Restoring support for Labour would require reforms of the Universal Social Charge as well as the health sector, said Mr Desmond, who also warned the next party leader not to make “fantasy” promises to voters.
In an interview with the, the former minister said Labour — despite its dismal local election results — was still in a position to contest every area in the next general election.
Mr Desmond said Social Protection Minister Joan Burton had the most support among the party’s 5,000-strong membership, particularly among female members.
“That is a considerable advantage,” he said. “Plus the fact that she had experience in social welfare and foreign affairs, where she was a junior minister. She has broad political experience.”
Labour had got “a reaction to the level of troika imposition on the country” in last month’s local and European elections, he said. New charges that were brought in were measures that had to be taken and for which everybody in Europe had already paid, said Mr Desmond.
“If anybody suggests to me that the Labour Party or any other party has to go into the next general election promising to abolish those particular charges, well then, they’re living in a complete fantasy land,” he said.
“Nobody likes paying those necessary charges. It’s either that or income tax or increasing Vat, which imposes itself on everybody in the community, rich and poor.”
Mr Desmond, who was social welfare minister and health minister in the 1980s, said economic difficulties were inescapable in the medium term, but that the new leader has to advocate reform.
“These difficulties will last for certainly the next half-decade,” he said. “Maybe not with the severity we’ve had in the last three years, but the level of leeway for any political party, no matter who is in government, is extraordinarily limited.
“The Labour Party will have to get a message to the electorate that measures like employment incentive schemes or reforming the Universal Social Charge on all incomes” can be achieved, as can reform of the health service and the medical card system.
The comments came as nominations for the position of leader and deputy leader of the party closed yesterday.
Ms Burton and junior minister Alex White will battle it out for the top job, while four Munster TDs have put their name forward for the deputy role. A count of members’ votes on July 4 will decide the winners.
The contenders for party leader:
The junior health minister says the coalition should finish its full term. He also says change is needed. Among his proposals are tax cuts, greater protection of the health services and “a more equitable form of resource distribution” for people. The Dublin South TD is not ruling out any future government with Sinn Féin. Proposed cuts of €2bn in October’s budget could be changed, he says.
The Social Protection Minister says the coalition should finish its full term and that the country’s budget deficit must still be reduced to 3%. She wants to focus on a social recovery, alongside an economic one, and says that the “limits of austerity” have been reached. The Dublin West TD says the recovery needs to be “shared fairly” and felt in people’s daily lives.
If elected, the Waterford TD has pledged not be a minister so she would not be “compromised” and would represent the views of party members. A deputy leader needed to challenge ministers, she said, and to make Labour’s coalition partners “uncomfortable”.
The Cork South West TD says the coalition should make an effort to help “families who are carrying a heavy burden” and to give them some breathing room. This should include a break from paying bills and being left with nothing, he says. His role as deputy leader would involve restoring confidence in the party.
The junior jobs minister says his party needs to “renew its vows” with the Irish people and that he has the “energy, youth and experience” to assist in that process. Lessons need to be learned from the party failing to stand up to its coalition partners, he says. The Cork East TD also says that Labour-Fine Gael should finish its full term.
The junior transport minister says the party needs to get back to helping working people and those looking for work. He says that the coalition should finish its term but not at “all costs.” The Tipperary North TD also says the programme for government should be looked at. He said his strengths are in organisation and campaigning — priorities if he was elected deputy leader.