Joan Burton to focus on low pay and social issues

New Tánaiste Joan Burton has signalled fighting for the low paid will be a key priority of her time as Labour leader.

Ms Burton, 65, was elected in a 77% landslide victory over challenger Alex White and used her first address as leader to warn that the party had ruled with “more head than heart” over the past three years.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny made Ms Burton Tánaiste during a telephone call between the two after the results were announced at a ceremony charged with emotion in Dublin’s Mansion House.

Ms Burton is to meet the Taoiseach early next week to thrash out new Coalition priorities, and has put him on notice she wants to set up a low pay commission to help people on the minimum wage and low salaried occupations.

The move fits in with Labour’s push to take over the Jobs and Enterprise Department in next week’s wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle.

Labour is willing to trade the Foreign Affairs Department it currently holds in order to get the jobs portfolio, a senior source confirmed.

It is expected Ms Burton will remain in her Social Protection role after a Cabinet reshuffle which is likely to see former Labour Party leaders Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte leave the top table, along with Ruairí Quinn who has already announced he is standing down.

The Tánaiste and Mr Gilmore heaped praise on each other as they hugged at the changeover of power, but Ms Burton made it clear she wanted a break with the past in order to try and reverse Labour’s collapse in the polls.

Ms Burton said she wanted the Government to focus on a “social recovery” as well as an economic one, with an emphasis on an ambitious programme of social and affordable housing.

Quoting President Michael D Higgins, Ms Burton summed up the past three turbulent years in Coalition with Fine Gael by saying: “We governed, perhaps, too much with the head and not enough with the heart.”

The Tánaiste stressed that helping the working poor would be a major aim from now on.

“When I begin talks with the Taoiseach about a renewed set of policy priorities for the Government, I will strongly make the case for a Low Pay Commission — an independent body to advise on the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters.

“By taking the politics out of low pay, we will ensure that there will be no more attacks on low-paid workers to suit the demands of the comfortable.

“However, wages are only part of the solution,” Ms Burton said.

The Tánaiste signalled that USC rates would have to be examined in the October Budget as many people felt they were over-burdened

“Tax reform in the remainder of this Government is very important,” Ms Burton said.

The Tánaiste said she did not believe “anything like” the previously stated figure of €2bn in budget cuts and tax hikes would now be needed.

She stressed during her telephone call with the Taoiseach that she intended for the Government to run its full term until spring 2016, but with Labour slumping to just 4% in polls, most observers conclude an early general election would be disastrous for the party.

Ms Burton became the 11th person, and first woman, to lead the Labour Party after trouncing junior health minister Alex White by 2,094 votes to 607.

Mr White’s poor showing means he may miss out on a Cabinet seat next week as, with Public Expenditure Reform Minister Brendan Howlin expected to remain, Ms Burton will only have three posts to fill.

Ms Burton brushed over Mr Quinn’s and Mr Rabbitte’s failure to join other TDs for her first statement as Tánaiste, insisting that they were there “in spirit”.

Outgoing leader Mr Gilmore warned Ms Burton of the “difficulties” of the job, but stressed he was delighted the party had finally elected a woman to head it after 102 years.

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