Labour report card is not as rosy as it would have us believe

Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe looks at Labour’s priorities and its performance in addressing them.
Labour report card is not as rosy as it would have us believe

Tánaiste Joan Burton went to great pains yesterday to emphasise that, without Labour, there would have been a lot less done by the Coalition over its five-year term.

As the Government gave itself another glowing five-star report on its final years in office, the Labour leader focused on why her party should keep Fine Gael in check for another term.

We’ve been here before though. Is this not what the junior Coalition partner in government promised they would do before entering power in 2011?

The Coalition’s end-of-year report makes grand back-slapping references to progress made in housing, the public finances and the economy, among other areas. It looks at what the Coalition achieved since its statement of priorities was launched in 2014, after Ms Burton took over the Labour leadership from Eamon Gilmore.

One priority had been the homelessness crisis. Despite new beds being made available, campaigners say this is an emergency and high rents and a lack of housing are leaving people on the streets.

Another problem left hanging over Ms Burton’s tenure has been the issue of rent controls. There were promises made last year about reining in unscrupulous landlords and aligning rents with inflation.

But the promise of ‘rent certainty’ collapsed, with Environment Minister Alan Kelly introducing just a two-year freeze on rents. This will just prolong problems for tenants, particularly in Dublin, and see sky-high rates applied in two years.

On the issue of mortgage arrears, while it was never going to be easy addressing the legal difficulties around contracts between banks and borrowers, and new legislation on the back of court cases, Labour did manage to introduce long-awaited bankruptcy changes.

Reducing the period of bankruptcy from three to one will force banks to do deals with borrowers, who otherwise would leave their debt behind.

The changes, spearheaded by Labour TD Willie Penrose, will go down as one of Ms Burton’s key successes. However, there are still an estimated 38,000 owner- occupied mortgage accounts in arrears of two years or more. Don’t expect this issue to go away anytime soon.

One of Labour’s priorities over the years has been social housing, which ground to a halt during the recession. Worthy as it sounds, Ms Burton has tied herself to a coalition promise to provide an extra 35,000 social housing units by 2020.

Bricks and mortar take time though. It will be a while yet before the foundations on this promise come into view. Moreover, without more social housing, rents will remain high and private housing will also remain in short supply.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. This was the big item on all parties’ to-do lists. The Coalition’s 66-page progress report outlines how unemployment has fallen to 8%, the lowest in seven years. Job creation will be the trump card played by Labour and Fine Gael, ahead of the election.

But there are complaints of an urban-rural divide in the recovery. Unemployment may be down, but many of those who left these shores have still to return. Ireland has also now become more reliant than ever on foreign companies employing people.

Why, then, with all this supposed prosperity, is support for Labour on the floor, with just 8% in recent polls?

Ms Burton stood by the party’s decision to enter coalition — despite the party facing huge losses in the election: “Working with Fine Gael has delivered, not everything we would have desired, but a great deal.”

Significant obstacles await Labour if they are returned. Water charges are a thorny issue. Third-level fees is also expected to come back on the agenda. Public sector workers will also demand more from recovery.

Maybe it is a bit early for government parties to be giving themselves A grades on solving the country’s problems.

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