Eamon who? Labour needs profile and a strategy

JIMMY SANDS we will never forget you, went the joke about the status of the 1981 hunger strike in Irish history.

That joke was always a bit of a cheap shot and I suppose it is an even cheaper shot to start a peroration (oops Pat Rabbitte is no longer there), ahem, an argument on the future of the Labour Party.

As he prepares to give his first leader’s address to his party’s national conference (and his preparation was thrown off kilter by the death of his mother, Celia, this week) Eamon Gilmore has two major problems as leader of the Labour Party.

The first one is organisation. The second is even more challenging. To put it in highly technical political terms: Eamon who?

Gilmore faces the same mountainous journey that Enda Kenny faced in 2002 when he became leader of Fine Gael. Outside the Dáil, outside Ireland’s political beltway, Gilmore is unknown. Not quite like Kenny, who to borrow Rummy’s famous phrase was an “unknown unknown” (ie we didn’t know him and we didn’t know if he was any good). Those of us who watch him for a living know Gilmore’s ability. But the question is can he make it stick with all those who don’t watch him for a living and whose only real interaction with him is shoving a piece of paper into a box every five years.

Of course, this particular conference — time-wise — is a bit of a mistake. It was organised at a time when Labour believed it would be in government and that Pat Rabbitte would be Tánaiste. None of those eventualities came to pass. And a new leader, for whom it is too early to begin to build up profile, will tonight address a party for which it’s much too early to build up profile. It’s like a country man putting on his Sunday suit to go down and clean out the byre.

And that’s what Gilmore has been landed with this weekend.

The conference isn’t being fully televised (there’s a live stream available on the internet). There are no potential divisions (do we all take along long spoons just in case we have to sup with the de Valeras?). The meatiest motions are the usual existentialist ones — the political take on the plea from Captain McMorris in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “What ish my nation?”

And Labour will once again be embarking on an exercise asking itself what is its nation, what is its constituency, what is its identity in a fragmented society with none of the neat divisions of class that gave the party is support.

Nowadays, in south Dublin constituencies for example, the Labour Party’s base is predominantly middle class and liberal (the prawn sandwich brigade). In the north, west and south-west of the capital, its core is still blue collar workers. And down the country, there are places (Limerick, Cork, Westmeath, South Kildare, Waterford) where it still attracts a strong traditional rural and town vote, that would be more conservative in values. And then there are other places where the party has no presence at all.

And so to the heart of what this weekend is about. Sure, it was meant to be about taking stock of the new government and seeing the best way forward for Labour. The only slight glitch is that Labour isn’t a part of the Government.

And so two commissions, a Centenary Commission and a Commission for the 21st century will be formed to explore those things. I remember interviewing Pat Rabbitte about three years ago where he mulled over the direction that Tony Blair had taken the Labour Party in Britain.

Rabbitte never saw himself as a Blairite, pointing to Gordon Brown and the late John Smith (Blair’s predecessor) as personifying what he admired about Labour in Britain. Gilmore and those advising him will need to forge a strong identity and brand within the next 12 months. The test of its efficacy? When somebody asks what does Labour stand for, Gilmore and every representative of the party will be in a position to answer in one concise and simple sentence. It sounds fatuous, but it is important. People need to know what you stand for without having to listen to a thesis full of conditionalities. And unfortunately for the opposition,

Fianna Fáil has had a monopoly in that market for a decade. Who are you we ask. We are the party that governs and runs the economy, they reply.

And on that score, you begin to worry when the motion proposing one of the commissions runs to 720 words — I’m not codding you, 720 words — that’s almost as long as this column.

On an individual level, Gilmore could do worse than follow the strategy adopted by Enda Kenny. Spend the first year going around gee-ing up the party and rebuilding. Spend the second year building up your own profile. Throw everything at the local and European elections in 2009 (including all the dosh you have) to make some gains to allow you to claim electoral success. Then begin the big push for 2012.

This weekend’s conference will be the most hi-tech event hosted live by an Irish party. It’s going out live on the Labour Party site with clips being posted to YouTube. There are also blogs, online Q&A, photos on Flickr and mobile posts on Twitter. A lot has been organised by Shauneen Armstrong aka the blogger Red Mum (www.redmum.blogspot.com).

Harry McGee will also be blogging at the conference for the Irish Examiner at www.harrymcgee.com.

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