ALISON O'CONNOR: Woman of substance: Labour takes comfort in its leading light

THE Labour TD explained how he wouldn’t like to owe Joan Burton money, because he’d feel obliged to pay it back within 24 hours. 

It was a curious thing to say until I realised he was highlighting just how often he meets his party leader around Leinster House; such is the frequency, he’d be embarrassed into paying her back pretty quickly.

In other words the Tánaiste keeps a very high profile. TDs and senators see her in the self service restaurant, where she might well ask them to join her; they can find her in the members’ restaurant having a coffee or a read of the day’s newspaper following leaders’ questions in the Dáil chamber; they bump into her on the corridors.

While not as available as the Tánaiste, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is also known to do a whistlestop tour of the members’ bar every other week or so, and has a “chat or a word for everyone, going around with a bundle of files under his arm”.

The point here being (as repeated by a number of Labour party members) is they often felt they’d have to send out a search party for former leader Eamon Gilmore, and even if they found him he’d be surrounded by advisers and not open to chat, not even small talk. “It was easier to get a meeting with the Pope,” recalls on party member.

Whereas, by all accounts, Joan is receptive to all, and if an issue is raised by a TD or senator they will hear back from one of her team on it pretty promptly. It’s not that she has time to chat for half the day, but she is businesslike and efficient. This attitude has filtered through to other Labour ministers who are also said to be more open in their dealings with the rank and file.

While obviously wanting to put the best spin forward several of her colleagues tell of their wonder at being out and about with the Tánaiste in public and people wanting “selfies” with the Labour leader. Listening to those party members speak all this seems to be a blessed relief. Their weekly parliamentary party meetings are more open and the new leader, while a champion talker, is also apparently not a bad listener. She does not arrive and leave surrounded by a “praetorian guard”, which makes it easier to catch a word with her afterwards.

The thing is that Joan Burton has done extremely well since being elected leader of the Labour Party in July. She has outperformed the expectations of many, and I can’t help but think that some of those expectations were grounded somewhat in misogyny. Other politicians are not the best people to praise their colleagues (it’s a dog eat dog world). But even allowing for that there was a always a little bit more of a bite in the narrative involving Joan. The question was always left hanging about her leadership qualities, not to mention what was described as her lack of good relations with members of the parliamentary party. She showed a little too much ambition, apparently.

It didn’t help that she was seen as such an inveterate media leaker, not least in relation to protecting her own patch in social protection. I understand there was a very wry laugh when, in the lead up to the budget, she reminded her ministerial colleagues of the need for discretion about what the budget held in store and that they were to resist the temptation to leak to the media. Oh the irony.

On more than one occasion prior to Joan’s election it was said that Enda was in an awful tizz about how he’d “manage” the new Labour leader, and what her election would do to the coalition relationship. Who knows how worried he really was, but it seems they get along grand, which is quite something given the political tensions of recent weeks over water charges. More generally it’s said that the demotion of Alan Shatter and the move to Europe by Phil Hogan have made the coalition relationship easier and less abrasive.

There was said to be a bit of a rocky start between Joan and her deputy leader Alan Kelly, the minister for the environment. The Tipperary minister would not be known for his easy manner.

But it looks as if those kinks have been ironed out, certainly judging by how the water charges announcement went last week. The Labour leader made certain to put her own stamp on matters when she stood up in the Dáil and revealed a family of four would pay less than €200 in water charges. Of course we all know now that she was saying this in a “personal capacity”, as was the spin afterwards. This was a load of baloney, but the strategy was a good one politically for the party. Another of her strengths is her ability to put the best foot forward for the Labour Party, yet not doing so in a way that is a kick in the teeth for their coalition partners.

It goes without saying that those present at the anti water charges protest in Jobstown earlier this month had no interest in a selfie with the Tánaiste, other than one where she might have looked terrified. But she refused to give them that satisfaction. It was a horrible and frightening situation for anyone to find themselves in, yet she maintained her composure — even when hit with the water balloon.

After all how was she to know it was just filled with water? The Tánaiste handled herself exceptionally well, not buckling under the pressure, the fear or the public scrutiny. She also struck an appropriate note in her interviews afterwards and while nobody would ever want to be placed in such a position the episode in all likelihood served to help the Government’s case ahead of the new water charges package being announced.

On the less flattering side, the opposition have legitimate complaints about how she can handle leader’s questions in the Dáil on a Thursday, not least the arrogance that can creep in; had she handled the recent row with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald a little more deftly. The subsequent sit-in row could have been easily averted.

A Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll earlier this month found that dissatisfaction with Joan Burton was 56%, and that, compared with 67% for Enda Kenny, which must be a comfort to her. She has maintained good popularity levels through the austerity years. But where does all of that leave the Labour Party. In that same poll it registered support levels of only 7%. That would mean a lot of seat losses in a general election.

Who knows how the party will fare in the period between now and the general election, and whether or not the voters will find their anger dissipating as the economy improves. It must be of some comfort to the Labour Party that it has the best leader currently available to it. But it may not matter in the end.


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