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
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.
DifferentiatedCrucially, she 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.
That political manoeuvre will be more difficult to pull off when she is party leader and tánaiste and has to assume full responsibility for all of the decisions the Government makes. The trick will be to carve out a distinct identity for Labour in Government without destabilising the Coalition and precipitating an early election, as that is the last thing the party needs.
The other danger of attempting to point up differences between Labour and Fine Gael is that it could create the image of a Government lacking in cohesion, and that would be fatal for both parties in the long run. Some Labour strategists believe that winning back its public service vote should be the priority, but any moves to reverse the pay cuts in the sector would have to be paid by the general taxpayer, which would not be popular with Fine Gael voters.
Finding the right balance will not be easy. Eamon Gilmore was a loyal and committed deputy leader in Government who did his negotiating in private and kept public disagreements with his Coalition partners to a minimum.
That did not pay off for him primarily because his rhetoric in Opposition and the promises made during the general election implied that he would behave very differently in office to the way he did. Ultimately his mastery in Opposition ensured that he did not succeed in Government.
Burton was equally vociferous in Opposition in condemning many of the policies she has implemented as a member of the Government, but she did not suffer anything like the same political damage. That is largely down to the fact the leader takes most of the blame, but maybe Burton also has one of the most important attributes of a successful politician – so far at least she has been a lucky general.
There are already signs that her luck may hold when she takes over as leader. A range of economic data that emerged over the past week suggests the economic recovery really has taken hold. If the indicators continue to improve over the next 18 months, both Government parties will be able to point to an impressive record.