Labour and Fine Gael need to face up to tough challenges

Opinion: Media blamed for constant criticism of Government

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Eamon Gilmore’s acceptance of responsibility for Labour’s dire election showing and his dignified departure left the backbenchers who rushed in to demand his resignation feeling ashamed of themselves.

It is tempting to recall one of Benjamin Disraeli’s best known remarks about politics: “There is no act of treachery of meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour.” That would be an excessively harsh description of what happened, but it has more than a grain of truth about politics.

Gilmore was treated badly, and not only by his own party, but his departure as leader had an inevitability about it following Labour’s disastrous election performance. Gilmore’s tragedy was that although he played a vital role in providing the political stability required to avert economic catastrophe, the foolish promises made in Opposition ultimately cost him his job.

Labour TDs, and their FG Coalition partners, now have a lot of thinking to do about how they can continue to provide stable government in the next 18 months and still face into the next election with some prospect of survival.

Many of the senior people in Labour feel aggrieved at what they, with some justice, believe has been the sustained hostility of much media from the day they took office.

“I hope the commentariat is happy now that it has got what it wants,” one angry Labour Minister observed in the immediate aftermath of Gilmore’s resignation.

Faulty media agenda One of the main gripes about the media is the level of unremitting criticism of Government for almost every decision it takes. The focus is invariably on the negative impact policies have on individuals, with little attempt being made to put those decisions in the broader context of the common good. An allied criticism is that the media provides very little scrutiny of the often hair-brained policies put forward by the Opposition. That encourages the public to believe that there are simple and painless solutions to the major problems facing the country.

If Labour is to have any chance of turning the tide it needs to stand up for what it has achieved in Government rather than giving the public the impression it is half ashamed of it. The core success story of the Coalition is economic recovery. And Labour should be proud of it. Carping at some of the decisions required to bring it about only gives the party the worst of both worlds. It also needs to do a much better job of explaining to the public what has been done and remains to be done. To do this it needs to lay out the choices that face society in stark and simple terms and then stick by the options it takes.

Instead of complaining about the media’s failure to scrutinise Opposition promises and policies, Labour needs to mount a sustained attack on policies like Sinn Féin’s wealth tax proposals and the anti-tax policies of the hard left. The media will only focus on such issues if they become the subject of controversy.

The task facing Joan Burton or Alex White as the next Labour leader is enormous. Whichever of them gets the job will need nerve and luck to save Labour at the next general election. The immediate priority will be to keep the Government in office for another year at least so that the party can have some chance of recovery.

The challenge is starkly illustrated by the fact that neither potential leader would retain their Dáil seats on the basis of the vote Labour got in their constituencies last week. The worst mistake a new leader could make would be to start public squabbles with its Coalition partner in an effort to secure public sympathy. That would only undermine the main thing the Government has going for it, which is its record of competence on the economy.

It is reassuring that Brendan Howlin looks set to remain as Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform. He has a good working relationship with Michael Noonan and that will be pivotal to the Coalition’s chances of turning things around politically.

For Fine Gael there needs to be a recognition that some bad decisions on its side have contributed to the decline of both parties. The long-running saga at the Department of Justice should have been ended long before it did so much harm, while the insistence of Taoiseach Enda Kenny that the water charges issue had to be dealt with in advance of the elections contributed to the scale of the defeat. A Cabinet reshuffle is now required.

Banking inquiry It will be extensive on the Labour side, due to the leadership change

but it also needs to be sweeping on the Fine Gael side. Once that is done both parties should agree on a programme of work for the next 18 months to win back voter confidence.

Gimmicks like a banking inquiry which will tell us little we don’t already know distract from the real work of government.

The surprisingly low turnout in middle-class areas in last week’s elections carried a threat or promise for both Coalition parties. The threat was that if they don’t get their act together then the general election will reinforce the drubbing they received in the locals and Europeans. The promise was that a lot of people who voted for them in 2011 have not yet decided to vote for somebody else and may return to the fold if they are given a good reason to do so.

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