Monday 19 August 2019

'Ashbourne Annie' key to Labour vote

A Coalition voting pact is not on the table but an agreement is likely ahead of the election

STRATEGY: Labour leader Joan Burton attended all the pre-Budget policy forums held around the country recently. Photo: Tom Burke
STRATEGY: Labour leader Joan Burton attended all the pre-Budget policy forums held around the country recently. Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

In dimly-lit backroom offices, Labour strategists are plotting the party's escape from political obscurity after the next general election.

There is a real fear that Labour will be decimated, and in the worst-case scenario, left with just five sitting TDs. But the party is not ready to give up.

Strategists are targeting the ever increasing cohort of Independent voters, many of whom are disillusioned Labour supporters whom they believe can be lured back to the party.

And, as with other parties, there is a keen focus on convincing floating voters to give Labour a number one on the ballot paper, or even a two.

Labour may be ahead of its rivals in this category as the party has identified what market research companies call the 'classic floating voter'.

Meet 'Ashbourne Annie'. Annie is a married stay-at-home mother of two young children. She may have lost her job in the recession and her hard-working husband had his pay cut.

The four-bedroom semi-detached home they own in Dublin's commuter belt, which they bought at the height of the property market, is in massive negative equity.

Things have been tight for the last couple of years. They don't see their friends much, maybe the occasional pint in the local, but nothing more.

The tax cuts in the last Budget gave them a little bit more to spend on themselves, and they are looking forward to further cuts next year.

They will be able to go out for dinner or see their friends more, even bring the kids on a holiday. Annie might go back to work, if childcare wasn't so expensive.

Labour wants Annie's vote and the party believes it knows how to get it.

The party held a spate of pre-Budget policy forums around the country recently, which were all attended by party leader Joan Burton.

The issues discussed were the ones facing Annie and her husband - childcare costs and how to put money in the pockets of working families.

A few extra quid in Annie's pocket will help woo her, but strategists also believe they have to sell her government stability.

Frank Flannery's suggestion that Fine Gael and Labour should arrange a voting pact before the next general election landed at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal with all the subtlety of a hand grenade.

Among Fine Gael backbenchers, the possibility of an election pact is greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and little more.

Senior Labour figures, on the other hand, were quick out of the traps to vehemently oppose the idea last week.

While Flannery believes 'Brand Coalition' is what should be put before the electorate, Labour is still in crisis and in desperate need of a rebranding.

There is the obvious realisation that Labour needs Fine Gael more than Fine Gael needs Labour, when it comes to the possibility of forming a future government.

But it is not in the interest of either party to spend the coming months at the other's throat, involved in faux or real Cabinet rows, in an attempt to redefine their roles in Government.

It is unlikely there will be a formal agreement as there was between the parties before the 2007 election.

But senior Labour strategists are not ruling out some form of an arrangement - public or otherwise - on vote transfers.

"There could well be a more formal agreement but it hasn't been discussed yet. Nothing is on and nothing is off the table at the moment," a source said.

Both the Taoiseach and Tanaiste have been clear in stating it is their ambition to return to the same offices in Leinster House.

But to do this they will need votes, and a lot more of them than polls are currently predicting.

Fair enough, Labour is the junior coalition partner and endured the hard work and little reward that goes with that role.

But there is concern within the party about the failure to deliver its message to the public.

For example, Labour's same-sex marriage campaign delivered a historic and resounding victory for the country's gay community. But it did nothing for Labour as far as public support goes.

In fact, the vote seemed to benefit their far less liberal Coalition partners more.

Then there was the recent '5 Days 5 ways' campaign. Remember that one? No, didn't think so. Some Labour members will struggle to tell you what that was all about, let alone 'Asbourne Annie'.

Annie might be convinced by an extra few quid, but Labour shouldn't forget the core supporters who would like to see the party stand up to Fine Gael more often.

There have been subtle signs of Labour quietly moving to distance itself from its political big brother. The Tanaiste recently launched a broadside on Fine Gael's universal health insurance proposal, for instance.

Labour has made it clear that a referendum on repealing the Eigth Amendment will be non-negotiable if it's involved in drafting the next programme for government.

This will obviously be tricky for Kenny, having lost five party members over the abortion issue.

Nonetheless, Labour needs to continue in this vein and set out more of what distinguishes the party from Fine Gael, and also highlight the need for a 'guardian of the Government' role in the Coalition.

If not, it may as well keep holding onto Fine Gael's coat tails and hope Annie convinces all her friends and their husbands to vote for Labour when the country next goes to the polls.

Sunday Independent

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