Wednesday 11 December 2019

Labour's rebranding as a pal of the workers will be a hard sell

'When Howlin lambasts this new Coalition, he must be careful in his choice of issue and the words he uses. Just six weeks ago, he was in Cabinet.' Photo: Collins
'When Howlin lambasts this new Coalition, he must be careful in his choice of issue and the words he uses. Just six weeks ago, he was in Cabinet.' Photo: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

Labour has gone down the road to political perdition. Now it hopes it can begin the journey back. Proportionately, the party's 2016 losses were comparable to the previous junior coalition partners, the Green Party, in 2011. Eamon Ryan succeeded in re-inventing the Greens at the recent General Election.

For once, Labour activists will look enviously at those Greens, whom they more usually disdain, and whom they delighted in persecuting while in opposition.

Already, Labour's new leader, Brendan Howlin, has begun visiting the branches and talking to the hard core of membership still doggedly clinging on and who might be just about ready to search for the party's black box amid the political wreckage all around them.

Howlin, with 35 years' experience at Leinster House and having been a minister in three governments, is probably Labour's greatest asset. But he is also a liability.

When Howlin stands up to lambast the minority Coalition, he must carefully choose his issue and his words. Just six weeks ago, he was in Cabinet and nobody will be too backward in coming forward to remind him of that and other past Labour sins.

The party has weathered its first big test - that extraordinary stand-off over the leadership. Howlin has given his would-be leadership rival Alan Kelly - the one he and his fellow TDs would not let on the pitch to seek party members' support - two big jobs as party spokesman on health and enterprise.

It was all smiles and jokes last Wednesday when they paraded out on to Kildare Street to unveil 'Team Howlin'. Kelly will be marking two of Fine Gael's newcomers to Cabinet in Health Minister Simon Harris and Enterprise Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

The reality is that Labour is now so low to the ground, with just seven TDs and five Senators, that there were plenty of jobs to go round and all the TDs will have to double up for Dáil set pieces with ministers. In fact, Howlin recalled seven former TDs to speak on various issues.

In itself, that was probably no bad move. Former TDs who keep their profile up have a habit of making it back to the Dáil.

Howlin knows that while things are stacked against him and his party right now, the bar for success is not set terribly high. The return of that defeated seven at the next election could allow him to boast 100pc growth. It would be hard to argue with that one.

But we are getting way ahead of ourselves here. There are many more moves to be played out before we are in such terrain.

In the long return trail from perdition, Howlin has to do more than re-energise a very demoralised membership.

He must urgently reconnect with the unions and other left-leaning pressure groups, which seriously fell out of love with Labour during its five years in government.

On paper at least, Labour did some good work in the Dáil two weeks ago when it inflicted defeat on the Government by cajoling/bullying Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin into backing the Labour motion on workers' rights.

For added impact, some of the workers from Clerys were in the Dáil gallery, almost a full year after their shameful treatment in the shutdown of the store.

Yesterday, as the workers marked one year since their betrayal, Labour was again prominent. That is all well and good - but what practical benefit will it have?

Fine Gael TD John Deasy rightly said that the Dáil motion was not worth the paper it was written on. In the real world, it had all the force of Kilahulla town council voting to condemn the latest Isil terror attack.

If Labour was all that keen to help Clerys workers and prevent any recurrence, then why not table draft legislation and really put it up to the others?

It costs little to back a Dáil motion, backing legislation is far more serious stuff. Given the current Dáil arithmetic, such draft laws could find their way onto the statute book.

The question has hung there unanswered since then. But now Labour insists that it will table a series of bills to advance workers' rights in the coming weeks and months.

The former super junior jobs minister Ged Nash said the party planned to enter dialogue with the other opposition parties and seek their support.

The Louth-based Senator specifically mentioned their leftist rivals the AAA-PBP and Sinn Féin.

Nash says Labour's first draft law will be an effort to give more protection to contract workers, especially in catering and security, by tightening the terms of so-called 'transfer of undertakings'.

He says that the Clerys situation is still in play. A report by the former Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy and company lawyer Nessa Cahill has recommended a change in the law.

A process of consultation between employers and unions is drawing to a close. Soon, the ball will be in the Government's court and specifically, that of Enterprise Minister, Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

"We will wait to see what the Government actually do. If they do not move to change the law, then we in the Labour Party will table legislation," Nash has insisted.

One year after the Clerys debacle, Labour has morphed into the "workers' pal".

That may seem unduly cynical but people like me are not the ones Labour needs to convince. The road back for Labour will be long and arduous.

Irish Independent

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