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Labour now under attack left, right and centre

'This election is turning into a proper open contest, which will also have that rarity in Irish politics -- ideological polarities'

JUST when we thought the next election was in danger of becoming a mere coronation for Labour and Fine Gael, with the only question being how many seats each would get in the face of a Fianna Fail collapse, the poll is actually turning into a proper open contest, which will also have that rarity in Irish politics -- ideological polarities.

On the centre right, we have Shane Ross and a number of similarly inclined independents, while on the left, the Labour party is under attack from a re-energised Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance (ULA), which comprises People Before Profit and Joe Higgins' Socialist Party, and is fielding up to 18 candidates.

Sinn Fein, particularly Pearse Doherty, has been unexpectedly effective in attacking the Finance Bill, and the mainstream parties' "support" for it, though how SF manages to present itself as a party of the left in the south and a party of the centre right in the North (where it is in government with the DUP) is an amazing phenomenon, and as strange as any of the contortions it has done in its paramilitary past. Clearly, this is a party that, ironically, truly respects partition, given that it can be two different types of parties in different parts of the island.

Either way, the latest rise of SF is a serious threat to the Labour Party which had, about a year ago, been coasting for an easy success, destined to become the biggest party in the Dail.

However, we should be cautious here, for "the big SF breakthrough" has been trumpeted before and never happened. Remember all those seats the party was supposed to take during its peace process honeymoon back in 2007, and about which the more bullish political correspondents still make embarrassed mumbles? Even then, the more sceptical of us wondered exactly where these seats where going to appear, given that every Dail constituency is like a cockpit by-election tightly fought over by locally focused combatants.

Either way, this late surge by SF is the last thing Labour needs, especially at a time when the 'Gilmore Gale' has subsided and the party has dropped in the polls: possibly with those same numbers going directly to SF, but just as likely to Fine Gael, which has recovered its pre-eminent position.

In fact, the decline of the Labour Party's numbers has had serious implications within the party that have not been highlighted as the political media remains absorbed by the Fianna Fail leadership and the Finance Bill.

Apparently, there are ructions in Labour as it contemplates the threat from the left and SF, but there is also anger that, in a rush of former optimism, sitting TDs have had running mates foisted upon them in the hope of capitalising on the Labour surge but which, now that the Gilmore Gale has faded, could instead split the vote in various constituencies and endanger existing seats.

This is something that has been predicted about Labour's organisation. Eamon Gilmore may have talked about maximising the Labour votes and seats, but he has his work cut out for him in dealing with plucky individuals and their personal strongholds.

For the reality is that the Irish Labour Party is just as much a collection of different political traditions and family fiefdoms as are Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. In fact, even more so, since the other parties have mostly reformed themselves of these tensions (mostly) and imposed "central office" discipline that Gilmore, a former WP centralist, can only envy.

Labour knows this and it is one of the problems it has faced as it seeks to maximise its potential vote with new candidates. The party lost out in 1992, after all, when it couldn't convert the high vote of the Spring Tide into actual seats.

However, it seemed to have overcome these local problems and the party was boosted by the arrival of refugees from other parties, such as former independent Jerry Crowley, in Mayo, former Shinner Killian Forde, former Green Nessa Childers, now an MEP, and even Mae Sexton, who used to tog out for the dreaded PDs.

Such arrivals helped pump up Labour's morale and poll numbers, but now, however, with the poll numbers falling, there is panic among some sitting chieftains.

Take, for example, Tommy Broughan in Dublin North East, upset at having former TD Sean Kenny selected on the ticket with him in the three-seater -- especially since Kenny took nearly three times Broughan's number of first preference votes in 1992. If something similar happened again, Broughan could lose his seat to his running mate.

Likewise, Roisin Shortall in Dublin North West, where Councillor John Lyons, a big vote-getter, is also running. Between a rejuvenated Lyons and the expected boost for sitting TD Dessie Ellis of SF, Shortall could find herself being squeezed out.

Supporters of Broughan and Shortall have been complaining about these arrangements and there had even been talk of "de-selection", which was most unlikely to happen but even such talk must be demoralising for a party that was going to sweep the boards nationally just six months ago.

Indeed, the problem is best illustrated in Dublin South Central, probably the most left-wing constituency in the country and thus a place where Labour decided to select three candidates. Now, with their poll numbers dipping, it is possible that the second and third Labour candidates will cancel each other out, and deny Labour the coveted second seat, letting in Joan Collins from the United Left Alliance -- a nightmare scenario, given that Aengus O Snodaigh of the dreaded Sinn Fein will probably consolidate his vote.

However, one can only sympathise with Gilmore and Labour HQ. Look at Kildare South, for example, where sitting TD Emmet Stagg's determination not to have former independent TD Catherine Murphy on the ticket has almost certainly denied them a second seat. Previously a member of Workers Party and Democratic Left, Murphy has been resisted by Stagg, despite the fact that at the last election she won the highest vote of any female councillor in the State. Instead, Stagg ensured that Labour Councillor John McGinley will be on the ticket, despite taking less than half of Murphy's vote.

And so Murphy will run as an independent and Labour will lose the chance of a second seat. No wonder the United Left Alliance contains not just former Labour members, disappointed by the centrist direction of the party but also by the party's inability to impose a selection discipline on recalcitrant members.

However, the main elements of the ULA continue to be Joe Higgins' Socialist party and Richard Boyd Barrett's People Before Profit, both of which have acted as a galvanising element for the left and for the incredible public anger which is out there.

Whereas Gilmore had been the beneficiary of all this anger a year ago, for many the Labour Party is now simply too mainstream and not radical enough. Meanwhile, they have to fend off Sinn Fein's accusations of treachery.

Labour must be appalled by the prospect of SF and the ULA taking votes off them, but they have taken the fight to them, with Sean Sherlock being especially effective in pointing out the difference between "parties of protest" and "a party of Government".

But if the ULA take even a few per cent, this could deny Labour seats in tight marginals. Just look at the previous elections in the UK where the anti-European Referendum party skimmed off enough like-minded votes from the Tories to do major damage.

However, under our curious PR system, Labour could maybe benefit from the transfers of eliminated independents and socialists, so there may yet be a silver lining.

However, bear in mind one key fact from the recent opinion polls: those plumping for Labour are also those most likely to change their mind. It's something to give the party many a sleepless night between now and election day.

Sunday Independent