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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 30, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    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.

    • Robert Ellis says:

      There can’t be that many ‘middle class’ voters who are seriously worried about a higher tax on income over €100,000. According the Revenue figures it’s a good deal less than 5% of earners that are above that level.

      Not that it will solve everything, but it is both populist and necessary.

    • Deaglán says:

      Individual incomes over €100,000 are scarce enough but this applies to joint “husband-and-wife” income. Joint income of two partners above €100k is quite common, I suspect.
      Another issue is the tax-exiles. Mr Gilmore proposes to end that particular tax-avoidance stratagem. It’s a good populist cause and one people would instinctively rally towards with great enthusiasm. But it’s not clear if it would jeopardise employment or not and that’s a question I didn’t get satisfactory answer to, at yesterday’s press conference.

    • Ray D says:

      There was a shocking communist smear for Labour candidates in 1969. Even in schools the children of Labour candidates had to endure taunts from classmates to the effect that their daddies (candidates generally male) were communists.

      But the problem remains for Labour and that is that, a vote for Labour is actually a vote for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael who will have the lionshare of seats and power in a Government. A vote for Labour policies is largely futile therefore.

    • Gerry Mac Donagh says:

      I’m reminded of those heady days of revoution when Labour confidently predicted, “The seventies will be socialist”! Now that most of the socialists are seventy, maybe their time has finally come? But,ahm, I wouldnt bet the rest of the house on it just yet, Fianna Fáil are a hard vampire to kill once and for all and the groundswell of new support for the blueshirts is underestimated; Gilmore’s grasp of economics is more hot rhetoric than reality, going on and on about the Galway tent and the bankers and that old chestnut, the bloodstock industry, bah, it’s saying nothing really, they are smoked-salmon socialists and when it comes to it. Blatherers.

    • An Fear Bolg says:

      Labour seemed to have missed the reality that the current top rate of tax will need to go up to around 48% – not just for those over €100,000 but those under it.

      Talking about tax-exiles is rubbish. If you (a) closed off all tax breaks/loopholes, (b) brought all tax exiles within the tax-net, (c) fixed all problems with Anglo-Irish/Irish Nationwide and the other banks, (d) removed the need for the bank guarantee/recapitalisation and (e) restored our AAA rating, bringing down the rate of borrowing – we would still have the massive structural deficit and requirement for huge tax increases and spending cuts.

      Public sector folks can get as apoplectic as they please about fat-cats etc but they actually have caused the current problem (ie. structural deficit) by extracting unjustified benchmarking raises from the taxpayer (in return for very little in the way of productivity increases).

      And aside from whether or not they caused any problem, the fact is their employer can’t afford their wages anymore. So: renegotiation.

    • robespierre says:

      For most people I know – the difficulty they have in voting Fine Gael (apart from a very strongly perceived lack of substance and ability at the highest level of the party but not the second highest level) is that it is a vote for Labour.

      In other words, were Richard Bruton to be leader and to try and bring about the changes he espouses too, realpolitik will intervene as it did in 1985 when Dick Spring insisted on tax rises and Fitzgerald did it to avoid a general election.

      Labour is being deeply cynical and none of its proposals adequately address the right-sizing of public service expenditure much less the broadening of the tax base.

      Incidentally, a tax on second homes would disproportionately affect wealthy Labour voters most.

    • Eoin says:

      Deaglán, I too was impressed by Labour’s young, well-educated, smartly-dressed delegates who will be local election candidates. But this was my first Labour Party conference. I mean, have you ever seen this at a Labour conference before: a fresh enthusiastic team of new faces rallying around a very popular leader (both inside and outside the party) at a time when Labour is doing fairly well in the polls? I suspect you have. But did Labour go on to greatness? I know there was the Spring Tide in 1992 but Labour never made it to be the second biggest party. That’s why I wouldn’t be optimistic about them doing it now or in the next couple of years. They may be doing well in the polls but they still don’t have the organisation on the ground, especially in the more rural constituencies where they really need to start winning seats.

    • Ray D says:

      I’m not aware of youthful Labour. All I ever see on TV are Joan Burton, Roisin Shortall, Liz McManus, Pat Rabbitte et al – all in their sixties and yesterday’s men and women. That is part of Labour’s prioblem – in addition to my earler comment. Labour would do better by dumping the old guard – deselection – and vowing not to go into coalition unless they are the majority party. I would then expect Labour to be in power within the decade.

    • Deaglán says:

      Labour won 33 seats in the Spring Tide. Dick had never met two of the new TDs. Dr Bhamjee was one, I don’t remember who the other one was. We were being told the FF-Lab Government with about 100 seats would be in power for ten years. Then it collapsed over .. what? I was there at the time and covered the story but it’s very hard to explain to people why that government fell and the PDs ultimately took the place of Labour, putting a right-of-centre stamp on policy from 1997 onwards.

    • Eoin says:

      Hmmm. Would I be right in saying Labour’s organisation is just as good now as it was in 1992? If so, then maybe all it will take is the right mood to prevail among the people for the Spring Tide to be repeated, even surpassed.

      It’s hard to understand from this remove what was the prevailing mood in the country in 1992 but I know that Dick Spring was seen as the real leader of the opposition, just as some people see Gilmore now. Maybe, with a few stand-out new candidates in a general election, Labour could overcome their organisational weakness and take a few seats in unexpected places.

    • Deaglán says:

      Ray D: I think you may be putting years on some of the Labour people! It’s a sensitive subject!

      Eoin: I think a donkey with a red rose would have gotten elected for Labour in 1992 (I am borrowing the old Northern saying that “a donkey with a sash could get elected for the unionists”). It will be interesting to see how the candidate selection changes work for them this time.

    • Ray D says:

      only wrong about young Roisin though. Could have used R. Quinn instead to boost a valid point.

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