Joan Burton says Labour has taken ‘a shellacking’

Rabbitte: even John The Baptist couldn’t have saved Labour

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton  arriving at the City West count centre today. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton arriving at the City West count centre today. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Sat, May 24, 2014, 15:47

The public has given Labour “a shellacking” in the local and European elections, according to deputy leader Joan Burton, who said it had been “a difficult day” for the party.

Her party colleague, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, said the programme for government now needed to be “renewed”.

Ms Burton, the Minister for Social Protection, said party leader Eamon Gilmore had her “confidence” despite the disappointing performance and that the issues Labour was experiencing were “far wider than simply the issue of one person or personality”.

“I think the issues go much wider because they affect, in particular, policy and the way business is done,” she said, adding that Labour would be looking at and listening to what the public had said very closely.

Asked if she might lead a heave against Mr Gilmore, she said she was “not going to call anything like that until we get the results in”.

Speaking on her arrival at the CityWest count centre, Ms Burton said the Government had been successful in stabilising the economy and getting people back to work.

“Nonetheless, the successes we have had in reviving the economy and getting people back to work haven’t been enough in terms of what people have felt in their pocket. We have to think about that and examine it and look at the policy area and in particular the way business is done.”

Asked about the party performance, she cited a comment from US president Barack Obama after the mid-term elections. She said he had “put it well” when he used the term “shellacking”.

“The electorate have given the Labour Party a shellacking and we have to reflect and examine that and think about that.”

On Mr Gilmore’s leadership, Ms Burton said she had repeatedly stated during the campaign that “Eamon Gilmore is the elected leader of the Labour Party and of course I have confidence in Eamon Gilmore but it is much wider than that”.

Put to her that it was not a ringing endorsement of the Tanaiste, Ms Burton said it was “a very direct endorsement and confirmation” and that the counts were not nearly finished.

Ms Burton said Labour was in contention for a “significant number of seats around the country but rather lower down the list than we would like to be” and paid tribute to all those who contested.

She said Government members, regardless of party, needed to sit down and listen to what the people have said. She said medical card reviews had emerged as a particular issue in the final weeks of the campaign and that the coalition had to “tackle issues like that”.

Earlier, Mr Rabbitte said the programme for government needed to be renewed. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said earlier this week that there would be no renegotiation of the programme for government. But Mr Rabbitte told reporters today: “I didn’t hear that but I’m satisfied that the programme for government will be renewed.” Asked if renewal meant renegotiation the Minister said “it might be a matter of semantics – what’s the difference between renew and renegotiate?”

Speaking to reporters at the Dublin West byelection count Mr Rabbitte said what they would be doing after the elections was “setting out new priorities for the Government that relate to the issues that people were raising with us on the doorsteps, tackling policy issues that connect to the people.”

Mr Rabbitte said these issues seemed to him to be about jobs, houses, access to the health services and giving their children the opportunity to stay and work in Ireland.

Insisting there were positives in the situation he pointed to almost two million people being at work. In the 1980s recession “we had 960,000 people at work. We have twice as many people at work now and paying taxes. From their point of view they are paying too much in taxes and this Government has to address that kind of issue.

But Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said when asked if a renegotiation of the programme for government would make a difference “well, did switching the chairs around on the Titanic make a difference? In fairness it’s just as futile. Changing a leader is just as futile.”

The Dublin West TD said he did not rule out the Labour party “may try and pull a stunt in the next few months, and select an issue on which they could get on a high horse and pull the plug on the Government to try and salvage things.”

Mr Higgins was hopeful for the party’s Dublin West candidate Cllr Ruth Coppinger but said it was “very open”. He said “we will be in there fighting hard but it would be a fool predicting the outcome at this stage”

He said the Labour party had ceased to be a party of the left a long time ago and was now firmly in the camp of the “right wing neoliberal market austerity policies”.

He said there was a huge vacuum which was reflected in increasing support for Sinn Féin but also independent candidates and the Socialist Party. “What’s clear is that a new movement for working class people in the widest sense.....is needed. A principled left movement has to be constructed in the years ahead and that’s what we’re committed to”

Earlier, Mr Rabbitte said the programme for Government needed to be renewed because the “questions have changed” since the Coalition was formed in 2011.

Mr Rabbitte acknowledged Labour had been the main victim of voter anger in the elections but defended the position of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

“I don’t think if John The Baptist was leading the Labour Party into this election that it would have made any difference. Eamon Gilmore brought home the best results the party has had in its 100 year history,” Mr Rabbitte told RTÉ radio earlier.

“I think it is very difficult to see Labour winning a European seat, you know the brunt of the anger has been taken by the Government, principally by Labour. As a member of the Labour party it obviously is a difficult result but one to which we must respond

He said he had a sense of relief that a similar vote hadn’t been seen in the 2011 general election. “If the people had voted like this in 2011, where would the country be now? A combination of independents and Sinn Féin?” Mr Rabbitte asked.