'In Joan we trust', the people say as new leader brings sense of stability
Today's poll shows us that Joan Burton could well be the one to bring Labour - and the Government - back from the brink, says Brendan O'Connor
People had very firm opinions on Eamon Gilmore. In April, towards the end of his reign as Tanaiste and leader of the Labour Party, more than two in three people, 69pc, were dissatisfied with the way he was doing his job. Less than one in six people, just 16pc, were satisfied with how he was doing his job.
By contrast, while one-third of the people polled in today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll clearly think it is too early to pass judgement on Joan Burton as leader of the party, 27pc of people think she is doing a good job and just 40pc are dissatisfied with how she is doing her job. Burton therefore enjoys the same satisfaction ratings as the Taoiseach and Micheal Martin, and she enjoys a greater satisfaction rating than Gerry Adams.
But then, it is probably not really fair to measure a politician's popularity in Ireland right now. It is taken for granted that they are all unpopular. So perhaps a good measure of who the public likes is to measure who is less unpopular. Of all the major party leaders, Joan wins this one by a mile. Only 40pc are dissatisfied with Joan. This compares very favourably to the 61pc who are dissatisfied with the Taoiseach.
Indeed, more surprisingly, given that she has the burden of being in Government, Joan is less unpopular than both Micheal Martin (49pc not satisfied with him) and Gerry Adams (46pc not satisfied with him). This suggests a curious thing, when you take into account Labour's abysmal poll results. It suggests that people's personal feelings about Joan Burton transcend the unpopularity of this Government. It suggests that Joan somehow gets a pass, that she does not totally carry the blame, as much as Gilmore did and Kenny does, for the unpopular policies implemented by this Government. This is despite the fact that since the start of this Government, Joan Burton has been in a critical, high-spending ministry that has implemented a lot of cuts.
You could argue that this anomaly is because Joan Burton has been the Miriam O'Callaghan of this Government. She has always managed to speak directly to people, to avoid being tarred with the same brush as some of her colleagues. People tend to see Joan as warm, human, compassionate but also straight-talking and full of common sense. She has a personal brand that transcends the disdain currently heaped on her profession. She is seen as being an idealist, or at least an ideologue, who is in politics because she genuinely wants to change the world, or at least to change people's lives. There is a sense that, for some people, Joan is somewhat of an antidote to the current cynicism about politics in this country. "In Joan we trust" seems to be the motto for many people. She's not as bad as the rest of them, is the attitude.
It helps Joan that she comes into the Labour job at what many people are viewing as somewhat of a turning point for the country. Today's poll shows that, despite the revelation during the week that people's disposable income is down €1.1bn in the last year, people are starting to feel slightly more optimistic for their own lives and finances. It is also beginning to look as if Joan Burton's promise to cut back on austerity, which, when you recall what she said, was based largely on the assumption that we would not need to cut €2bn in the next budget, is a gamble that paid off. While the end of austerity, or at least the temporary easing of austerity, is probably largely down to circumstances; superficially, it will look as if Joan came along and suddenly things got better. Poor Gilmore was the face of hardship and broken promises and Joan will be the face of things getting better. As in comedy, timing is everything in politics.
The Burton era also appears to be an era of greater stability. In June, before Burton became leader of Labour, nearly half the population thought that the Government would not last its course, now only a quarter of people think the Government will collapse prematurely. And while half thought in June that Labour should pull out of Government if they did not achieve a change in government policies, only one-third think that now. This could be because, in reality, people already think Labour has achieved some changes. Certainly there is more appetite for stability and more of a sense of stability since Burton came in. And there seems to be more of a sense that the Coalition under Joan will be more palatable.
This is perhaps recognition of the fact that Burton is not just a warm, empathic female; she is a hard-nosed pragmatic political operator too. Burton has always managed to link her idealism and pragmatism. She is not some fluffy, airy lefty but a pragmatic believer in the power of jobs, the regeneration and economic empowerment of the middle classes, and the diminution of the reliance on welfare. She is about giving people dignity, independence, ambition and something to strive for. So any doubts that she could work with Enda Kenny have more or less been put to bed.
One of the main sticking points in the negotiations about renewing the Programme for Government was thought to have been Labour's insistence on balancing out tax cuts for those in the middle with a corresponding increase for very high earners, which Fine Gael was reluctant to get on board with. We have yet to find out how this was overcome but clearly it was. We could still see some kind of easing of the higher rate of income tax paid for by an extra bit of USC for those on very high incomes.
In fact, opinion is divided on whether Joan will be able to change government policy with the split being roughly equal (40pc say she will, 41pc say she won't) but with government policy changing anyway as our economic circumstances do, no doubt Joan will be able to claim some credit for that.
There is no doubt too that some of the credit and the benefit of the doubt that Joan is being afforded by people are down to the fact that she is a woman. It is perhaps sexist against men to say so, but there is a possibility that people feel more comfortable with a man and a woman at the top than they would with two men. On some level, most people blame men for the state of the world today. The stereotype, which is probably true, is that it was men with their big-swinging-dick competitions who ruined the financial system and led to the virus that swept around the world electronically, taking out banks, homeowners, jobs and whole economies. The tempering influence of women in high places, another stereotype, gives people confidence right now. And with Enda having missed that whole moment in his recent reshuffle, Joan becomes even more important as a talisman. This is not to suggest that she is in any way a token, because as a woman, a man or an anything, Burton would run rings around most of her colleagues, and she has. But with Enda Kenny acting increasingly strangely, the idea of a sensible woman by his side, who does not spend her weekends cycling manically around the country, is definitely a comforting one.
You would nearly be tempted to think that if all goes to plan on the international front, and Ireland continues to enjoy a piggy-back recovery, that Joan Burton could actually lead Labour back from the brink in the next 18 months.
No doubt Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte will sit nursing their wounds and mutter that they were the ones who brought the country back from the brink and that the electorate were too stupid to thank them for it. No doubt they will mutter that it's easy for Joan to swish into the room now when the heavy lifting is done. But then again, life isn't fair. And indeed, Joan might find that out in the next 18 months too. But right now, there is no doubt, judging by today's poll, that Joan and a sizeable chunk of the Irish people are on honeymoon.