Labour takes stock of poor showing as voters turned away


ANALYSIS/Labour: Campaign ended with the party falling between stools, writes Alison O'Connor, Political Reporter

Faced with a number of different options in this general election the Labour Party ended up falling between stools.

The party tried to present itself as both safe and radical and in the process failed to make the necessary connection with the electorate.

Putting a brave face on it yesterday the deputy leader, Mr Brendan Howlin, pointed out that his party has their second largest parliamentary party in the history of the State.

But this was poor comfort. The reality of their mediocre election performance is better reflected by Mr Pat Rabbitte's description of Labour as being "becalmed".

Labour started off with 21 seats including that of the Ceann Comhairle, Mr Seamus Pattison, in Carlow/Kilkenny, who was automatically re-elected. It had been widely expected that they might reach 26 seats in this election. Of the outgoing TDs MEP Mr Proinsias de Rossa did not stand for re-election.

In fact they ended up losing three seats - the former leader Mr Dick Spring in Kerry North, the high profile finance spokesman Mr Derek McDowell in Dublin North Central and Mr Michael Bell in Louth. In Dublin South Ms Eithne Fitzgerald, who had been tipped as another possible gain, lost out to the Green Party candidate Mr Eamon Ryan.

They made gains with Ms Joan Burton in Dublin West, Ms Kathleen Lynch in Cork North Central, Mr Joe Costello in Dublin Central, all of who lost their seats in 1997 (Ms Lynch was then a Democratic Left candidate); and Mr Joe Sherlock in Cork East.

In the end there was no gain from the outgoing Dáil and they ended up again with 21 seats. During Saturday's count the concentration was on the disastrous performance of Fine Gael under Mr Michael Noonan. But thoughts have been turning to just where Mr Ruairí Quinn has led his party and Labour's failure to capture the voters that turned in such large numbers to the Greens, Sinn Féin and independent candidates.

Mr Quinn signalled yesterday that there was "no question whatsoever" of him standing down. Dublin TDs Mr Tommy Broughan and Dr Mary Upton, however, indicated that the leadership should form part of an overall review. But other members of the parliamentary party appear to be taking a more pragmatic approach.

"I think at the moment there are no demands for an execution or anything," health spokeswoman Ms Liz McManus yesterday. She did point out there was "an issue of age". Mr Quinn is 56. Perhaps he could decide at some future point, she said, if the new government lasts five years, to make way for a new leader.

"If we do the job we need to do now properly we may end up with a new leader but because we have developed; not because we are desperate. But as we saw from the merger with Democratic Left Ruairí is very good at bringing people together and that is a very important thing now among the opposition."

Labour TDs point out that Mr Quinn is now the main Opposition leader and should be the one to bring together the disparate elements of the Opposition that will sit facing the Government in the Dáil chamber. "In effect I am now the leader of the Opposition in Dáil Éireann," he said yesterday. "A strong opposition is needed and I will provide that." It is necessary, according to Dún Laoghaire deputy Mr Eamonn Gilmore, to look at the bigger picture. "The automatic choice between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - that's history.

Taking the Opposition in its totality from the social democrats in Fine Gael, across the spectrum of the left, that opens up an opportunity for Labour to give a coherence to the Opposition. There is a very exciting period ahead and Labour is crucially placed to provide leadership."

Mr Quinn, who had a battle to win his own seat in Dublin South-East, said on RTÉ's This Week Programme that Labour had failed to capitalise on the "local anger" throughout the State. "They did not see what we were putting forward as something which attracted them."

Labour had been attacked during the campaign for being "too radical and too left", he said, but in fact they had been responsible. "If we had gone out and sloganised we would have been accused of being unrealistic." The part's pledge card, which was borrowed from New Labour in Britain failed to make an impact.

The party's Limerick TD Ms Jan O'Sullivan believes they could have presented themselves in a "sharper or more imaginative way like the Greens and Sinn Féin who were against the Government".

Dublin North West deputy Ms Roisin Shortall strongly believes the party needs to shift to the left. "We have been in the centre for the past while and I'm not sure our supporters like that. It's also pretty crowded. I would like to see us rolling up our sleeves and getting involved more in community issues."