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Paul Moran: Labour still between rock and a hard place

Our latest opinion poll, conducted earlier this month, shows little change in terms of party support, with most of them tipping along at more or less the same position as last month. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have slipped back (an insignificant) one point, with Sinn Fein the apparent beneficiary. It is as you were for both Labour and the independents. There has been some stabilisation of the Labour vote over the past couple of months, stalling the steady decline that we witnessed earlier in the year.

So good news for Eamon Gilmore then? On the face of it, yes; but, in reality, not really. When one scratches beneath the surface, it is apparent that there is an undercurrent of restlessness with the direction that his party is going in.

On all key performance indicators for the Labour Party in this latest poll, the disillusionment and lack of faith is striking. The public were asked to evaluate Labour's tenure in government, and more often than not, the response has been less than emphatic.

They have borne the ire of the electorate towards current government policies, and have become the lightening rod for criticism. They brought some of this on themselves by being so crystal clear with their manifesto in the run-up to the 2011 General Election. The slogan "Every little hurts" has come back to haunt them – public affection for the party has eroded with every U-turn on their election promises. Pat Rabbitte's explanation last December of his party's campaign strategy didn't help matters.

We have to bear in mind, the public did not fall out of love with the party straight away – it also enjoyed a honeymoon period in 2011 – it was one of its candidates (who didn't hang around too long afterwards) that won the first by-election for a government party in close on 30 years, and it was its candidate that got the nod for Aras an Uachtarain.

Now the party is on the back foot on every metric. Looking at satisfaction with party leaders, Gilmore is significantly behind (less than one in five, 19 per cent, is happy with this performance, leaving two in three of the electorate of the voting population disgruntled).

Those more likely to endorse him are the more affluent ABC1s, while the heartland that Labour traditionally claims to epitomise, the working classes, are more likely to express disappointment. This is a common trend throughout these results, and would lead one to question what constituency does the party and its leader represent? Even among his own supporters, backing for the leader is lukewarm – 57 per cent are happy, versus a significant minority (36 per cent) who are dissatisfied – hardly a ringing endorsement.

So where does this leave Gilmore? A mere one in four believes he should remain as leader, compared with 39 per cent feeling it is time for him to step down (more than a third do not know). Again, those more likely to want him to remain are from the more affluent white-collar cohort, while a majority (55 per cent) of DEs (those most likely to be on the lowest rung of the economic ladder) feel that it is time for him to go.

Again, among his own supporters, backing for his tenure is modest at best – 58 per cent of them want him to remain versus 24 per cent of the faithful who are wavering.

So how can Labour remedy the quagmire it finds itself in? The largest body of opinion (31 per cent) is that the party should leave government. This, or course, is not an option at the moment – it would be the equivalent of political hari-kari. A further three in 10 feel that now is the time for a renegotiation of the programme for government – an eminently more sensible approach.

A mere one in seven (14 per cent) feels that the party should carry on with its current strategies. It is clear from these results that the status quo is unacceptable to most. While nearly half of Labour supporters (47 per cent) feel that the time for a renegotiation is now, it is interesting to note that the suggestion also gains traction among Fine Gael supporters – four in 10 feel such a move is acceptable.

However, regardless of any potential realignment of government policy, the party will still be embedded between a rock and a hard place. Two of their ministers have portfolios that are at the coalface of austerity: Brendan Howlin as Minister for Public Expenditure and Joan Burton as Minister for Social Protection. When the next round of 'savings' are made in October, they, in particular, will be firmly in the spotlight.

Overall, one thing is apparent: Labour needs to turn its ship around soon; otherwise it may well suffer the wrath of the electorate that is especially reserved for junior coalition partners.

The emotive debate on abortion continues. We have seen rifts within parties (particularly Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) that party whips have manfully tried to downplay. It is interesting to note the difference between the perspective of politicians and the views of the electorate. Generally speaking, opinions on the scenarios of when abortion is deemed acceptable have remained consistent. That is, in all of the 'distress' scenarios asked, the majority feel that abortion in these circumstances should be legislated for.

The issue of suicide, which has been the most widely debated more recently, is the only situation that has seen any movement – 53 per cent feel it is acceptable in this eventuality, down five points since February. It is a majority viewpoint all the same, with less than one in four (23 per cent) actively opposing it.

What is more illuminating is that regarding the scenarios that the proposed legislation will definitely not cover (the event of rape or of a long-term health risk to the mother), the public is more strident in its support.

However, abortion in other circumstances ("where the mother decides to have an abortion") is considered a step too far for many – less than three in 10 would support such a move.

It would seem that above all, a nuanced public wants a mature debate based on informed expert advice, and does not necessarily have the stomach to be embroiled in some all-out emotional trench warfare. Of all pieces of legislation, this particular issue has the potential to do just that.

The issue is complex, as can be seen by the reactions of many politicians. However, their job is to lead and to legislate on behalf of those they represent, regardless of their own personal convictions.

Paul Moran is an associate director with Millward Brown.

Irish Independent