'New phase' for Labour

Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore receives a standing ovation following his speech to delegates at the party conference in the Gleneagle Hotel over the weekend.  Pictures: Don MacMonagle

LABOUR leader Eamon Gilmore warned the party would have to govern through a “forest of placards”.

He was probably relieved then that there were little or no protests at Labour’s annual party conference in Killarney over the weekend. It is 18 months since party ministers were effectively locked into college buildings in Galway when protesters overpowered gardaí and “infiltrated” a wall of steel around the delegates at the last party conference.

This time round, the Labour conference was a little more peaceful, both inside and outside the doors. There was a feeling among delegates over the weekend inside the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry, that the party has passed the worst period in government.

Ireland is exiting the bailout in the next fortnight, job creation figures are on the rise, and even the polls are starting to favour the junior coalition partner once again.

But none of the ministers, TDs, senators, councillors, and party members have taken their eye off the mid-term or local and European elections taking place next May.

Ministers privately admit they expect a bruising at the polls. As it was, the conference was without one MEP, four TDs, one senator, and several councillors who have all gone overboard.

One delegate, Gerry Kerr, during a morning debate on health issues, called on Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore to resign, saying future party policies need to be equality proofed to assess the impact on the disabled.

But Gilmore’s position looks intact, for the moment. Despite suggestions in previous months that deputy leader Joan Burton was hiding in the wings, preparing a coup, no such dissent has emerged.

Furthermore, a brief check on previous rumbles in the party’s ranks shows Labour does not wash its dirty laundry in public. All party leadership changes in recent times took place smoothly and without a heave; the tenures of Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, and even Dick Spring all ended calmly.

Of course, even if Labour manages to lose percentage points from its 19% support in the 2011 general election, the party will fall back on the argument that 10% is its natural support base and has been under previous leaders, too.

In the meantime, Labour is setting its sights on tackling issues that include massive unemployment and mounting debt for households.

Frustrated voters will not forget the broken promises when Labour rolls out councillors for re-election next year. Who can forget that 2011 general election poster, which asked voters to put Labour in power to protect against child benefit cuts, high water taxes, and even a hike in wine taxes?

The question is whether this breach of trust is a big issue for voters. Gilmore said during one speech over the weekend that the party did not deal in fairytales or unrealistic policies. This may be the case. But Labour will have to pull something magic out of the bag for voters in the coming months.

This is why we have seen Gilmore in recent days flagging possible tax cuts for struggling middle-class families. It’s a classic vote-buying gimmick, straight out of the Bertie Ahern rulebook of politics.

Nonetheless, if he did manage to get Fine Gael to sign up to such a measure in the remaining two budgets during the Coalition’s lifetime, it could pay dividends at the ballot box.

There has been a change in mood in the party. It is also possible that any goodwill spin-off from a slight financial recovery could reward Labour, if voters see it materialise in their lives.

Labour ministers are forecasting this. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, a former leader, said at the weekend: “If the progression continues, there’s no reason why unemployment will not be in single figures before the next general election.”

Throw in some soft reductions in tax or stealth charges for workers and, just maybe, the party may keep its 14% support it had in the 2009 local elections. Ahead of voting, the party will be keeping an eye on Dublin support and the squeezed middle classes.

Gilmore and those closest to him continued a conciliatory tone over the three-day conference, saying it was about fixing things, about getting a job done.

OF course, the best card Gilmore and Labour have up their sleeves is Fianna Fáil. If Labour, in the media and on the ground, runs home the message in the weeks leading up to the local elections that the former government is to blame for much of the country’s woes, then voters may remember why they gave Labour an unnatural high in the polls in the last two elections. It sounds easy. And it will all be about perception, possibly even more than what the facts are about.

In the meantime, the exit from the bailout is going to mean very little immediately for most households come Dec 16.

Despite junior health minister Alex White’s contention on radio over the weekend that there is a “real palpable” sense of optimism about the exit and the country changing, most of the public will barely blink an eyelid when we officially stop borrowing money from the troika in two weeks time.

Gilmore’s main televised speech on Saturday night focused on a “new phase”; turning the corner, so to speak.

It was a simple but effective message. It was all about jobs and fixing the economy. He even went as far as to suggest that Labour could have gone into opposition and been more popular but that the country would have been in austerity for 20 years.

Senior party figures are smugly looking forward to anything resembling a “post-recession Ireland”. However, one comparison of Gilmore’s deserves mention.

He told delegates in his speech that managing an economy was much like managing a home. That’s debatable. What is true though is that while you don’t choose your family in the home, you have the ability to decide and vote on who governs the country.

It remains to be seen if Labour’s newfound optimism plays out after next year’s elections.

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