GERARD HOWLIN: Labour can return to government with some careful electioneering

Labour effectively has about 10 critical constituencies to identify where it must fight for its life, writes Gerard Howlin

AS JOAN BURTON left her party think-in last night, her job to save Labour and return to government is more about cherry-picking than combine harvesting.

A very small number of votes will make the critical difference between oblivion and credible survival. A general election tally that matches its recent RedC opinion poll rating of ten per cent makes returning to government a possibility. Add one or two further points, provided Fine Gael holds its end up, and Joan Burton has a better than even chance of being Tánaiste again.

The recent rise in the party’s opinion poll ratings is soft. Any number of potential cock-ups could melt it away like snow on a ditch. But tantalisingly: solidify that gain, add even a point or two to it and, Burton could be the great Houdini of Irish politics. Or at least the greatest Houdini since Albert Reynolds in 1992.

Labour’s tentative 10% in opinion polls is barely more than half the 19.4% it got in 2011 which delivered 37 seats for the party. Of those TDs Patrick Nulty resigned and three defected — namely Tommy Broughan, Roisin Shortall and Colm Keaveney.

So far seven Labour TDs — Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Ruairí Quinn, Seán Kenny, Michael Connaghan, Eamonn Maloney and Jack Wall have announced their retirement. As of now, of the 37 seats won in 2011, Labour is defending 26. A 10% share of the 158 seats in the 40 constituencies that will comprise the 32nd Dáil is about 16 seats, or a putative loss of 10 incumbents.

It would be a major reversal for sure, but take out the defections and retirements and, it’s not, if realised, the Armageddon predicted. The tantalising prospect for now, for as long as it lasts, of adding even slightly to a tally of 10% means that most Labour deputies still feel they are in with a chance. Labour is holding together for a reason. They feel they have something to hold on for, for now.

Labour can return to government with some careful electioneering

Tánaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton is greeted by local Labour TD Ann Ferris at the Glenview Hotel, Co Wicklow, for the first day of the party’s pre-Dáil think-in. Picture: RollingNews.ie

It is the finesse and ability of Burton’s cherry picking skills that will count. Soft fruit must be handled with care. Who are the potential Labour voters who might be persuaded to return to the fold, or even vote Labour for the first time? The answer is probably relatively few. But therein lies the point.

Of the 90% of voters not currently disposed to voting Labour, if ten per cent were open to even considering the possibility, relative to Labour’s electoral imperative, that would be a large pool to trawl. Persuade one quarter of that ten per cent, disposed to thinking about but, not currently committed to voting Labour, to do so and the party would be on more than 12 per cent of the vote, which would make a return to government more likely than not. Get even one in 10 of that ten per cent to turn up and give a first preference to Labour and the party is on 11 per cent.

That might be enough, if it can actually hold on to what it has. The gap between astonishing success relative to current expectations and, appalling failure, is slim indeed for Labour.

It is the pool of potentially available voters, not the electorate at large that matters. Finding them first is the hardest job. Persuading them won’t be easy either.

Successful electioneering is a matrix between picking issues nationally that resonate with your potential voters and, campaigning locally with the savvy and skill that allows you connect with and then turn them out.

Assuming there are a number of Labour TDs who can, provided the party nationally or the government do not make a mess, deliver a seat largely on their own local pulling power, Labour effectively has about 10 critical constituencies to identify where it must fight for its life.

Labour can return to government with some careful electioneering

Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin at the Glenview Hotel in Co Wicklow for the first day of the party’s think-in 2015. Picture: RollingNews.ie

To use the American cliché: this is retail politics. It boils down to Labour looking for a handful of votes, in a handful of constituencies based on a campaign that highlights a handful of issues.

Labour has one enormous problem but, potentially two major advantages. Its problem — which won’t go away — is less what it has done in government but rather what it said in opposition. Then, and who can blame them, the party mined the depths of popular anger so successfully and so opportunistically, it was immediately the victim of the very anger it had whipped up but could not satiate.

Ultimately that led to the debacle of the 2014 local and European elections. It wasn’t just the loss of 81 councillors that was devastating, it is the ongoing fallout that is worse. In constituencies like Clare, Cork North Central, Cork South Central, County Galway, Meath East and Wicklow, Labour has not got a single seat left on the local authority. This leaves the flanks of its Dáil seats dangerously exposed. Those losses have provided a political base for candidates on the Left to pose a real challenge.

However, incumbency, provided the base can be shored up, is an advantage. That is the critical importance of an eventual tally of ten per cent or above. If incumbency provides an advantage — then the second key advantage Labour may enjoy is the divided nature of the opposition.

In every other previous election it was clear in the main what the alternative government would look like if the incumbents lost. Now it’s different. Like or loathe the incumbents Mystic Meg herself could not safely predict the makeup of an alternative.

Fianna Fáil says it won’t go into government with either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. If it is less than fully unanimous on either of those positions, that is its position for now. Winning well in last year’s local elections, it will certainly significantly increase its tally of Dáil seats next Spring and be a larger party again than Sinn Féin, who say they will not go into any coalition as the junior partner.

Labour can return to government with some careful electioneering

Labour deputy leader and Environment Minister Alan Kelly at the party’s pre-Dáil think-in yesterday. Picture: Collins Photos

PATRIOTIC exigencies after an election could readily change all of that. For now, in the absence of any clear alternative, the government and Labour has a potentially powerful argument.

It is not enough for voters to be out of sorts with them, they have to be so angry they are prepared to vote almost blindfolded for an alternative, whose ultimate makeup and political direction is unknown. It is the equivalent of using your ballot paper as a Lotto Quick Pick.

Perhaps, and this is what the government parties are hoping for, the recovery in their poll numbers, the slight subsidence in the strength of independents is a recoiling from that uncertainty. It is almost inevitable, however, that more people than ever are so angry they will do just that. But enough? That was certainly the question on Joan Burton’s mind as she left the Glen of the Downs last night.

Will economic recovery abate public anger and, can Labour coax just enough voters back on side?


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