Friday 19 December 2014

New party must be ready sooner rather than later

If Noonan holds his line on €2bn Budget, Labour is very likely to quit in a matter of months

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

POLITICAL FLAVOUR: Stephen Donnelly and Lucinda Creighton. Photo: David Conachy
POLITICAL FLAVOUR: Stephen Donnelly and Lucinda Creighton. Photo: David Conachy

I believe Sinn Fein. I think they are sincere when they say they want to be in government, but not for the sake of it. They will not enter any coalition arrangement – and it is all about coalition arrangements – unless their policies are going to be enacted.

I think they are also clever enough to know that doing anything else would consign them to the same fate as the PDs, the Greens and now the Labour Party.

They do not want to be a hind-tit party in government after the next election, cobbling together a compromise programme that bears little relationship to their election manifesto, gaining them seats at Cabinet and little else.

The next election, be it two years or six months away, will not make Sinn Fein the biggest party in the State with the right to go searching for a junior partner. They will have to wait at least another five years for that to become any kind of realistic expectation. And the way things stand right now, that expectation will have to be realised for Sinn Fein to enter government.

Labour, and especially the next leader of the Labour Party, is facing a similar dilemma. Soon Labour will have to make a decision on what kind of party it wants to be for the next two years. Does it want to continue with the Gilmore plan of austerity, and hope it will lead to an appreciable economic upturn just before the election?

Do they want to place all their faith in the scales finally falling from the eyes of the electorate just as it comes time to vote, and the great sacrifice made by Labour in the national interest finally being understood? If so, that is a hell of a risky strategy no matter how committed the next leader is to staying in government.

Do they want to go on hoping against hope that next October and the October after that they will be able to persuade Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny to finally loosen the purse strings and put some money back into working people's pockets and ease the burden of the most vulnerable?

Do they want to gamble that the supply of affordable houses will arrive in time to make everyone forget – not just about the homeless – but those who cannot afford a home of their own, through either rent or purchase? Are they hoping the mortgage crisis will have eased by then and the banks will have returned to normal activity? Do they believe that their cosseting of the public service will be rewarded by 300,000-plus voters and their families who have benefitted?

Sticking with the Gilmore plan could see the survival of this Government until 2016. It could survive in its present form, becoming more and more unpopular and be just about ready to be put out of its misery at the next election.

But from the noises coming from the Labour back benches, it seems some Labour deputies and senators might not be willing to wait that long and take that chance. They sound more likely to pull the plug much earlier in the hope of saving their imperilled seats. The next Budget could be crunch time.

But, deciding to ditch the Gilmore way and trying to reclaim Labour's core values in government is not without risks either. Let's suppose the new Labour leader demands a radical renegotiation of the programme for government – seeking more fairness, less austerity, some immediate improvements in living standards for the hardest hit.

Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are quite keen to serve a full term in government with their Labour partners. But while they were punished at the polls too, they were not hammered to the extent that Labour were, for sticking rigidly to the Troika programme. They can talk about the stability of the country and how any deviation from the path they are on would threaten that stability. They are confident that come the next election, they will be able to sell the same message that Labour couldn't.

All the signs are that the next Labour leader will have to seek new terms from Fine Gael. But anything that is merely cosmetic will be a waste of time. Something to hit home immediately and in a lasting way with the voters is what is called for.

However, Michael Noonan warned last week that the next Budget will be tough and the Government does not have to power to resile from it, irrespective of the end of the bailout and the departure of the Troika. If that obdurate line is held, there is every chance of Labour being forced to exit government in a matter of months.

More voters opted for Independents in the local elections than ever before. But they are for the most part a mixed bag. There may be the makings of a new party or two in there somewhere – a very left-leaning party on the one hand, if they could ever agree a portfolio of policies; and a centre party that would appeal to those turned off by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and Labour, of whom there are obviously many. After the next election some commentators (and the bookies) seem to reckon that the best bet for government will be a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition. Then there is the idea of a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein grouping. Nobody is betting on anything that includes Labour right now. And not many seem to believe that Fine Gael could stomach sitting in cabinet with Gerry Adams. But everything could change if the long-talked-about new party of the centre – the party of Lucinda and Michael and Stephen and Shane and several others were to materialise, to crystallise the longings of those who are frustrated but not mad enough to just vote for any eejit so long as they aren't a member of an established political party. Fine Gael won't want coalition with Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail won't want coalition with Fine Gael – no matter how similar they and their policies appear, no matter how much that may seem the only way to keep Sinn Fein at bay. And certainly neither of them would want to be the junior partner in government.

The Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein thing just won't happen. Not with Sinn Fein insisting on its own economic policies being implemented, and wanting a United Ireland, anti-Unionist, anti-British policy to the fore. And this is even more emphatically certain with Gerry Adams still in charge. Sinn Fein are dedicated, fanatical even, they are efficient and hard working. And they are uncompromising. That could be their weakness.

Of course, a new party would have to be radically different to what is currently on offer elsewhere – socially and

economically. The whole abortion thing might be a problem there, but if it could be shoved on to the back-burner while the economy is placed front and centre, and if a programme for government that emphasised fairness and decent living standards without throwing the whole economy back into a mess, could be worked out, you might see a very attractive alternative for a clearly livid electorate. There is only one caveat. They would have to adopt a little of the Sinn Fein steel and insist that they are only available to serve if their policies are accepted. But unlike Sinn Fein, their policies are much less likely to be complete anathema to the established parties.

If someone is working on the launch of a new party, they need to get out there now, and be ready in September when the figures are more clear, to publish an alternative to Michael Noonan's planned €2bn Budget – and the one after that next year, and have a policy on Europe. Keep the message simple and enunciate it clearly. Yes, this Government could limp on for another two years. But equally, it could be gone by the end of the year.

There is a lot involved in setting up a new party, but it would be a mistake to think that a possible early election would be a disadvantage. For while it would shorten the timeframe in which to get across a new, uplifting message of hope, it would also limit the potential for the electorate to get jaded and cynical – again.

Sunday Independent

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