Not looking great, is it? But, actually, if you’ll give me a few minutes, I will tell you how the Government can win the next election. Or, at least — at the very worst — give it a rattling good go.
Don’t misunderstand me, Taoiseach. This is not about how well Fine Gael can do in the election. And it’s not about Labour, either. If I was advising either you, or Joan Burton, on a strictly selfish party basis, I might say something different.
No, this ‘letter’ is written on the assumption that both parties are looking to the next election with good faith and mutual respect. The intention, I’m assuming, is that Fine Gael and Labour will go into the election as a government, and emerge from it as two independent parties prepared to work together, if the numbers allow.
If you have a cunning plan to put out feelers to another partner, and cosy up to someone else, then nothing I have to say will count. Frankly, I believe the only option for both parties in government is to believe in what you have done together, and to construct a vision of what you could do in the future.
But there are a couple of myths you need to confront. The most popular among commentators is that the people will suddenly change their way of looking at the world when they’re confronted with a general election. You’ve heard ‘the great and the good’ offering the following conventional wisdom: ‘it will be different when the people realise that it’s about choosing a government’.
Not so, sadly, Taoiseach. In the last 50 years, there have been 14 general elections. Four of those resulted in no effective change of government — in the other 10, an ungrateful public kicked the government all over the place. We have a strong tendency in Ireland to use our general elections to vote governments out — and it’s usually the same government we voted in a short time earlier.
The second myth is that people will respect the record of the Government. Even if the record was perfect — and, sadly, Taoiseach, your government’s isn’t — past records don’t matter a damn. Elections are all about the future.
And the final myth (and I know that many of you are relying on this) is that the benefits of the last budget aren’t being felt yet. When pay packets start showing the effects of tax cuts in the new year, the people will be grateful and will change their minds about you.
Sorry again. The people are divided into three broad camps — those who think you didn’t go sufficiently far in your tax cuts; those who think you should have concentrated more on social problems; and those who think it was way beyond time that they got a break. If you’re expecting gratitude, from anyone, ever, you probably shouldn’t be in politics at all.
Right now, you seem to be playing what I call the ‘last resort’ card. You know the one — “if you think we’re bad, you should see the other crowd”. I won’t deny there’s a validity in the argument — the notion of Mick Wallace as minister for finance doesn’t inspire confidence. But the fact that you’re rolling that out suggests that you don’t have much else in the locker.
The fear of the alternative is an argument best kept to the white heat of an election campaign — developing it as a political mantra now will only make it tiresome.
Remember US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s great put-down of president Jimmy Carter — “there you go again”?
So. Am I saying there’s no hope? Not at all. But I think it’s important to clear your mind.
If you’ll forgive a sporting analogy, you’re in the dressing room at half-time. You’ve got such a drubbing in the first-half that some of your own supporters are thinking about an early bus home. They think there’s no hope.
You know what that means? It means you’ve got nothing to lose. It means you can give it a lash.
I’m going to suggest something radical and dangerous. Try leading us, Taoiseach. I mean really leading us. Leaders listen first (and they listen hard), then they reflect, then they act.
You’re showing signs of listening. You went to a gay bar, and you went to meet some homeless people.
By all accounts, both experiences had an effect on you. You’ve got to follow through. You’ve got to mean what you say.
There’s a short-term homelessness crisis, and a longer-term housing one. Homelessness has to be high on your agenda. There’ll be a referendum on gay marriage next year. You’ve got to lead it — out front and centre, not like with the children’s rights referendum, which you abandoned to the care of the line minister (who did a good job, but that’s not the same thing).
But they are just two agenda items.
The real point is that you have to construct an agenda for the remainder of your term, and get it done.
You have to show us that you’re good at getting things done, and done properly. That’s how people will begin to trust you again.
The second thing about an agenda is that you’ve got to tell us what it is. I want to see a detailed statement, from you, in January, setting out your priorities for the rest of this term. Social priorities, as well as economic ones. Things that can, and will, get done.
It’s an action narrative. You’ve got to take it to the people, coherently, and in a considered and thoughtful way. And you have to make it your own.
Making it your own enables you to communicate it properly, as opposed to cack-handed recent attempts, when a major announcement about broadband was followed, the next day, by a review of medical cards, and the following day by the housing plan, and the next day by new investment in the HSE.
One announcement was swallowed up by the next. There was no chance for any of them to have impact. Crazy.
Making the agenda your own also enables you to give detailed and thoughtful interviews. Remember them, Taoiseach? Leaders talk to the people. You haven’t done that once on prime-time television, since you became our leader. It’s part of the reason you’re sinking now. January needs to change that, too.
There’s room, and space, to prove that you and your government know how to steer us into a recovery, and how to rediscover concepts like equality. Do it, and you have a fighting chance. Show us how good you can be now, and we might begin to trust you with our future.