Alex White calls budget deficit target into question

First Labour leadership debate hears a succession of complaints from activists over the party’s performance in Government

Labour leadership contender Alex White has called into question the target by the Coalition to achieve a 3 per cent budget deficit next year.

Mr White, who is Minister of State for Health, is the first Government figure to suggest that the EU-mandated target might not be met.

He was speaking at the first Labour leadership debate tonight at a Dublin Airport hotel, which heard a succession of complaints from activists about the party’s performance in Government and in the local and European elections last month.

The meeting heard criticism of Sinn Féin’s economic policy and warnings that Labour must take seriously the electoral threat from that party.


Seeking to set himself apart from rival candidate Joan Burton, Mr White told the meeting there was no question of a budget adjustment next year in the order of €2 billion.

“We have an agreed target of reducing the deficit below 3 per cent in 2015, but if we were to miss that deadline marginally or by a few months so be it I say,” he said.

“And as far as the next budget is concerned, I have already made it clear that in my view we have reached the end of the line for any significant cuts in public spending or tax increases on working people.”

His position on the deficit is in contrast to that of Ms Burton, who is Minister for Social Protection.

At the outset of her leadership campaign a fortnight ago, she declared that the achievement of the 3 per cent target in 2015 was an “absolute objective.”

With Fine Gael insisting that there should be no deviation from the deficit target, Ms Burton said in her prepared remarks that the party's recovery would be won on the doorsteps

“We have less than two years to the next general election, and the Labour election campaign would start from day one of my leadership,” she said.

“I know some of you here tonight are worried about whether Labour should continue in Government. But ... when you look at Labour’s long and proud history of fighting for progress, the best way of achieving that progress is by being in Government.”

The meeting started with short speeches by the four contenders for the deputy Labour leadership: Ciara Conway, Alan Kelly, Michael McCarthy and Sean Sherlock.

After they set out their vision for the party, the debate was opened to the audience.

Mr Kelly, Mr Sherlock and Mr McCarthy each said they would never go into Government with Sinn Féin.

“Politically we need to take the fight to Sinn Féin and I know we are up to it. Take them on in the streets, housing estates and on the airwaves. We all know Sinn Féin are telling lies, making it up as they go along with fairytale economics and false promises,” Mr Kelly said.

Mr McCarthy said Labour needed to ask itself how the party had arrived at its current position.

“And we need to answer that question honestly. We need to look again at our role in government. And we will not set the bar too low,” Mr McCarthy said.

“We must correct the perception that Labour are simply there to make up the numbers.”

Mr Sherlock said it was important to meet the 3 per cent deficit objective as difficult progress made thus far would be sacrificed otherwise.

Answering a question from the floor, Ms Conway spoke of the difficulty in campaigning last month when walking past workers installing water meters to meet constituents complaining about medical card withdrawals and emigration.

However, activist Tony McDermott of Fingal drew applause when he charged that Labour had over-promised before the last general election and under-delivered since.

This, he said, was of even greater significance than recent issues such as medical card debacle and the water charges controversy.

Such remarks were echoed by other speakers. Peter Hall of the north-inner city branch in Dublin called on the party to take account of the concerns of its supporters. "It's time to wake up and listen to the inner city people," he said.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times