at a time of unavoidable austerity. But Labour compounded this challenge by recklessly over-promising when in opposition – particularly in the run-up to the general election when it feared that Fine Gael might emerge with an overall majority.
Such criticism has to be balanced with an acknowledgment that, since coming to government, Labour has been hugely responsible.
It has implemented and stood over unpalatable and unpopular decisions in the national interest.
However, as the Greens discovered, you don't get any thanks in politics for being responsible in government – not as the junior coalition partner, anyway.
So what does Labour do now? There are clear signs of a loss of nerve throughout the party, which could make the situation even worse.
Through various leaks, Labour figures seem to be identifying a number of lines in the sand in the upcoming Budget, points beyond which they cannot go and still remain in office.
But it's not clear that they can win those battles.
Far from learning lessons from their time in opposition, Labour may have over-sold the prospect of €1bn in savings from the promissory note deal leading to an easier Budget.
A significant portion of that €1bn may be eaten away by spending over-runs and weak consumer spending impacting on tax returns.
There might not be €3.1bn in adjustments come October, as demanded by the troika and favoured by Fine Gael, but the reality is that it may not be too far short of that figure.
That's going to cause further difficulty for the Labour Party at a macro and a micro level.
In terms of the macro picture, Labour has raised expectations of an easing of austerity. It simply may not be able to deliver on that.
And cuts in areas such as education and social welfare are likely to do the party further damage with voters.
Reports yesterday detailing the various options being considered in education to bring about the necessary €44m in savings will have further alarmed Labour TDs.
The party's desire to avoid any further cuts in child benefit is also likely to be seriously tested. Fine Gael seems determined to ensure that this year Joan Burton delivers both budgetary cuts and reforms at the Department of Social Protection.
Will Labour TDs – and perhaps even ministers – stomach such cuts? This is the first Budget since the Coalition came to power that this question is even being asked.
Of course, it's still far more likely that a Budget compromise that allows the Coalition to continue will be cobbled together. But there will be some in Labour who will want the party to take a stand.
It would be a hugely risky tactic. At 8pc in the polls, does Labour really want to call Fine Gael's bluff on a general election? History – most notably the General Election of 1987 – suggests that talk of Labour being wiped out is overstated. But a loss of 20-plus seats seems inevitable based on those poll ratings.
There is always the possibility that resisting further austerity, and bringing down a government, could boost Labour's popularity. Some older TDs will recall Labour's instant lift in the polls when it pulled the plug on its coalition with Albert Reynolds in 1994. However, there is no guarantee that an austerity-jaded electorate won't see it as too little, too late this time.
It would seem that Labour's best – or 'least worst' – option is to hang in there and hope the much anticipated upturn in the economy actually happens. But even if it does, there's no guarantee it won't be the senior, rather than the junior, coalition partner that benefits.
Politics is indeed a cruel business. Who'd be in Eamon Gilmore's shoes right now?
Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM.