Noel Whelan: This time around Labour’s goal is political survival

Party will once again warn electorate about dangers of Fine Gael majority government

Eamon Gilmore answering reporters’ questions at a special meeting of the Labour Party. Photograph: Frank Miller

Eamon Gilmore answering reporters’ questions at a special meeting of the Labour Party. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Last July RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke put it to Taoiseach Enda Kenny that polls published that month did not look good for the re-election of the Government. Kenny, uttering a half-laugh, referred O’Rourke to the British election in May in which pollsters had got it very wrong. Despite all the talk of a hung parliament, Kenny pointed out that the Cameron government had been comfortably re-elected.

The Taoiseach was correct, but only partially so. The British polls were wrong and the seat predictions based on them were very wrong. However, although Cameron was returned to Downing Street, the outgoing government was not re-elected – only the Conservatives were.

The minor coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, were nearly destroyed, losing 49 of their 56 seats.

The Irish Labour Party now fears the same fate, and with good cause. When looking at a poll of polls here last July, I guessed that if Fine Gael was on 30 per cent before this Christmas it would be well placed for a further surge towards the mid-30s once the election came.

If it gets to those heights then there is at least a prospect that Fine Gael could govern alone. It is likely to fall short, but all the signs are that it will make one hell of an effort.

This prospect is now exercising the minds of the Labour Party and its allies. This week Siptu president Jack O’Connor warned that a “monopoly single-party Fine Gael government” must be “avoided at all costs”. As Fiach Kelly reported on Thursday, O’Connor’s message to his union members echoes a Labour Party strategy to “ frame the choice” for the election by arguing the need for Labour’s presence in order to avoid what Minister Alex White has said would be “ a more right-wing government”.

Considerations

Former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore points out in his recent book Inside the Room that the prospect of a Fine Gael single-party government dominated Labour’s considerations in the last two weeks of the 2011 election.

Gilmore suggests that the first half of that campaign was a struggle over who would lead the next government. While it was clear that Fianna Fáil would be ousted, it was not apparent who would lead the new government.

There is a touch of enduring self-delusion on Gilmore’s part in that regard. As he points out himself, the high point of Labour’s poll rating came in the summer of 2010 when Labour was on 33 per cent in an Ipsos/MRBI poll. By December 2010 it had dropped to 25 per cent, and it had fallen further to 19 per cent just before the 2011 election.

Fine Gael, by way of contrast, had risen from 24 per in September to 37 per cent in February. When the election was called there was no doubt that Fine Gael would lead the next government.

High-tax party

During the campaign Michael Noonan hammered Labour as a “ high-tax party” because it had proposed a 48 per cent tax band on people earning more than €100,00. Meanwhile Fine Gael’s “five-point plan”, the details of which, Gilmore points out, were “quite forgettable”, was having more impact than Labour’s worthy Jobs, Reform, Fairness policy document.

Midway during the 2011 campaign Fine Gael was at twice Labour’s standing in the polls and looked like it was heading for an overall majority.

Labour had held €150,000 of its campaign budget back for precisely this type of scenario, and decided to use it to “redefine the choice” towards whether it would be a single-party Fine Gael government or a coalition. It decided to spend it on what Gilmore calls “a game-changing communications intervention” which “needed to be catchy and controversial”.

The Labour campaign team worked up an idea for the now infamous series of newspaper ads based on the Tesco catchphrase “ Every Little Helps”, called “Every Little Cut Hurts”. It depicted various Fine Gael proposals for cuts and taxes that Labour implied it would stop happening. As an advertising concept it was effective and it contributed to halting Fine Gael’s gallop.

Gilmore, however, makes a fairly extraordinary admission in the book that he “paid little attention to the detailed cuts which the ads mentioned”. He acknowledges that this was a mistake for which he would pay a very high price later.

He goes on to say that this error was compounded when those specific cuts were not “weeded out” in Labour’s negotiations on the programme for government with Fine Gael.

The decisions that Gilmore and his colleagues made then did much to shape the circumstances Labour finds itself in now. In 2011 the effort to resist a single-party Fine Gael government was about asserting Labour’s relevance. In the 2016 election it is about Labour’s very survival.

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