Labour on the Cusp of Office?
Deaglán de Bréadún
An old editor of mine use to discourage us from writing stories about the Labour Party and the trades unions because he found them boring. But you couldn’t really dismiss Labour as boring these days.
Eager young faces at the Labour conference (picture by Cyril Byrne)
There was a buzz of anticipation about the Labour conference in Mullingar at the weekend. Local TD Willie Penrose said the party was “on the cusp of greatness”. Shurely a shlight exaggeration as the late William Deedes might have said, but the party does look like a serious contender for political office after the next general election.
A Sunday Business Post/Red C poll was in the offing and a whisper went round on Saturday that the party’s head honchos were somewhat apprehensive about it. Sure enough, word came through in the afternoon that Fianna Fáil had clawed back five points and Labour was down five.
That still left Labour at 17 per cent and FF at only 28, compared to a solid 31 for Fine Gael who went up one point. But it suggested that Labour support was soft and vulnerable.
The conference attendance had a high proportion of young, well-educated, smartly-dressed delegates, many of them candidates in local elections on June 5th. That’s a good omen for the party and for politics in general. Sadly, someone pointed out that many in this category are now finding themselves out of a job.
In a press conference yesterday, party leader Eamon Gilmore insisted the ground was shifting in this country. It’s not the first time a Labour leader has said that, but on this occasion the statement just might be a little more accurate than before.
I found myself thinking back to the heady days of 1969 when many young people thought the Left’s hour had come and the combination of stuffy old conservatives and mohair-suited wide-boys who dominated Irish politics would be swept aside. Labour went into the general election that year with the war-cry, “The Seventies will be Socialist” (the wags later changed it to, “The Socialists will be Seventy.”)
I can still remember, as a slip of a lad, walking along O’Connell Street after the election. The now-defunct Irish Press had a public office on the corner with Middle Abbey Street and the results were on display. Some well-known names like Conor Cruise O’Brien, Justin Keating and David Thornley had been elected for Labour, but the party was still very much in third place and there was no socialist breakthrough. Indeed Labour lost four seats and went down from 22 to 18 TDs.
During the election, Fianna Fáil played the “red card”. With half the world under totalitarian communist regimes at the time, the tactic worked a treat. Taoiseach and FF leader Jack Lynch also made a point of visiting as many convents as he could: pictures with nuns sent out a subtle message that, “Your faith and your fatherland are safe with us.”
The “red scare” tactic wouldn’t be applicable nowadays, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But can Labour make the breakthrough this time and become, say, the second-largest party in Leinster House? They’ve never been more united: gone are the fractious internal wranglings of old. They have a very popular leader who has outshone Enda Kenny in the Dail – although his grasp of economics may not be much better than his Fine Gael counterpart’s. They have a very effective finance spokeswoman in Joan Burton who is on a par with Richard Bruton of Fine Gael as regards terrier-like effectiveness.
And yet, and yet . . . the party still has to convince people it has the answers to the economic crisis. Some of those answers will be set out in a pre-Budget submission this week. The highlight of this is a 48 per cent tax rate on incomes over €100,000. This is remarkably similar to the Sinn Féin policy of 50 per cent on the same income category, which was quietly shelved during the last general election. I’m not sure it will have a lot of appeal and might alienate a middle-class vote that Labour was beginning to attract. The party still has to spell out where it is going to wield the knife and let the axe fall but one shouldn’t expect Labour to do so this side of the Cabinet room.