On the night of her election as Labour leader on July 4 last year, Joan Burton told party members — bruised as they were by the local election results — that it was time now to govern with the head and the heart.
During her maiden speech as leader at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin, she told TDs and others that she recognised she had to do her “utmost to deliver”.
This will be the challenge in the coming year before the next general election, or Labour could ultimately go into meltdown and go the way of previously fallen junior coalition partners.
Labour must deliver if it is to rise above its current slump of 7% in the polls. Key messages about delivering jobs, equality, and housing were sent out from the party’s conference in Killarney, Co Kerry, over the weekend. Now they must materialise before voters get their hands on ballot papers next year.
An emerging problem though is how the party of James Connolly distances itself from the Fine Gael-led Coalition and a succession of harsh budgets and tries to reshapes its identity as the party of workers and the vulnerable.
Siptu president Jack O’Connor called for as much at the weekend, when he suggested Labour — which the union traditionally supports — should distance itself from Fine Gael. He also called for Labour to abolish the Universal Social Charge and ultimately make water free again for domestic users. The pressure is on.
Labour must ultimately go into the election highlighting its independence while still telling voters to return both them and Fine Gael for a second term. It’s a difficult game.
While the party progresses key social issues such as same-sex marriage and access to abortion, will this be enough to regain the confidence of disillusioned voters? It may not be in constituencies where Sinn Féin and Independents are proving more popular than Labour, especially with low and middle-income families.
Ms Burton will have to deliver, as she stated. And we can expect Labour to muscle in more on highlighting their role in the economic benefits of the recovery in the coming months.
This is especially so when, to date, Fine Gael seems to be the only party in the Coalition getting the smallest bounce in the polls because of recent tax reductions and increased employment. Voters can expect Labour to try to take more ownership of the spring economic statement, as well as October’s budget.
However, there were mixed messages coming from the party in Killarney. This could cause problems. It’s unclear to what extent Labour will tie itself to Fine Gael in the build-up to the general election. Furthermore, how exactly will deputy leader and Environment Minister Alan Kelly enforce a control or guide on rents for irate tenants and how far will Labour go in reducing the Universal Social Charge after the election?
Another issue in one of the weekend motions is what will Labour’s position be, in Government, on the sale of Aer Lingus if another bid comes through?
No doubt these policies can be ironed out. But there’s not much time. Ms Burton and Mr Kelly have come out fighting. They know this could be Labour’s last chance. The Tánaiste also advised members not to just focus on being in the next government.
“So our task is not to win a second term alone,” she said. “It is to have sufficient strength to make our presence felt — just as we have done in this Government.”
The party is likely to turn back to its core values and principles in an attempt to win back lost voters and return to its natural support base of 10% or 11%, where it was after three previous elections, except for 2011.
During her first TV address as party leader on Saturday, Ms Burton said it was important to get the approval of the people, “who must see the fruits of recovery in their lives”.
“This is what we’re fighting for now — a shared recovery — the common good. A decade of opportunity – for all,” declared the Dublin West TD.
However, as Ms Burton said towards the end of her speech, “Labour and Fine Gael see individual issues in different ways. Sometimes very, very different ways.”
Expect to hear more of this as Labour tries to persuade voters that it could govern in a second term with both its heart and mind.
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