Mood in Labour more confident ahead of tough elections
Atmosphere at its one-day conference will be a whole lot better than last year
Tanaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
This time last year the Labour Party seemed to suffering the same political battering as the south and west coasts of the country have taken over the past few days. Its miserable performance in the Meath East byelection – as well as a string of defections – was the nadir moment for it in Government.
A year later, there is no Lazarus-like electoral miracle to declare. But the party seems to have recovered some of its support and – more importantly – some of those vital but hard-to-grasp qualities: morale and purpose.
There are few in the party who have more political nous than the vastly experienced Ruairi Quinn. He stops short of saying the party has turned a corner but accept that a recovery of sorts is underway.
Some of those who voted for the party in 2011 will never return because of perceptions of broken promises and failures to strike a match to thrown onto certain bonfires. That said, its successes on abortion legislation, on the promissory note (though may turn out to be less than the sum of its parts) and the exit of the Troika may have persuaded enough of its traditional supporters to return.
And so the atmosphere at its one-day conference in Enfield, Co Meath tomorrow will be, if not buoyant, a whole lot better than last year. It’s a conference not a convention, so it’s essentially a day for speechifying and for showing off its talent. Its focus is almost wholly on the forthcoming local and European elections, although the key moment of the convention – party leader Eamon Gilmore’s speech – will be geared towards bolstering and justifying the party’s influence in effecting change.
To be sure, recovery or not, both sets of elections in May are going to be very tough nuts for the party to crack. Labour’s historic average vote is a little over 10 per cent. It did very well in 2009 getting some 15 per cent of the vote (though it fell short of its exceptional performance in 2011). However, opinion polls show that the party is struggling to get into double digits in terms of popular support.
In the local elections in 2009, it became the biggest party in four councils, Dublin City, Fingal, Dublin South and Galway. It is very unlikely to remain as the biggest party on any of those councils and is likely to see both its percentage and seat-share slide.
The one consolation is that with the local government reforms – and the abolition of town councils – the actual number of full local authority seats will increase. That said, Labour will struggle to retain the seats it held and may see it slipping into third or even fourth place on those councils.
The picture for the European elections is grim. The party won three seats in 2009. Two of its MEPs subsequently stood down and the two substitute MEPs Emer Costello and Phil Prendergast, don’t enjoy the same profile. In addition, another of its elected MEPs Nessa Childers, elected in the extinct East constituency, will be standing as an independent in Dublin.
The falling support for the party, plus the slightly lower profile of its candidates, will see the party struggle to retain any of its European parliament seats. So the messages will be slightly mixed. The party is more comfortable in its own skin in Government than it was until now. Yet it knows that the elections will provide it with another uncomfortable challenge.