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
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.
The discipline of the majority of TDs has given Labour Ministers the freedom to concentrate on the huge challenge confronting them in Government and if the corner has really been turned on the economic front then the party can dare to hope that things might not turn out too badly after all.
In his opening speech to the conference last night, Gilmore robustly defended the decision to go into government in 2011. “That’s the Labour method. That’s who we are. People who believe in taking responsibility. People who want to fix the problem.”
Few in the party were under any illusions they were going to be thanked by the electorate for the decision to take the reins of office.
The question in the minds of most TDs on the day they took office was how badly they were going to be punished.
In the period since then a steady slide in opinion poll ratings appeared to confirm the view that Labour was on a hiding to nothing.
However, the most recent polls have shown a rise in support, with the public appearing to give both Government parties credit for the bailout exit.
The polls also indicate that supporters who have drifted away from Labour can be won back if the Government is perceived to have done well.
The clear lesson for Labour is that its best hope is to fully embrace the experience of being in government and take responsibility for its success or failure. The tendency in the past has been to try and disassociate itself from the more unpopular decisions but that only leaves the party with the worst of both worlds: being blamed for decisions it doesn’t have the courage to defend.
One thing both Ministers and TDs need to do is to be far more vocal in explaining to the public what exactly this
Government has been doing in office. Today’s Ipsos/MRBI/Irish Times poll reveals a shocking lack of understanding among voters about the economic facts of life in Ireland today.
In his speech last night, Gilmore made the point that Ireland had the second fairest tax system in the developed world. He pointed out that the top 5 per cent of income earners pay 44 per cent of all income tax and the top 1 per cent pays almost 20 per cent of all tax.
The Irish Times poll indicates that most members of the public have no idea about these basic facts and instead harbour bizarre views about how the bulk of taxpayers’ money is spent.
Labour, and Fine Gael for that matter, needs to devote far more attention to making sure that the public is properly informed about the basic facts of life in Ireland today.