Power Beckons for Labour
Deaglán de Bréadún
The big talking point after Eamon Gilmore’s main speech to the Labour conference in Galway was the party’s demand for a place in the televised debate between party leaders in the next general election.
The fact that our nearest neighbours have now adopted this practice greatly increases the pressure to include the Labour leader. It’s not a prospect calculated to delight Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, whatever public protestations they might make to the contrary.
Up to now, Gilmore has been well ahead of his two main rivals in terms of media performance. Apart from the occasional strong speech, usually impromptu, Brian Cowen can appear uncomfortable in the media spotlight and, for all his other achievements, the broadcast studio has proven a dangerous place for Enda Kenny.
The participation of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the British debate has transformed the UK general election campaign. Could it be the same for Gilmore over here? At the risk of stating the obvious, Britain is not Ireland and it would be naive to apply the same slide rule to the politics of both jurisdictions. This republic is a much smaller place, with the result that Irish politics is far more intimate and personal than is the case across the water.
Nevertheless a three-way debate would give Labour a considerable boost and they are quite right, from their own point of view, to pursue the matter with all the energy at their disposal.
Given the smaller size of our electorate, Irish voters may be more likely to ask: what’s behind the facade? Gilmore’s conference speech was up to his usual high standard: a rousing performance for the troops; but there were questions afterwards about the substance.
Apart from a few minor infelicities in the short Irish-language section, the speech was word perfect and the leader delivered it with verve and conviction. At times he ventured into the poetic: “Nature has given us a beautiful homeland . . . but our country has been laid low by the reckless actions of a feckless few.” There was also drama: a greedy, arrogant clique aided and abetted by their cronies in Fianna Fáil had hijacked our beloved country and the people were suffering as a result.
Gilmore himself and his party knew from personal experience what it was like to live in hard times and were now stepping forward, ready for the challenge.
There were loud cheers and applause as he declared: “Our objective at the next election, whenever it is held, is a new government, led by Labour.”
All the available evidence suggests that a Labour-led government is, to be polite about it, highly unlikely. All the indicators suggest at this stage that Fine Gael will win far more seats and the relative strength of the two parties will be a key factor in determining the approach of any alternative government.
The conventional wisdom is that, like all opposition parties, Labour needs to make the most of public dissatisfaction with the Government in office without unduly alienating potential supporters by its own policy pronouncements.
Public sector workers, for example, will – in theory at least – happily vote Fine Gael and Labour next time in the expectation of better treatment than they experienced at the hands of Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
Hopefully, from Labour’s point of view, the crisis will have eased by then and we will be on the road to economic recovery and the public purse-strings can be loosened accordingly. If not, there is going to be trouble, just as there was in the 1982-1987 Fine Gael-Labour administration when the smaller party could not stomach the cuts that their partners considered necessary, with the result that Fianna Fáil were returned to office.
At the same time, Labour has scored some palpable hits in the economic debate. Its opposition to the bank guarantee of September 2008 may have looked at the time like opposition for opposition’s sake but now, in the light of what has emerged about Anglo Irish Bank, Labour’s approach appears much more plausible. Labour can also argue that its policy of temporary nationalisation of the banks has been vindicated by events.
Although Gilmore put forward interesting proposals at the weekend for a strategic investment bank to promote job-creation, a graduate and apprentice programme to provide work experience for young people, and a department of public service reform, Labour has had a lower profile than Fine Gael on the policy production front.
Gilmore correctly pointed out that Labour came up with a plan for universal health insurance 10 years ago. Fine Gael’s Dr James Reilly has been making his name with a similar proposal and one wonders why they are not running a joint campaign specifically on this major issue: why wait to get into government when people are sick and dying?
With Fine Gael making a lot of running on political and institutional reform, Gilmore put forward his own plan for Labour in government to establish a constitutional convention. As well as the usual experts and specialists there would be “individual citizens, randomly chosen in much the same way that we choose our juries”.
That could be an interesting exercise, particularly for the citizens concerned: presumably they would get time off work to help prepare the new version of Bunreacht na hÉireann, “fitted to our times and our aspirations”, which would be scheduled to appear on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
Despite Gilmore’s public appeal, something extra is needed to make a real breakthrough but so far Labour has not discovered this magic ingredient.
Perhaps a few more specifics in relation to policy might not be as dangerous as Labour seems to suspect. Gilmore has studiously avoided giving his view on the Croke Park pay deal, based on the not-implausible argument that it would not be helpful for a politician to intervene, but at a time when the people are crying out for leadership, this comes across as a cop-out.
NOTE: THE ABOVE ARTICLE ALSO APPEARED IN THE OPINION PAGES OF THE PRINT EDITION OF TODAY’S IRISH TIMES