Gilmore is going great guns, but his party still lacks local firepower

THE toast at the annual Labour party conference in Galway was ‘Eamon Gilmore for Taoiseach’. This ambition has a semblance of credibility in the context of the party leaders’ opinion poll approval ratings.

Gilmore has topped these tables, with almost 50% satisfaction levels, well ahead of Cowen and Kenny. He has proved himself the master of the soundbite. His ruthless rhetoric resonates best with the angry mood of the public. His parliamentary performances have been outstanding.

In the Dáil chamber, his most memorable occasions have been when inserting the knife. Last autumn, after months of a media campaign to oust John O’Donoghue as Ceann Comhairle, he cut through the fog of more consultation by stating The Bull’s position was untenable – he was tabling a motion of no confidence. The game was up. O’Donoghue had to fall on his sword. More recently, his charge of “economic treason” against Cowen was withering. The Taoiseach had an uncustomary lapse of emotion as the uppercut connected. Rarely a week passes without a banker’s bonus or developer’s lifestyle getting a gash from Gilmore.

The Labour party’s stated ambition is to be the largest party in the next Dáil. At this point the superficial veneer of credibility disappears. In the current Dáil, Labour has 20 deputies, further to gaining 10% of the first preference vote in June 2007.

Allowing for a Fianna Fáil decimation, with the loss of 20 seats, whoever becomes the biggest party in the Dáil will have to garner around 60 seats. Fine Gael needs to gain at least 10 seats. The Fianna Fáil vote would have to reduce from 42% to 30%. The Labour party would have to gain 40 seats. This is where the wheels come off the wagon of plausibility.

A glass ceiling exists on the growth of the Labour party. It’s called “quota squatting”. This is the term often used to describe a party deputy who ticks all the boxes: assiduous constituency worker, committed party organiser, effective parliamentarian, loyal colleague, knowledgeable and articulate – the perfect team player.

That is until you trespass onto their local bailiwick. Any new aspiring colleague with the pretension and capabilities to be a second TD tends to be bumped out at the first bend. These parish priests only want curates. It is the one TD per constituency mentality.

Their motivation is perfectly understandable and exists in all parties. In election campaigns when your party is on the up and up, there may be the opportunity for an additional seat. Sooner or later the pendulum will swing. The polls will descend and the second seat won’t be retainable. The original master can become the ageing, vulnerable loser, being replaced by his own apprentice.

A classic example of this is that most able operator, Brendan Howlin in Wexford. The prospects of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Sinn Féin taking his seat are remote, provided he is the sole standard bearer for Labour. Their sole quota is his guarantee of long-term survival.

This protectionism has to be dismantled by party head office. In 1992, Dick Spring’s success, with 19.3% of the vote, only yielded 33 seats. For Labour to be taken seriously as the largest party, it is insufficient to merely run enough candidates. There has to be a willingness to elect a second constituency colleague, starting with the leader’s home patch in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. Their consistent superior poll rating of 26% in Dublin doesn’t permit a prediction of any second seat with confidence.

Solo representation is their electoral Achilles heel. When the standard bearer retires (Seamus Pattison in Kilkenny) they often fail to retain the seat. This has also happened in Kerry (Spring dynasty), South Tipperary (Seán Treacy) and in Louth (Michael Bell).

This succession issue poses real problems for the party. Ten of their present TDs are over 60 years of age. Only Seán Sherlock (38), Joanna Tuffy (45) and Ciarán Lynch (46) are under 50. Of the remainder the youngest is Brendan Howlin (54) and oldest Michael D Higgins (69). The overall profile is almost of veteran status.

The flip side of ageing is experience. Unlike Fine Gael, which has a paucity of ministerial mileage, Labour has the best opposition talent bank. Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin, Liz McManus and Emmet Stagg could take up any ministry in the morning and hit the ground running. Collectively, they punch above their weight, in sharp contrast to Sinn Féin, whose strength is local organisation rather than parliamentary performance.

The other major obstacle is geographical. New party acquisitions such as Cllr John Kelly in Roscommon/Leitrim and Dr Jerry Cowley in Mayo can kick start a credible constituency campaign. Rumours are rife of a high-profile parachute candidate in Clare. These candidates must have their own constituency-wide organisation because Labour doesn’t have an organic party machine on a nationwide basis to deliver success. Whole tracts of the border counties, midlands, west and rural Munster are devoid of a party grassroots structure. The patchy nature of councillor representation means Labour’s ambitions are hollow.

The hallmark of Gilmore’s Labour is political pragmatism and opportunism. His pronouncements do not commit the Labour party to any ideology or “ism”. They can simultaneously garner middle class professional support alongside disaffected protest voters. This is principally anchored on the anger against 13 years of Fianna Fáil rule and the worst recession since the 1930s.

PUBLIC revulsion about cronyism and reduced living standards can secure Labour growth, based on the old maxim “governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them”. Labour had notable triumphs with two new MEPs, Nessa Childers and Alan Kelly, elected last year.

The unanswered questions for Labour will become apparent, as before, in the middle of the next general election campaign. Under attack from FF, they will have to clarify whether they are beholden to the public sector unions or are compromised in reducing public expenditure. In opposition, you can fudge your stance on the Croke Park deal. In government there is no such luxury. Gilmore initially established an internal commission to separate from the unions, but this strategy was aborted in pursuit of popularity.

Gilmore has unambiguously excluded coalition with FF. This obliges a mutual embrace with Fine Gael. Policy differences between them will be highlighted in the absence of a common platform. The strategy of each party maximising its own appeal has been agreed. Voters can anticipate a post-poll pot noodle, without knowing the contents. The calculated risk being that the sum of the parts will be greater than a collective cocktail. This is a high-risk strategy that will require delicate choreography.

The continued leadership of Fine Gael by Enda Kenny suits Labour perfectly. Kenny is not an ideologue. His “all things to all people” appeal is based on his likeable personality. This facilitates an expectation within both parties that individual policy preferences can be accommodated. Gilmore’s superior popularity is also ideal. FG insiders know this is Kenny’s latent security as party leader. While this may bring about victory, it doesn’t ensure a good or sustainable government.

More in this section