Tuesday 21 January 2020

'Burton Bounce' alone will not save the Labour Party

Joan Burton is already double digits more popular than her predecessor Eamon Gilmore
Joan Burton is already double digits more popular than her predecessor Eamon Gilmore

RUMOURS of Labour's demise, it would seem, have been greatly exaggerated. Less than three months ago, in the wake of its local elections pounding, pundits were queuing up to write obituaries for a party that has been around for the past century.

But, yesterday's Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll showed a remarkable doubling of the party's support to 14pc. What's going on?

We in the media love to ascribe catchy and, preferably alliterated, tags to things. No surprise then that the 'Burton Bounce' has quickly been applied to the reversal in Labour's fortunes.

There's no doubt Joan Burton is a factor in the poll rise. The new Labour leader has always been far more popular with the electorate than with her party colleagues. She has skilfully managed to distance herself from the public opprobrium attached to other senior Labour figures, particularly her unfortunate predecessor Eamon Gilmore.

The long drawn-out leadership contest and the presence of a new, popular female leader has definitely given a shot in the arm to a badly struggling party. But that can't be the whole story. Not even Joan is that good at PR that she can bring about a doubling of support.

The timing of the poll certainly helps. 'Nothing succeeds like recess', is the old UK parliamentary adage. The summer break is traditionally a good time for governments, even more so in the 24/7 news era. The news cycle goes a little quiet. They're out of the firing line. And their poll rating tends to go up (though it doesn't seem to have worked for Fine Gael).

The more emollient mood music coming from the Government - and particularly Labour - has also probably helped. The headlines in recent weeks have been about tax cuts, a gentler Budget, the ending of austerity and Brendan Howlin's hints about a reversal of pay cuts for the public sector. The latter group have been abandoning Labour in their droves since 2011. And they will be the primary target for the party's wooing between now and the General Election.

One factor we can probably discount is the economic recovery. Not that it isn't happening. It is, albeit with patchy results. It's more that if the improving economy wasn't enough to alleviate the Coalition's crushing last May, it's hardly a factor in Labour's recovery now. It might be though, that having delivered a kick to the junior government party in the local and Euro elections (or simply stayed at home), traditional Labour voters now feel sated and ready to return to the fold.

Perhaps. But Labour would be unwise to take that for granted. Or get too carried away by the opinion poll. One swallow doesn't make a summer and one summer opinion poll certainly doesn't mark a political revival.

Just as talk of the party disappearing off the political map was wide of the mark - that was never going to happen - headlines of a Labour revival are premature.

If a succession of polls back up yesterday's result and show Labour in double figures, then we can legitimately talk about revival.

But as of now - the 'Burton bounce' not withstanding - we need to be cautious. And, as any political leader over the past 30 years will testify, the honeymoon period Joan Burton is currently enjoying will come to an end at some point. The only question is when?

Tough decisions lie ahead for the Coalition. It's one thing talking the talk about the end of austerity, but walking the walk is going to be difficult, given the strict EU rules. October's Budget may be better than feared, but it's hard to see there being too much to shout about in the way of tax cuts or increases in spending.

The worry for the Government is that they have raised unrealistic expectations and when voters realise those expectations won't be realised, their anger will return.

For those more worried about the economy, the big concern should be that this poll will encourage Labour, and indeed Fine Gael, to play politics and abandon the prudent, but unpopular, fiscal policies of recent years.

That would be disastrous for the economy, and perhaps for the stability of the Coalition. But for now, the poll will settle nerves among the notoriously jumpy Labour TDs. If this poll shows nothing else, it is that it's far too early to predict the outcome of the General Election. The prospect of the Coalition being returned still seems unlikely, but perhaps no longer impossible.

Fianna Fail may not be toxic, but it is still struggling to win support. Sinn Fein is on the up, but winning more than 25 seats looks beyond its capabilities. Support for Independents remains strong but is it really likely that voters will return 30 independent TDs? It's still all to play for and, after the eight months Labour and the Coalition have endured, that'll do for now.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 

Irish Independent

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