| 9.6°C Dublin

Daniel McConnell: Only a seismic shift in attitude can save Labour now

When the history of this Government comes to be written, the Meath East by-election will be an important chapter, but not in the way most people would think.

While Helen McEntee will formally take her seat on Tuesday, and Damien English is expected to be named as junior minister (primarily as a reward for getting her elected), the real significance of Meath East is the impact it has had on Tanaiste Eamon Glmore's Labour Party.

Despite having a media-friendly candidate in Councillor Eoin Holmes, the party's vote of below 5 per cent was humiliating yet inevitable given the party's approach to the election but, more importantly, its approach to being in Government.

Its perceived abandonment of core Labour principles of protecting the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the public sector from a rabid Fine Gael saw its national poll ratings plummet to single digits.

Yet, it seems that in the past two weeks, things are changing.

Following the resignation of Nessa Childers MEP from the parliamentary party and sparked by real fears that Labour is likely to follow the way of the Green Party or the Progressive Democrats, the message is beginning to dawn on the leadership that only a "seismic shift" in attitude and behaviour can save it from the kind of political Armageddon suffered by the other junior coalition parties.

Labour's resurgence back to 12 per cent largely at the expense of Sinn Fein in the latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll will come as a relief to the party and it shows it that its fate is still very much in its own hands.

Spooked by the defeat in Meath East, Gilmore began a round of one-on-one sit-downs with TDs and senators, not only to gauge their temperature, but also to contain the political fallout that could easily have developed into a heave if left unchallenged.

With the Dail reconvening on Tuesday, Gilmore stands embattled but not broken as Labour leader. He is secure for now as he knows that many of the troops he has spoken to are in Leinster House only because of his successful handling of the party before the 2011 election.

However, there is some legitimacy in saying the savaging Labour got in Meath East was entirely justified because it promised a "democratic revolution" and then immediately abandoned that revolution for a shameful rendition of 'more of the same'.

Labour has been repeatedly accused, like its Green predecessors, of broken promises, of a gutless sheltering of cronyism and a superciliousness mixed with a self-pity which has resulted in establishment elites being left untouched.

Former Green Party communications manager, turned blogger, Steve Rawson analyses it succinctly: "Its clever Tesco-style advert 'Every Little Bit Hurts', attacking Fine Gael's policy plans, was considered a masterstroke of electioneering in that it halted the Labour slide and ensured Fine Gael would not form a single-party government. Labour's problem is that five of the six items – cuts to child benefit, an increase in VAT, in car tax, on wine and Dirt tax – have all been imposed under Labour's watch while the sixth, a water tax, is due next year."

While FG voters may have expected that of their party, Labour voters expect much more of their leaders and have abandoned them in droves as a result. To a politically apathetic public, as evidenced in the high levels of 'don't knows' – as many as 33 per cent in recent opinion polls – such broken promises represent treachery and have convinced many people that Labour is no better than Fianna Fail. Such broken promises mean this Government has pushed itself close to the edge of democratic legitimacy.

In Meath East, Labour was busy promoting same-sex marriage reform at a time when the country was consumed with the practical matter of the property tax.

"Labour's messaging and optics depicted a leadership and campaign team out of touch with the general mood," said Rawson.

"You do not have to reach too far back into the recent past to find the template for this behaviour.

"The Greens, as junior coalition partners to Fianna Fail, eagerly promoted civil partnership and a lord mayor for Dublin during the worst economic meltdown since the foundation of the State, to a bewildered and angry electorate."

Throughout this Government, Gilmore and his ministers have increasingly appeared to be underachieving, ineffective and out of touch with their backbench TDs and grassroots members.

It has emerged that Dublin backbench TD John Lyons expressed outrage at ministers' failure to deal with party frustrations at a recent meeting of the parliamentary party.

"This is getting ridiculous. Every week I attend a PLP and every week I have to listen to the same thing. Kevin [Humphries] giving out, but nothing happens. What's the point? We have to find a better way to do business. Why bother to say these things if nothing happens. Are we just speaking to console ourselves?" he asked.

Pat Rabbitte's ill-judged joke at a Labour Party book launch that he had taken time out of "diminishing the living standards of the people to be here tonight" typified the extent to which the party hierarchy appeared to be out of touch with the public mood.

"Our ministers seem to be comfortable in inflicting the cuts on our people. They actually seem to enjoy it. How the hell are we to survive when they are doing that?" one junior minister asked.

While Gilmore stands safe for now, criticisms and calls from within the party for the leadership to be more assertive are directed solely at him.

They cite his weakness on a number of fronts. Despite making no secret of a lack of confidence in James Reilly, Gilmore has steadfastly refused to look for his head, all the time making himself, not Reilly, appear weak.

Closer to home, Colm Keaveney's persistent campaign of criticism of Gilmore and the leadership has been even more damaging. Gilmore and his handlers sought to prevent Keaveney from becoming party chairman but were unsuccessful.

Despite his voting against the Budget, and his automatic expulsion from the parliamentary party, Keaveney has doggedly remained as chairman, against the expressed wishes of the party leader.

Despite attempts, Gilmore has proven powerless to remove Keaveney, again calling his effectiveness as party leader into question.

Added to this are the renewed calls for Gilmore to shuffle himself out of the Department of Foreign Affairs into a domestic ministry, but Enda Kenny has ruled out a wider cabinet reshuffle this year.

This means his only option would be to rejig the Labour ministers and given that he's unlikely to move Joan Burton or Brendan Howlin, it would mean Ruairi Quinn or Pat Rabbitte having to make room for their leader.

But for all Labour's problems, the public too should consider that Labour, socially progressive, is the main fortification against the cynically opportunistic, populist Sinn Fein, and that position cannot be underestimated. Kenny, if he is genuine in wishing that his Government lasts the full term, must realise that the uncompromising dominance of Fine Gael will have to give way to real and tangible compromise. He needs a Labour win as much as Gilmore if he wants to stay Taoiseach.

Gilmore and his ministers cannot afford to be passive any more. They must get radical or face being eradicated.

Irish Independent