Monday 26 September 2016

Daniel McConnell: What Joan needs to do to save her troubled party

Those who have written the Labour Party off may be premature, but there is much work to do, writes Daniel McConnell

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

UNDER PRESSURE: Labour leader Joan Burton has a major fight on her hands, but she is by no means beaten yetof
UNDER PRESSURE: Labour leader Joan Burton has a major fight on her hands, but she is by no means beaten yetof

Everywhere you go these days, you hear people speaking with vengeful delight about the anticipated wipe-out of the Labour Party at the next general election.

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Saying "Labour are finished" has become a national sport almost.

But with less than six months or six weeks maybe to polling day, is the party finished or does some hope exist for them?

The country's oldest party stands accused by disappointed voters and several TDs who used to belong to its ranks of betraying its core values in a desperate attempt to stay in office.

The damage done by the perception that the party under Eamon Gilmore over promised and under delivered on things from Irish Water to child benefit has been immense.

Those 'Every Little Hurts' Tesco-type ads which were utilised to limit the march of Fine Gael in the final days of the 2011 campaign have come back to haunt the junior coalition party, as every little cut that they forecast Fine Gael bringing in came to pass.

The party lost several heavy hitters along the way. First went Tommy Broughan and Willie Penrose, then the party chairman Colm Keavaney, after a long battle with the Gilmore leadership, defected to Fianna Fail.

Probably most damaging to the party was the departure of junior health minister Roisin Shortall, who accused the party of selling out to remain in power at all costs.

All the time, an unhappy Joan Burton was perceived to be spinning against her own colleagues at the Cabinet table following her failure to land one of the two finance jobs.

Such was the swing against Labour, that following a disastrous local and European election campaign last year, Gilmore honourably stepped down after a botched attempt to oust him.

Hopes that a Burton accession to the leadership would reverse the party's fortunes have so far gone unanswered.

There has been no 'Burton Bounce' and in all of the main opinion polls, the party's rating remains mainly in single figures.

The latest Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown poll has the party at just 6pc, which if replicated on election day could see them lose as many as 27 of the 37 seats it won in 2011. Other more pessimistic commentators have them coming back with less than five seats and say Burton is on track to lose her seat.

Also, there have been persistent reports of Burton's relationship with her deputy leader, Alan Kelly, being a troubled one and the party's cohesiveness at Cabinet has been impacted.

With several of the party's stellar names deciding not to run again - Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Jack Wall - there is a real sense of the tide being out for Labour.

But all is not lost and Burton still has a small chance to save her party from the kind of wipe-out many seem too happy to predict.

The Labour Party, for all its faults and mistakes, has a fine and honourable track record of being at the vanguard of social progress in this country. The same-sex marriage referendum was pushed through against much initial resistance from within Fine Gael.

But Labour has also proven its credentials on the economy, not just in the 1990s when Ruairi Quinn handed over an economy in surplus for the first time, but this time.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has shown a zeal to ensure this country's spending has been put back on an even keel and deserves credit for doing so against the backdrop of the damage it did to his own party.

Looking ahead to the Budget, the party has a chance to undo the damage of those Tesco-type ads and has already begun that process.

It has already restored half of the €10 child benefit cut and will restore the other half this time around.

It has done its best to neutralise the negative impact of Irish Water.

Burton has signalled her desire to further give back to the elderly and to working families by way of a pension increase and a restoration of the Christmas bonus.

The party misjudged the importance of it protecting core social welfare rates at the height of the Troika bailout as the very people and areas who have benefited from that fight are the ones who have flocked to Sinn Fein.

Burton and Labour, if they are to salvage their situation, must gear their election message not to the welfare class, which has left them, but compete for the middle classes.

Howlin has already secured his public sector pay increase which, come election time, will prove important.

If he can bring the €750m extra in funds he has available to him to gear the reliefs not to those on the bottom, who have largely been shielded from the recession, but those working poor who have had to pay for everything, then Labour has a chance.

Many in the party last year saw their efforts on the economy as a negative, but this was a major mistake.

Trying to disown growth rates of 6pc is crazy and Labour can justifiably claim credit for the recovery, having taken the lion's share of the blame for the pain.

Only in the cut and thrust of a three-week election campaign do the vast majority of people make up their mind on who they will vote for.

A party can force a swing in its support by up to 5pc during a campaign if things go their way, so there is plenty for Burton and Co to fight for. But they have yet to prove they are up for the fight and time is running out.

The party meets this week for its pre-term think-in, which represents their last chance to avoid disaster. But, if they want to, they can still save themselves.

Sunday Independent

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