Labour leader will face difficult battle

Joan Burton faces a challenge in rebuilding the party, writes Political Editor Mary Regan.

Labour leader will face difficult battle

IT’S BEEN described as Labour’s Kodak moment — not because it will capture a charming image of the party at its best — but because it’s a last-ditch chance for it to adapt or face extinction.

Labour has a new leader who will face the challenge of pulling the party back from the brink of being wiped out — just like the global camera company — after a century-old history.

Many of its TDs believe the process to elect a new leader, which began at the end of May when Eamon Gilmore announced he was stepping down as a result of disastrous local end European election results, has been good for the party.

“It has engaged the membership in a way that hasn’t been done for a very long time,” said one TD. “That sort of dialogue is something that was lacking in the past three years in office and that was one of the big problems.”

Regular hustings around the country — where the two leadership and four deputy leadership candidates debated issues and took questions from member — were a stark contrast to the May election campaign when Mr Gilmore was hidden from public interaction.

The Social Protection Minister, Joan Burton, has been the clear favourite to replace Mr Gilmore from the very start of the contest.

She was first out of the traps to argue that a budget of a smaller scale than the €2 billion planned for was feasible while still sticking to the target of reducing the deficit to below 3%. Her main focus in the campaign has tended to be on “building a social recovery as well as an economic recovery.” She has pledged to ensure a just tax system — and phase out tax shelters that benefit millionaires.

Her reputation for being “difficult” — for standing up to Fine Gael colleagues in coalition and standing her ground when it came to protecting welfare rates — prompted early fears that she might rock the Coalition boat a bit too much.

But the fact that this side of her political personality was already well aired gave her an edge over her rival and, consequently, the freedom to appear more reasonable and temperate in her contributions throughout the campaign.

As Tánaiste-in-waiting, she has had to be relatively cautious and knew from the mistakes of her predecessor that building up massive expectations or making extravagant promises would be unwise.

She was already well ahead before the IMF’s post-bailout report on Ireland referred to her as the most likely next deputy prime minister, and expressed confidence that she will not disrupt Ireland’s pursuit of its fiscal targets.

But the endorsement was, to borrow a phrase used by herself in one of the husting debates, the rose in the vase in her bid to lead Labour.

The campaign of her rival, Alex White, got off to a bad start when his fingerprints were all over a no-confidence motion in Mr Gilmore — tabled by a group of backbenchers on the Monday after the election count.

He was engaged in a certain degree of controversy throughout the course of the campaign — something that was always going to be the case when faced with having to play catch up with a more easily recognised figure.

In an effort to show his ability to stand up to Fine Gael — something Ms Burton did not have to prove — he picked a battle with the Taoiseach over the resignation of former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan.

While he started all the husting events by introducing himself — explaining that he’s the son of a railway man and that he worked as a producer in RTÉ — Ms Burton, due to her seniority and star quality, focused on her vision.

Mr White also mishandled his message when he tried to play the generation card.

He told members that the party had the choice of “passing the baton to the next most senior person or shift gears and pick someone who is relatively fresh”.

Being “relatively” young at 55, he went on to present himself as a “bridge” between the older and newer generations of the party. In the end, this argument came across as being little more than ageism.

Perhaps his greatest problem was his involvement in the medical card debacle as Minister of State in Health with responsibility for primary care.

In fairness, the controversy was as much anyones’ fault in Cabinet as his. But his claim during the campaign that it was a “mistake” came across as a touch hypocritical when he had stood up in the Dáil time and time again to defend or deny the removal of cards.

With Ms Burton certain to be elected leader, the race to be her deputy is less clear cut. Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly is tipped to take the job because of a strong campaign which involved — among other things — plenty of bike schemes launched around the country.

But some say the outcome is not done and dusted and Mr Kelly could perform poorly on transfers. While having a strong support base, he is believed to not to have performed strongly among Dublin members, or the Labour Women, or Labour LGBT wings of the party.

The dark horse, in this case, would be the Cork South West TD, Michael McCarthy, who is considered to have run a strong campaign with a positive message that the party needs to dust itself down from defeat and be more self-confident in articulating its achievements and vision.

The other two candidates in the all-Munster line up for the deputy position — Cork East TD Sean Sherlock and Waterford’s Ciara Conway — are also seen to have done well throughout the campaign and will emerge from it — if not victorious — then in a stronger position than before.

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