Friday 13 December 2019

Labour's next generation game kicks off

The drawn out Labour 
leadership contest is just 
over, so let the battle for
the next leader begin, 
says Fionnan Sheahan

Labour leader Joan Burton pictured with deputy leader Alan Kelly in Dublin's Mansion House on her election as Labour leader. Picture; GERRY MOONEY
Labour leader Joan Burton pictured with deputy leader Alan Kelly in Dublin's Mansion House on her election as Labour leader. Picture; GERRY MOONEY

Fionnan Sheahan

Despatches are already arriving about Alan Kelly's robust style in meetings in his new department.

Ged Nash is showing an astute grasp of his brief to colleagues.

Sean Sherlock is differentiating his line on international affairs from his senior minister.

Aodhan O Riordain is keeping his profile up and putting a spotlight on the gay marriage referendum.

The Labour Party's young turks appear determined to hit the ground running in their new posts. The quartet of ministers under the age of 45 have a short enough time to make their mark.

Tanaiste Joan Burton avoided any landmines in her ministerial selections.

For sure, there were disappointments. New TDs Arthur Spring, Derek Nolan, John Lyons, Michael McCarthy, Ciara Conway and Ann Ferris were all noticeably left on the ground as counterparts who they were elected with for the first time in 2011 moved up the greasy pole.

"Never mind getting hockeyed in the local elections. Never mind Eamon Gilmore's resignation. Never mind the leadership race and the reshuffle. The toughest day around here was the day of the junior ministers being appointed with people seeing their peers being promoted above them," a party insider said.

In her selections, Burton's strategy was to ensure a gender balance, an urban-rural divide and ensuring there was a northside-southside mix in Dublin. She chose who she believed to be the most talented and obviously left others disappointed.

Aside from the young guns, she also put in canny operators Kevin Humphreys and Ann Phelan.

Whether by accident or design though, Burton has teed up the next leadership race in the Labour Party.

Let's face it, although the party has just come through a drawn-out, five-week-long, leadership race (which was about four weeks too long), the next contest may not be that far off.

Labour members could be back at the hustings within 21 months. Burton only has until March 2016, at best, to turn about the party's dismal fortunes. Failure to get back into power is expected to signal the end of her tenure.

At that point, the party would be facing a crisis of existence and in need of long-term repair and renewal.

Worse yet for Burton, the departure of Gilmore emphasised how an electoral competition of any type can oust a leader. It doesn't even need to be a general election.

The next leader will almost certainly come from the new generation in the party.

By his own admission, in describing himself as a "bridge" to the younger group in the party, Alex White doesn't fit that demographic.

Those with ministerial experience, at whatever level, will automatically have a headstart over less seasoned contenders. It makes Kelly, Nash, Sherlock and O'Riordain the field to choose from - provided they can hold their seats, which is not an assumption to be taken lightly for any Labour TD.

Where Kelly is out in front, on foot of winning the Labour deputy leadership and his promotion to a full Cabinet position, a chasing pack is now in place.

Kelly's abrasive approach isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it's got him this far. He's been elected as a senator, as an MEP where there didn't appear to be a seat, as a TD in a notoriously marginal constituency, and as party deputy leader.

His CV is considerable, even if he isn't universally popular in the parliamentary party. The savvy he showed as a junior minister in keeping local TDs and councillors notified of transport developments in their area will also be put to use as Environment Minister. While he will want the focal point of his tenure to be on housing, he'll still have to navigate the choppy water charges introduction. The Custom House is an area ripe for an ambitious minister.

But Kelly won't be on his own. Nash now sits at the Cabinet table as a Super Junior Minister at the Department of Jobs in charge of small business and collective bargaining. His grasp of his portfolio in such a short space of time has already been noticed by more senior Cabinet members.

He will be a key figure in honing Labour's focus on the working poor, rather than the social welfare dependent. The new Low Pay Commission will come under his remit and he plans a nationwide tour to sell the message over the coming months.

Nash will also have to ensure the sensitive measures on collective bargaining get across the line, with the continued agreement of unions and employers alike. He also has the advantage of not being daunted by the challenge posed by Sinn Fein. His Louth base gives him experience of dealing with Gerry Adams' outfit and he doesn't shirk from attacking the party.

About a year into his time as a TD, Nash was identified by party grandees as the cream of the crop of 2011 and as future leadership material. He'd better match up.

Sherlock's run for deputy leader was a disappointment to say the least. After showing initiative but not setting the world on fire as junior enterprise minister, he's got a second bite with the junior foreign affairs role. Aside from the overseas aid budget, Sherlock has got North-South relations as part of his remit. Given Burton's avowed interest in the North, it won't be a peripheral role. He is viewed as sincere and with an independent streak.

O'Riordain's promotion makes him the youngest in the Labour ministerial ranks. The junior minister for equality at the Department of Justice is articulate, but his ultra-liberal views do have the capacity to rub people up the wrong way.

Ultimately, his success or failure in the role is not entirely in his hands. O Riordain will have an important role to play in the gay marriage referendum, both in fronting the campaign and also guiding through the preceding legislation around the family.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill will create a legal structure around diverse parenting situations and provide legal clarity on parental rights and duties in diverse family forms.

It's a minefield.

He will have to make substantial efforts to keep onside Fine Gael backbenchers - some of whom he has irked with his partisanship.

The leadership contenders have got a short enough time to make their mark, both nationally and internally.

Sunday Independent

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