Voters who have left Labour can be won back if the economy is seen to improve
Opinion: Ministers and TDs need to be far more vocal in explaining to the public what exactly the Government has been doing
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore with Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton. With a fall in the unemployment figures could Labour now be heading into slightly less choppy waters? Photograph: Collins
Eamon Gilmore and his Labour colleagues have taken a lot of flak over the past three years for being in government at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, but they got lucky with the timing of the party’s conference in Killarney which began last night.
Buoyed up by the impending exit from the EU/IMF bailout, and the latest unemployment figures released this week which showed a significant fall, Labour TDs can now begin to hope that the corner has been turned.
What a difference a few months can make in politics. Back in spring the party had a disastrous performance in the Meath by-election, trailing in fifth place not only far behind the reviled Fianna Fáil but also behind Sinn Féin and an independent candidate no one had heard of before.
Then in June the party chairman, Galway East TD Colm Keaveney, resigned, having already been expelled from the parliamentary party for voting against one of last year’s budget measures.
Four other TDs, Willie Penrose, Róisín Shortall, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty, had already lost the party whip for voting against the Government. With a steady drip of councillors leaving at local authority level, Labour looked to be in real trouble.
However, even at that stage things were not quite as bad as they looked. It was an open secret that Penrose wanted to return to the party fold and he has now been welcomed back with open arms.
In Keaveney’s case there was relief rather than disappointment in the senior ranks that he left the party on the abortion issue. He was elected party chairman at the last annual conference, in defiance of the leadership’s wishes, and had proved a thorn in Gilmore’s side.
His decision to remain as party chairman despite the fact that he had been expelled from the parliamentary party was beginning to become a real problem. If Keaveney ha
d sought re-election as chairman it could have turned into a do-or-die moment for Gilmore but his resignation put an end to that threat. In fact, by taking the fight outside the party, rather than staying inside, rebel Labour TDs have actually taken the pressure off the leader.
Dick Spring’s leadership of the party during the economic crisis of the 1980s was blighted by a large rump of TDs, including the now President, Michael D Higgins, and the current chief whip, Emmet Stagg, who fought him tooth and nail at every party conference.
The struggle to retain his leadership in the face of opposition from a large cohort of TDs and ordinary members occupied much of Spring’s time and impinged on the decision-making ability of the Fine Gael/Labour government led by Garret FitzGerald.
By comparison, Gilmore has had it easy. A substantial majority of his parliamentary party is solidly behind him and while there are mutterings from time to time there is no concerted effort by internal opponents to undermine him.