THE overwhelming victory of Joan Burton as the first woman to lead the Labour Party has cleared the decks for the new tánaiste to take on the daunting task of resuscitating Labour’s flagging political fortunes.
So unpopular is the party today that its abysmal rating in recent opinion polls saw its popularity plummet to 4%, an all-time low since its foundation in 1912.
In stark contrast to its highest ever result of 19% in the last general election, its demise was heralded in the recent local elections performance of 7%. Essentially, Labour has suffered the all-too-familiar fate of a minority party in a coalition government with a whopping Dáil majority.
The problem facing Ms Burton is that the party’s time in government was littered with broken pre-election promises. In bed with Fine Gael, it has come dangerously close to forfeiting its socialist image. To make matters worse, it is widely perceived as out of touch with the grass roots of the party, an image remedied somewhat by the leadership contest.
In her view, Labour has governed too much with the head and not enough with the heart in striving to resolve the economic crisis.
Her immediate commitment is to focus Budget 2015 on social reform so as to ensure the economic recovery will be felt in the life of every person.
From the outset, as both Minister for Social Protection and deputy leader of the Labour party, she was the firm favourite in a one-sided race against Minister of State Alex White. Given the margin of her victory, he now looks destined to return to the back benches of the Dáil.
Ms Burton’s raw ambition to become Labour leader has long been simmering under the surface. Following former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s departure, amid a rebellion by younger TDs determined to effect change, her first real challenge will be to show political muscle by axing ageing fellow Labour ministers in the coming Cabinet reshuffle. By resigning early, Ruairí Quinn neatly side-stepped that fate.
It remains to be seen whether the party’s illness has gone too far to be transformed by a line-up of younger faces on the front bench, including new deputy leader Alan Kelly.
Forthright and skilled with figures, if Ms Burton hopes to make her mark as tánaiste she must give the kind of leadership that would put Labour in a stronger position to play a more active role in Government, especially in the realm of fiscal policy.
But with such a strong Finance Minister as Michael Noonan holding the tiller, the challenge of squaring that circle will be far from easy.
By opting to remain on in her present portfolio, a post traditionally associated with Labour’s socialist mission, she has sent out a strong signal that she will not be lured by the glitter of Foreign Affairs, a role normally linked with the position of tánaiste. Her priority will be social repair, including better pay and more affordable housing for those in need.
Her first big test will be to influence the shape of Budget 2015. It remains to be seen if new Tánaiste Burton can convince Minister Noonan to loosen the austerity purse strings.
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