Labour needs to take an honest look at misjudged byelection campaign
Kenny has reasons to be pleased FG triumphed in midst of austerity measures
Taoiseach Enda Kenny congratulates Helen McEntee, alongside her mother Kathleen, sister Sally and brother Vincent (directly behind Helen) on being elected as a TD in the Meath East byelection. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The fallout from the Meath East byelection could turn out to be more important than the actual result, if the initial shock in the Labour Party at the dismal performance of its candidate turns to panic in the months ahead.
The party now needs to engage in an honest review of the role everybody, from the leadership down, played in the debacle if it is to learn the right lessons. At this stage, Labour’s biggest fear is fear itself so a calm assessment is essential.
The first thing the party needs to do is to put byelection results into perspective. In October 2011, Labour won the first byelection of the 31st Dáil in Dublin West on the same day as it won the presidential election, while Fine Gael performed dismally in both those contests.
Byelections, like presidential elections, usually turn into a two-horse race and it was inevitable when Fine Gael selected Helen McEntee to run for the seat held by her late father that she would be the frontrunner on the Coalition side. That left Labour’s Eoin Holmes, a likeable and articulate candidate, up against it from the start. What ruined his prospects of a reasonable performance was a strategy devised by the party hierarchy to concentrate on its priority social issues rather than the hard facts of the economy.
In the early days of the campaign, a series of press releases from Holmes were focused on issues such as same-sex marriage, transgender rights and abortion. That complete misjudgment about the concerns of the electorate left Holmes struggling from the start.
To compound the early mistakes, Labour came up with an election-day leaflet that sought to demean Taoiseach Enda Kenny by suggesting he was no better than Bertie Ahern or Gerry Adams. The confused message seemed to be that the party was somehow ashamed of being in government. That only raised the question as to why anybody in Meath East should vote for it. The leaflet caused annoyance not only in Fine Gael but also in the Labour parliamentary party. “To be honest, I would have to say that if Fine Gael produced a leaflet denigrating Eamon Gilmore in the same terms we would be up in arms and questioning the future of coalition,” said one Labour TD.
The dismal outcome of the byelection has given ammunition to Gilmore’s enemies in the party but it has also made some previously solid supporters who strongly back his strategy of toughing it out and putting in the foundations of economic recovery wonder what is going on. Politicians with long memories can recall the shockwaves that ripped through the party and the Labour-Fianna Fáil government in November 1994 after two crushing byelection defeats in Cork.
Those defeats were the catalyst for a Labour walkout of government and the formation of a new coalition with Fine Gael. The current situation is in no way comparable and Labour won’t be pulling out of government anytime soon, but 1994 showed how destabilising bad byelection results can be if morale is low.
Back then, the party had the option of forming a new government without having an election. No such choice exists now and an early election is not an option unless the party TDs have a death wish. However, those who want a change of leader have been given some serious ammunition.
In contrast to Labour’s misery, Helen McEntee’s victory was a remarkable achievement by Fine Gael given that the party has been implementing austerity measures for the past two years. The fact that property tax demands were dropping through letter boxes all over the constituency during the campaign makes the achievement even more notable.
Enda Kenny can take enormous heart from the fact that his party won 40 per cent of the vote in such trying circumstances. Of course, the personal sympathy for the candidate following the tragic circumstances that gave rise to the election played a part in the outcome but sympathy on its own does not win Dáil seats.
Returning to the 1994 analogy, the daughter of deceased popular Labour TD Gerry O’Sullivan did not win the Cork North Central byelection. In more recent times, Shay Brennan, son of the perennial poll-topper Séamus, failed to win the Dublin South byelection in June 2009 after his father’s untimely death. Helen McEntee’s victory was down to more than sympathy. The candidate herself made a big impression on the canvass but Fine Gael was clearly rewarded by the electorate of Meath East for the way it has gone about the business of running the country in a time of austerity. That should stiffen the party’s resolve to do what is necessary in government to restore the country’s economic fortunes and not be deflected by the continuous barrage of criticism from the media or its political opponents.
The Fianna Fáil performance was another significant feature. To come a strong second confirms opinion poll evidence the party is on its way back. In the 2011 general election, Fianna Fáil slumped to 19 per cent of the vote in Meath East but just two years later it has bounced back to 33 per cent and is now in a strong position to recover a seat.
Sinn Féin, working hard to replace Fianna Fáil as the leading alternative, managed to increase its vote from under 9 per cent to 13 per cent, but the gain was less than most had expected. One factor was Direct Democracy candidate Ben Gilroy who appears to have siphoned off much of the protest vote. That trend could have implications for Sinn Féin.