NATIONAL conferences of political parties are supposed to be all about their membership and grassroots. This is meant to be their opportunity to formulate policy, network and hold the leadership to account. In the modern age parties spend more time worrying how the conference will appear to the outside world and to potential voters than they do their existing membership.
he Labour party is at its strongest in Dublin. It’s in the capital that the party really holds sway and has had its biggest impact. Now, as a culchie I might make many criticisms of Dublin but one thing I have to admit is that it is the one place in Ireland that has direct routes from all the regions. Therefore it’s a sensible base for any national conference. With these facts in mind one wonders what draws the Labour party to Galway? Lovely as the city is one might think the potential membership base in Dublin is far stronger. Looking at the attendance at the Labour Party conference, I had to wonder if the numbers would not have been far greater had they held it in Dublin.
At least, for Labour’s sake I hope this is the case. Fianna Fail we are told is on the verge of extinction, yet it drew 4,500 people to its Ard Fheis. Fine Gael pulled in about 4,000. Labour, in Dail terms is the second largest party in the state and attracted less than a thousand to a small enough room in NUIG. This suggests to me that either the location was poor or else the current level of Labour seats is in a precarious position. The party would lack the activists to hold on to many of these seats should the tide turn even slightly against them.
The protesters again made their feelings known. The Labour delegates were not overly put out by it. The building went into lockdown and some of the workshops had to be cancelled as a result. This might be seen as a success for the protest then, if denying others their democratic right to assemble can ever be a success.
But I will let you in on a badly kept secret. Workshops and policy forums are all well and good and any delegate will tell you publicly that this is the reason people in parties attend. In reality, the real work is done through networking. People meeting from different parts of the country, exchanging views, making contacts and bending the ear of the powers that be. So being locked up and forced to head to the bar or simply mingle in the hall is no bad thing. As Labour celebrate 100 years of activity and remember their early days and ‘lock outs’ the irony of being ‘locked in’ was not lost on them.
In Fine Gael I noticed a sense of excitement and optimism among their delegates, the road was hard but they were utterly convinced of what they were doing. Labour delegates were in good spirits but there was an air of grim reality. This is a party definitely wrestling with its conscience. Motions were passed to stop the sale of state assets that will presumably be introduced from now on as opposed to revisiting recent decisions. Such motions illustrated how uneasy a large portion of the membership is with some of the current policies.
Now let me be totally straight, I did not pick up on any dissatisfaction with Eamon Gilmore, in fact he remained highly popular. The mood is that, for now, they trust him that he has done the best he can. It is not a blind trust however and it has reservations. Charlie Flanagan recently tweeted that Joan Burton had a death wish for the government. If Charlie was hoping that Burton was an isolated figure in Labour then he will be disappointed. She too remains highly popular with many agreeing with her position and seeing her as a barometer of true Labour feeling.
This party is happy enough to follow its leadership … for now. They do have demands however. So far the idea has been that FG represents two thirds of the government so makes two thirds of the policies. That will not do going forward. Labour know that they themselves extracted a higher price in previous governments and that parties like the PD’s extracted far bigger proportional concessions from their partners. The first year in government has been just enough to keep Labour happy, with record numbers of TDs, a few policy victories such as the minimum wage restoration and winning the presidency. They will want far more in terms of policy in the future however.
In the hall the crowd eagerly awaited the main event of the leaders address. David Begg of ICTU underlined the links between Labour and the unions in his address. Ciara Conway gave a very understated and somewhat dispassionate introduction to Eamon Gilmore. The crowd gave him a tremendous reception. Gilmore is a fine speaker and he started out steady and calm. He discussed the problems the party and government faced, but it was a little stilted and over rehearsed and one got the feeling that this was the part of the speech Gilmore was least comfortable with.
Then he moved on to speak on the Mahon report, FF, and how Labour has been untouched by any corruption. This was more familiar ground. He started to find his mojo and the crowd responded in kind. He went on to give one of the best leaders speeches you will see this year. In terms of content, it was hard to disagree. He stuck to the vision, a better society, the best place to get an education, the best services, the best place to grow old, the most attractive country to invest in. Sure, who doesn’t want that? But Gilmore delivered the speech with some style as he raced to the finale and the crowd was itching to jump to their feet long before he had even got to his final sentence.
No doubt about it this party is holding firm for now but it is a party with ambitions. The mood from Galway was positive news for the government as a whole in that it showed Labour are still committed and willing to face tough decisions. Yet, a warning flare was certainly sent up. They have reservations and they want more input, any Fine Gael minister that takes Labour support for granted may get a nasty surprise. Eamon Gilmore knows that his party trust him but he cannot afford to stray too far from the path the membership recognise or there will be a price to pay.
Johnny Fallon is a political commentator and author