Tuesday 20 March 2018

Party will pitch itself as keeping Fine Gael from getting 'too posh'

Joan Burton. Photo: Arthur Carron
Joan Burton. Photo: Arthur Carron
John Downing

John Downing

Can Joan Burton's Labour pull off yet another 'Houdini Act' and survive in significant numbers to play a role in the next government? That question will resonate with delegates at the pre-election conference in Mullingar today, as the party finds itself on yet another dangerous political corner. Even Labour true believers approach the proposition more in hope than confidence.

And right now it is extremely difficult to predict the future of the Irish Labour Party. It could be two elections away from extinction - or it might be headed back to Government to share distribution of the fruits of continuing economic recovery. Much will depend on tight late counts in nail-biting contests too close to call at this distance.

One of Labour's prime characteristics has been its ability to pull back from the abyss and survive. Ireland's oldest party is often correctly seen as the creaky bicycle of Irish politics which somehow keeps going precariously onwards.

But a glance back at its history shows Labour has often punched above its parliamentary numbers, participating in eight coalition governments and producing two of the country's nine presidents. It has also suffered hugely after stints being junior coalition partner in recent times.

After four years in government with Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael, their vote plummeted to a record low of 6.4pc in the February 1987 General Election.

And following participation in two coalitions during the years 1992-97, their vote was halved to 10.4pc in the June 1997 General Election.

Since the foundation of the State, Labour's vote was generally around 10pc. The two exceptions in modern times were the so-called "Spring Tide" of November 1992 and the "Gilmore Gale" in February 2011 when the party polled twice that level.

The opinion polls have done little to lift the party from a terrible local election result in May 2014 which delivered just 7pc of the vote and 51 council seats. There are many seasoned pundits who predict they could be reduced to single Dáil figures.

Others close to the party strategists argue that they will take at least a dozen seats, possibly nearer 17 or 18, if all goes well.

Even that most optimistic view is a huge fall from their 37 TDs in February 2011.

Labour's talk of up to a dozen and a half TDs is based on the hope that the voters will accept the Fine Gael message on the need for stability.

The next step would be to ramp up the need for Labour to supervise Fine Gael on behalf of people on more modest incomes. In the vernacular, they will argue Fine Gael cannot be allowed get "too posh" next time.

It will be a hard message to sell to a hostile electorate.

Irish Independent

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