No knee-jerk reaction among the faithful but time will tell
Grim poll findings often trigger heaves but Labour is not likely to be convulsed quite yet
Joan Burton Minister for Social Protection. There is a sense that the Labour Party needs to assert its identity. Photograph: Alan Betson
The trigger for some of the most prominent heaves against Irish party leaders in recent political history has been an adverse opinion poll. Despite his disdain for them, Charles Haughey finally relinquished his leadership in the face of poor poll results in the early 1990s.
The figures in this week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll are stark both for the Labour Party and for its leader Eamon Gilmore. Support levels of 6 per cent, the lowest in a quarter of a century, make for grim reading and there are equally dismal figures on Gilmore’s performance as leader.
The most disconcerting for party members is that marginally more of its own supporters are dissatisfied than satisfied with his performance.
Reaction from the party’s TDs and Senators, both publicly and privately, did not try to gloss over the reality that underlines the results.
Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin’s comments were representative of what his colleagues were thinking and saying, both in public and in private: “It’s a bad poll, there’s nobody going to say anything different,” he said. “Black Tuesday”, tweeted one party staffer yesterday morning.
While the mood in the parliamentary party was generally glum, it was patently clear that there is no sense of any knee-jerk or immediate reaction to the figures. And besides one or two long-term critics within, as well as former TD Eamonn Walsh, who suggested a change of leadership was required, the vast majority of party figures played down any suggestion the poll had raised doubts about Gilmore’s leadership, although there was acknowledgment that it was damaging for him.
Few of its TDs and Senators tried to put a gloss on it, although one or two suggested the poll might have been an outlier. There was a strong mood among TDs and Senators that something needed to be done, and soon. Some, including Kerry TD Arthur Spring, believe Gilmore should relinquish his foreign affairs ministry as soon as possible and return to a portfolio that has him present and much more visible on the ground at home.
Party strategists have recognised a deficit in Gilmore’s presence in recent months and it is noteworthy that he has made himself available for a number of very long broadcast interviews of late, where there has been an assertiveness and doggedness in attitude that had been absent since the months leading up to the general election campaign.
Besides calls from within for an early reshuffle, there is also a sense that the party needs to assert its identity – to move the party away from a narrative arc where everything it does in Government is seen as negative, while Fine Gael gets credits for achievements, some of which have been sweated out from the Labour side. A big part of this is the party over-promising in the election campaign. So far, the party has found it difficult to move on from those broken promises. Its difficulties were compounded by it being outmanoeuvred by Fine Gael in last year’s budget and high-profile defection of TDs and Senators.
In the short term, Labour TDs say the party really needs to put a strong mark on the budget. In the longer term, if these dire support levels continue, there will be more deep-seated problems for the party and for Gilmore.