Fresh blood needed for an ageing party


THE numbers were small, the age profile worrying. Democratic Left is a party in the doldrums, lacking broad public recognition and new blood. But it may have turned the corner in terms of personal confidence.

Last year its annual conference was a shambles - the numbers tiny, the venue dirty and the delegates disillusioned. This year, there is a growing confidence that its Ministers have performed well in Government and that the party is making a real impact. For the first time, Democratic Left is saleable on the doorsteps in working class areas.

Part of this change in perception is due to persistent complaints by Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats that the smallest party in the Coalition is dictating economic and social policy. The Democratic Left tail is said to be wagging the Government dog.

When your opponents provide publicity free, in what used to be a desert of public indifference, what leader would complain? Mr Proinsias De Rossa certainly didn't as he sought to focus attention on the need to tackle long term unemployment and social deprivation and drew attention to his own record on child benefit increases and equality payments for women.

But the trauma of four years ago, when Democratic Left split from the Workers' Party over centralised control and continuing links with the Official IBA, persists. As one observer said: "The head of the party went in one direction at that time and the body in the other." Since then, Democratic Left has failed to rebuild the machine that used to be the Workers' Party.

Even now, with six TDs and one senator in the party, there is a lack of young blood evident and few able councillors are coming through. A broad party structure is lacking and Dail seats are held almost as personal fiefdoms, where the name of the individual is more important than the party image.

Four of the six TDs are either Ministers or Ministers of State and there is a quiet confidence that the party will hold, if not increase, its number of Dail seats next time. But, in the current climate of public disillusionment with political parties, nothing should be taken for granted. A wave of rejection could bury the party without trace.

In that regard, a motion from the constituency of Eric Byrne - one of the two TDs without a ministerial position - sought to concentrate on radical left policies and to isolate the party from alliances with right wing parties before an election.

It was overwhelmingly defeated. Speaker after speaker trundled to the podium to argue in favour of political flexibility and tactical freedom for the leadership. The lessons of the Dublin West and Donegal North East by elections had been well learned.

The sight of Fianna Fail snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in those two contests has brought about a serious rethink of strategy within the rainbow coalition.

Three months ago there was little, if any, chance of a voting arrangement emerging between Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Democratic Left. They were determined to fight on separate policies and go their own ways. But the sight of Fianna Fail hoovering up the transfers of Government parties on the way to victory has changed all that. If the phenomenon was repeated in a general election, Fianna Fail might even emerge with an overall Dail majority.

Recent thinking is that while the Coalition parties will campaign on separate platforms, they may consider a vote transfers arrangement.

Mr John McManus went so far as to raise the spectre of a formal election pact. He told delegates: "It may be possible that this Government will go to the country on a united front and on an agreed programme, but if that isn't in the interests of the people this party represents, it will not happen."

And Mr Joe Sherlock argued: "It is absolute nonsense to embark on a totally independent campaign. We need transfer votes from the other parties. We must not close the door on preference votes."

Mr De Rossa held out the prospect of a renewed rainbow arrangement and contrasted its potential benefits to the "lethal cocktail" of "outdated PD Thatcherism and a double measure of Fianna Fail opportunism".

A general election could be as much as 18 months away, but the political temperature is already becoming intense. Democratic Left is languishing at 2 per cent in the opinion polls. If it hopes to grow, it must do better.