Labour must abandon plan to return to Government or it will perish

Seeking to return to Government will do Labour more harm at the polls amid voter dissatisfaction, writes Daniel McConnell
Labour must abandon plan to return to Government or it will perish

IN 1994, the British TV station Channel 4 broadcast the fly on the wall documentary about the embattled England football manager, Graham Taylor.

The show’s title was An Impossible Job and documented with an astonishing honesty the torment Taylor endured in the post. Substandard players, a hostile media, and a run of rotten luck saw Taylor’s England team fail to qualify for the World Cup in the USA.

The woes that befell Taylor, are acutely similar to the current plight of Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton.

The party, which was the most popular in the land six months before the last general election in 2011, now stands as one of the least popular, with its support slumped significantly.

At a special party conference in UCD’s O’Reilly Hall to approve the decision to join Fine Gael in government, then party leader Eamon Gilmore warned delegates they would have to wade through placards for the next five years.

While a small number of people present, like Tommy Broughan, argued that Labour should have stayed out of office to instead become the lead opposition party, delegates voted to go into office.

Looking back, it is hard to conclude that it was a massive mistake for the party to enter power, and the decision to do so seemed to have more to do with giving a few party grandees one last chance of being in cabinet.

Gilmore’s pronouncement certainly came to pass and the party has suffered during its time in Government, both in terms of lost TDs but also credibility.

The stack of broken promises continues to hamper the party’s standing among the public, which by and large remains unwilling to forgive them for misleading them.

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Having replaced Gilmore after disastrous 2014 local and European elections, Burton promised to revive the party’s fortunes.

The ending of the ministerial careers of Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn, and Pat Rabbitte and the arrival of Alan Kelly and Alex White into Cabinet was meant to mark the start of a new dawn.

That new dawn has done little to change the fortunes of the junior coalition party, whose very existence has been called into question more than once in the past 18 months.

This week, the Irish Independent published a constituency poll which suggested that Burton is not assured of keeping her seat.

Joan did her best to put a brave face on it, but it would be some humiliation for the TD who was the first of all the 166 elected in 2011 to be dumped by her own home base.

But the good people of Dublin West have done it before, she lost her seat in 1997 and she is genuinely in a dog fight with Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger for the final seat.

Whatever about Burton’s own predicament, the party is set for a considerable spanking come February 26. Having returned with 37 TDs in 2011, it speaks volumes that it is only running 36 candidates this time around.

Burton’s failure to convince Gilmore, Quinn, and Rabbitte to run again means the party has shed three guaranteed seats they can ill afford to have lost.

Some of their remaining heavy-hitters like Alex White and Kathleen Lynch are also vulnerable to being cast aside by the electorate.

This, when you rationally think about it, is most unfair to the Labour Party, which had to swallow hard on very unpalatable measures in order to stabilise the country’s fortunes. They have been accused by many on the left of abandoning their core principles to satisfy the Troika demands, and while that all sounds great, it belies the reality.

Labour can rightly be proud of what they stomached in office and if anyone wants to think what the country might have been like had they not done what they did, all they have to do is remember Ireland in the 1980s.

Between 1982 and 1987, under Dick Spring the party stymied all attempts by Fine Gael to reform the economy, forcing then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald to abandon any desire of fixing the economy. It was left to Charlie Haughey and Ray MacSharry, supported by Alan Dukes from opposition, to allow the country to turn the corner.

Good leadership is often about taking unpopular decisions and Labour under Gilmore did that bravely.

But, be that as it may, as I said, the public by and large do not want to recognise that contribution and therefore the party will be walloped on election day.

So, given the party has paid such a heavy price for being in gGovernment, as it has done every time it has been in office, why would it seek to do so again.

On the latest Red C poll, Labour on 8% could return back with as few as eight seats, according to one pessimistic extrapolation of the poll results.

Simply, how, should the numbers be that low, does the party envisage benefiting from being in office in such a reduced capacity? Surely another term would worsen the party’s electoral standing and at such a low level already, the future would be bleak.

Therefore surely, the party can argue with legitimacy that it has done the State some service and it is time for it to regroup in opposition. There the party could reconnect with its base and reshape its message.

But the downside of going into opposition in such a truncated form, would mean they would be behind Sinn Féin in terms of speaking rights in the Dáil.

And it would also face being squeezed further by the plethora of left-wing groups and independents.

Also, it would face being eviscerated in any sort of a grand Coalition of the left which could appear after the election.

So, as such, Joan Burton’s options are incredibly limited and she does face an impossible choice as to what to do to ensure her party remains a viable force in Irish politics.

The Irish Labour Party, the oldest party in this country, has a proud tradition, but its most recent tenure in office has come at a massive cost for her and her colleagues.

If she manages to keep her seat, if she manages to survive the inevitable questions about her leadership which will come in the wake of a bad election day, and if she can prevent Labour from losing all but of a handful of seats, Burton has very difficult decisions to make.

Like Graham Taylor, Joan Burton appears to have an impossible job.

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