Having won the Labour leadership and the tánaiste’s position, Joan Burton now faces the really hard part

Opinion: The forcing out of a Labour leader will impact on future of party

‘Crucially, Joan Burton  managed to differentiate herself from the rest of the government in the public mind and that clearly paid dividends in terms of her personal popularity.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘Crucially, Joan Burton managed to differentiate herself from the rest of the government in the public mind and that clearly paid dividends in terms of her personal popularity.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 00:01

A new departure has taken place in Irish politics with the election of the next tánaiste by the ordinary members of the Labour Party.

It is the first time in over 90 years of Irish democracy that party members have been allowed to decide who will occupy one of the key positions in Government.

Technically the Labour membership was simply voting for a new leader and deputy leader, but everybody involved knew that in practical terms it meant electing the next deputy prime minister of the country. The unique situation arose because Eamon Gilmore made history by being the first party leader serving in the tánaiste’s office to resign in the middle of a Dáil term.

While he made the decision to go after the disastrous European and local elections, there are strong suspicions that he jumped before he was pushed. The exact circumstances in which Gilmore made his decision may emerge in time, but it is clear that he was going to face a challenge to his position if he stayed. The motion of no confidence in his leadership put down by eight of his parliamentary party just hours before Gilmore resigned is evidence of that.

The way all of this happened has implications for the future of the party.

“A Labour leader was never forced out of office this way before, but now that it has happened once, the chances are it will happen again. Once the concept of loyalty to the elected leader goes, an important value goes with it,” said one senior party figure.

Having won the leadership and the tánaiste’s position, Joan Burton now faces the really hard part. Bringing the Labour Party back from its dismal showing in the recent elections to having a fighting chance in the next general election will be a bigger challenge than any she has faced to date. There is no easy solution to the dilemma she faces

.

Labour support has collapsed due mainly to the fact that the party chose to go into Government at a time of a national economic emergency. By any objective yardstick the party has done a good job in office by helping to stave off the nightmare of national bankruptcy. That would have had devastating consequences for everybody in the country, but particularly the least well-off in society.

That record of performance clearly hasn’t impressed the voters, as the election results in May testified, so Burton will have her work cut out to try to change the perception of the Labour performance over the next 18 months. Still, she will have a number of things going for her.

As Minister for Social Protection she has been immune from much of the anti-Government sentiment that damaged her colleagues and that should give her a head start as a new leader attempting to reshape the party’s image.

The decision of the Coalition at the outset to protect basic pension and welfare payments from cuts clearly benefited Burton, but that doesn’t fully explain why her personal standing remained high while that of her Labour colleagues slumped.

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