Joan Burton has big reform plans; now she needs a team to help push them through

New Tánaiste must hit the ground running

Joan Burton with her new deputy leader, Alan Kelly. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Joan Burton with her new deputy leader, Alan Kelly. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

As new leader of the Labour Party Joan Burton will not have the comfort of a honeymoon or a settling-in period. It’s too late in the political cycle and an election is just over the horizon. At this stage, there is no such thing as a shallow end – and the party is going to have to start swimming fast if it’s not going to sink.

Her election yesterday was never really in doubt. The one question was the extent of the endorsement and it turned out to be a landslide, with the Dublin West TD getting 2,094 votes out of 2,720, compared to Alex White’s total of 607.

In percentage terms she won 77 per cent of the vote compared with 23 per cent for her rival.

Similarly, the deputy leadership contest also had the look of a foregone conclusion about it well before the votes were counted. Tipperary North TD and Minister of State Alan Kelly took 51 per cent of the vote and was elected on the first count.

It is a significant victory for Burton. She is the eleventh leader of the party but the first woman. As White acknowledged in his graceful concession speech, “for that reason alone, this is an historic occasion”.

Abundant energy

She is not young. Indeed at 65 she will soon qualify for free travel but she has an abundance of energy and will be seen as an agent for change.

The perception of her during the Troika period was as the most truculent and contrarian of the Labour Ministers and there were tensions with her colleagues, not least with Brendan Howlin.

But Howlin, along with Michael Noonan, is seen as a linchpin of this Government and will be staying in situ.

His relationship with Burton will be key to the party’s progress and stability.

What does a change of leadership imply? Obviously, it involves a new person behind the microphone, to employ Eamon Gilmore’s phrase. But it’s clear that Burton will also press for a far stronger Labour stamp on the Government – she and her team will pull out all the stops to pull off the feat of a tail wagging a dog.

Fine Gael will be conscious of the beating Labour took in the local and European elections and there will be some degree of sympathy. But Fine Gael itself didn’t perform particularly well and there is pressure on Taoiseach Enda Kenny from within his own party not to concede too much to its Coalition partners. Burton’s big message as new leader will be social recovery. In essence it means that economic recovery is not enough – that more is needed.

Practical aspects

But how does that translate into policy? She will push the idea of a “living wage”, which is higher than the minimum wage.

She will also try initiatives on housing, not only on social housing but also to make housing more affordable for lower income families who are above the welfare threshold.

But that is a costly item and she may lean on the recent report from the National Economic and Social Council for ideas on off-balance sheet forms of funding.

Another priority will be tax reform.

This will meet little resistance from her Coalition partners and a compromise should be reached.

And there will be the focus on jobs. The most important thing from a Labour perspective will be a Labour minister for jobs. That will mean concessions elsewhere, perhaps relinquishing Eamon Gilmore’s hopes of being an EU commissioner.

She will strongly advocate the approach of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who has argued that there should be some degree of flexibility in EU fiscal rules to allow investment in the future.

Kelly is assured of a place in the Cabinet after winning the deputy leadership, but opinions are divided on who will get the other two Labour positions at the top table alongside Burton and Howlin.

Alex White and Kathleen Lynch are most often mentioned but Burton may want to promote a TD from the younger generation.

Her supporters will be hoping that a recovering economy and a changed agenda will transform Labour’s electoral prospects.

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