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Tony Heffernan: Labour must act swiftly to halt demise – but it needs FG's help

'KEEP calm and carry on" was the advice given to the British people in the iconic poster printed at the height of the blitz. It is advice – particularly the "keep calm" part – that Labour Party members might well heed in the face of the blitz of negative commentary and internal criticism the party has faced since the Meath East by-election.

Of course the Meath East result was desperately disappointing for party members – all the more so given that Eoin Holmes was an impressive candidate. After the record successes of the February 2011 General Election it was also a shock for Labour members to find the party in fifth place.

But, as anyone with any knowledge of our political system will know, by-elections are unique events and voting patterns in contests such as Meath East are rarely repeated in a general election.

For instance, Labour also came in fifth place in the Donegal South West by election in November 2010, yet three months later won a record 37 seats in the general election.

And the party's woes continue after Ireland East MEP Nessa Childers resigned from the parliamentary whip, although this was not unexpected and she would not be regarded as an influential figure within the Labour Party.

It is no surprise that support for Labour has fallen, given the scale of the task facing the Government. Virtually every government in Europe has seen a collapse in support, with the more junior party in coalitions (as with the Lib-Dems in the UK) usually bearing the brunt of public criticism.

Labour members were well aware of the difficult situation the party would inherit and the limitations that would be placed on the new government by the troika straitjacket, yet delegates at the special conference in March 2011 voted by a margin of about nine to one to enter coalition with Fine Gael. It would make no sense whatsoever to now pull out of government, as some are suggesting.

This would not only be incredibly damaging for the country it would also do even more damage to the party.

Changing the party leader would also be a sign of panic. The fact is that Eamon Gilmore is the most successful leader the Labour Party has had. Apart from winning a record number of seats in the general election, Mr Gilmore also became the first leader of any party in government to win a by-election in more than 30 years with Patrick Nulty in Dublin West. And a Labour Party candidate won the presidential election.

This is not to suggest that Labour should adopt a 'do nothing' approach. It needs to calmly and rationally reflect on the Meath East result and the findings of recent opinion polls. It needs to be honest with the public and acknowledge that mistakes have been made. The party – and Mr Gilmore in particular – needs to acknowledge the errors that were made during the general election campaign by making commitments it has been unable to deliver on in government. This seems to be the factor that has inflicted more damage on Labour than anything else.

All governments face problems in communicating their message and this problem is compounded in a coalition. But why, for instance, was the impression allowed to gain ground and go unchallenged for months that all of those residents of ghost estates who were exempted from the household charge would also escape the property tax?

There have been some suggestions that Labour will seek a renegotiation of the programme for government.

Labour had some notable achievements in the early days of this Government, such as the reversal in the cut in the minimum wage and removal of more than 300,000 low earners from the universal social charge.

But it now needs to show that the successes that have been achieved at macro-economic level, such as the renegotiation of the promissory note deal and the dramatic reduction in borrowing costs, can translate into some relief for the tens of thousands of families that are struggling to survive. Clearly the next budget will be crucial in this regard.

Finally, if the Government is to survive to the end of its term and particularly if it is to have any prospect of re-election, Fine Gael must acknowledge the difficulties that Labour is now encountering. Any coalition government where one party takes virtually all of the blame runs the risk of hitting the rocks. Some generosity and flexibility on the part of Fine Gael will be crucial to keeping the ship afloat.

Tony Heffernan is a former press and parliamentary director for the Labour Party and is now an account director with DHR Communications

Irish Independent