New Labour leader will need a different way of doing business

POLITICS can be a sad business, and I don’t just mean for the electorate. There was a palpable air of sadness in Iveagh House last Monday as Eamon Gilmore announced that he was going to stand down as leader of the Labour Party.

New Labour leader will need a different way of doing business

Understandably the colleagues that surrounded him were emotional. They had just endured a weekend of electoral electric shock therapy, and now they looked on as their leader took responsibility for that disaster.

As we strolled out of the Department of Foreign Affairs afterwards there was agreement that the Tánaiste had brought great dignity to his departure. No one could say that he hadn’t worked hard, and been sincere in his efforts to get the country back on its feet. Had he a choice in the matter he would surely have wished to enter government at a more economically fortuitous time, and not one when austerity was the order of the day. He was wonderfully stoic while he was our tánaiste. But he was unable to get the message across to the public why Labour was doing what he felt was necessary in a time of crisis, or how Labour had curbed Fine Gael’s worst austerity excesses.

The history books will judge him in a far kinder way than the voters did last Friday.

But there was a certain inevitability about what happened last weekend. In hindsight the Irish people would not be human if they had not taken to the ballot box with a vengeance.

As they travelled around the world in recent years meeting other politicians the question often asked, with admiration and wonder, of our politicians was: “how did you introduce all that austerity and not have people taking to the streets in protest?”

It was indeed a mini miracle and made the result of last week’s election all the less surprising when we consider the relative compliance of the Irish public shown over the last few years while savage cuts were being introduced.

As Minister Pat Rabbitte put it on Saturday morning, as the devastating poll results began to roll in for the Labour Party: “In Ireland, people don’t march down Grafton Street and break windows, but by God, they vent their vengeance in the ballot box.”

So in a way the surprise has been the surprise expressed. If ever there was a voter that needed a catharsis it was the Irish voter.

Since Christmas that same voter, not as if he/she needed more encouragement, has had an increasingly inept government handing it numerous reasons, from water charges to medical cards, to give it a kicking at the ballot box.

But looked at another way perhaps these local and European elections will have done the Government a favour. There is no doubt but that our political system has been altered by the success of Sinn Féin, and its phenomenal electoral machine, as well as the high level of independents that were elected to local councils. But how permanent is that change?

The traditional narrative surrounding local elections are that since they are mid term, people see them as being very low stakes. People use them as an opportunity to cast their vote a little more promiscuously than they would in a general election, and in doing so deliver a message to the party which they would traditionally support.

These elections have been anything but low stakes, so far they have resulted in the resignation of a government party leader and the possible instability of the coalition as a result. They have given Sinn Féin a serious boost in terms of the general election. They have also, God help us, sent Luke Ming Flanagan to the European Parliament.

But it is not beyond the bounds of credibility that this government can recover somewhat, and that the voters feel they’ve had their desire for revenge somewhat slaked. After all, we do have some form here; we are the country which voted “No” to the Lisbon Treaty in 2001, which when it was re run the following year saw it accepted by a large majority.

Roll forward to June 2008 when we rejected the Lisbon Treaty. In October 2009 that result was overturned when the Government ran the referendum for the second time. It’s worth remembering that the then Fianna Fáil/Green government was far from popular but still managed to get it over the line.

What has got lost in the noise and outrage of recent times is that our current government did manage to govern rather well for almost three years. It is scary how quickly they lost their way in recent times, and how Taoiseach Enda Kenny spearheaded this downward spiral, but it is not an unrescuable situation.

Whoever the new leader of the Labour Party is will certainly bring a changed dynamic to the coalition relationship, and that is an absolute necessity for that party.

The scenario for that new leader is not as economically tough as it was for Eamon Gilmore in 2011, although it is still harsh, but the mood against the party is certainly far worse. We’ll allow the parliamentary party members their spats on resignation manners and heave etiquette, given their highly emotional state. But this behaviour, played out in public, is rather out of step with the message that the party are in touch with the pain of the voters and not self-obsessed politicians. Hopefully they will get themselves together quickly, and not inflict any more damage on the brand between now and when they have a new leader.

THEY need only look across the floor of the Dáil to see their Fianna Fáil colleagues, not so long ago the pariahs of Irish politics, to realise that there is hope of recovery. The only hitch is that even if they were willing to share the secrets of their recent electoral recovery the FFers can’t really explain it themselves!

The narrative after last weekend is that Sinn Féin is an unstoppable train, and that Fine Gael and Labour may as well put themselves out to pasture.

But that is not set in stone, even if it does make for a journalistically more exciting story. Imagine if Joan Burton does win the Labour Party leadership and she goes in there and stirs things up and continues to “talk” to people as she has done while Minister for Social Protection.

Of course senior Fine Gael sources are saying they’d really rather not work with her. That could well be said to stand in her favour. Even if it is not Joan, whoever the next Labour Party leader is, will realise that a different way of doing business is required. The new leader needs to be pragmatic, but compliant is not a word that should be associated with him/her.

When this Government came into office in 2011 it was essentially a national government attempting to rescue a bankrupt country and the public largely recognised that. The good news is that these are different times and we can afford a little more of “politics as usual”. The election results will bring about welcome change, but it may simply be from the same people, at least for the next while.

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