The challenges facing Joan Burton as she takes over as Labour leader

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The Labour Party that Joan Burton inherits as its new leader is a prize long sought by her but that some would see as a hospital pass from Eamon Gilmore; a poisoned chalice. A party with a distinguished past and present, but what future?

A party, the oldest in the State, a pillar of our democracy, of substantial influence as junior coalition partner, with a tánaiste, ministers and 30 TDs, and, as Brendan Howlin argued in these pages yesterday, with an honourable record of helping to steer the economy through and out of the deepest economic crisis in its history, of social and political reform ... But a party which, polls and the recent local and European elections suggest, may soon be nearly wiped out by its ungrateful electorate, and precisely because of its determined nation-before -party austerity politics.

Labour once again re-learns the painful lesson that it will pay a heavy price for participating in government, and again that voters will not be placated by the Howlin plea in mitigation that at least Labour has tempered Fine Gael’s “conservative instincts”.

The figures are stark: not since the 1987 general election, when its vote fell to 6.5 per cent and seats, to 12, has the party performed so badly. In the local elections in May its vote fell by half to seven per cent and seats by yet more. Yet in the 2011 general election the party took 19.4 per cent of the vote and 37 Dáil seats (in the interim reduced by political attrition). And the danger is, this time, that an energised Sinn Féin may have moved in permanently to seize the vacated political ground.

Burton, with little time to re-brand the party ahead of a likely general election in 2016, is far too dependent on a strong economic upturn to boost public morale. There will also have to be increased efforts at differentiating the party from Fine Gael, at claiming as party initiatives elements of the Government’s few popular measures, at agreeing a redrafting, or, more likely, simply re-spinning of the Programme for Government. All, tending to fray Coalition relations. Above all, however, is the “vision thing”. The real challenge is to persuade weary voters that Labour really stands for a different kind of society and Ireland, and is not simply part of a tired old establishment.

The new leader also faces a formidable organisational challenge both in reviving the grassroots organisation and morale and providing a coherent, cohesive leadership. Burton, not exactly a noted team player, will have to wean her new team away from her own tendency as a minister for solo runs or special pleading – her style of leadership in reaching out and including all sections of the party will be crucial.

It would be comforting to be able to say that, now, the only way is up. Labour’s and Burton’s challenge, however, is that there is also a real possibility of permanent, terminal eclipse.