Labour ready for combat regardless of election timing

Analysis: Senior party sources don’t believe Kenny will go to the polls before Christmas

Tánaiste Joan Burton with Minister of State for Business and Employment Ged Nash speaking following the forum on the living wage at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Tánaiste Joan Burton with Minister of State for Business and Employment Ged Nash speaking following the forum on the living wage at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

The judgment of previous coalition governments in timing general elections has been poor. Twice in recent political history, coalitions involving Fine Gael and Labour have called elections early and in both cases, in 1977 and in 1997, they suffered the consequences.

There has been a bushfire quality to rumours circulating around Leinster House this week about a November election. Former party heavyweight Ivan Yates and MEP Phil Hogan weighed in, both predicting a November 20th date. Hogan was even reportedly playing election “war games” with Fine Gael strategists on a trip to Brussels this week.

The November date has been categorically denied by Taoiseach Enda Kenny several times. This week, he told his TDs to ignore speculation about the time of the election, telling a meeting of the parliamentary party there was still work to be done, such as selling the capital plan and the budget to voters.

Speculation

One deputy present at the meeting said Mr Kenny said the election would “happen when it happens”.

“He didn’t say when that would be,” the TD said.

Like the plot of a John le Carré novel, the more strenuous his denials, the more people believed the truth of it.

“If he wants to spring a surprise election in November, he’s hardly going to announce it, is he?” a Fine Gael Minister said on Wednesday, in a neat example of that doublethink.

It is clear that a number of senior Fine Gael Ministers – Michael Noonan is often cited – favour an early election on the the back of a strong budget.

Labour does not want a November election, nor do its most senior people believe the Taoiseach wants that.

“We have got absolutely no sense from him that he wants an election this side of Christmas,” said a senior Labour source with knowledge of Fine Gael thinking at that level.

The Irish Times spoke to a number of key decision-makers in the party. While it is not on full alert like Fine Gael, the strategists say it is prepared.

“It has somehow entered the narrative that some parties are ready and some, including us, are not,” said one source. “We are in a permanent state of readiness for an election. We would not be worth our salt if that wasn’t the case.”

The party has been preparing since January. It moved to spacious new offices on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay which will be its base for the elections. Since January, an election strategy group chaired by Brendan Howlin and an election preparation committee chaired by Alan Kelly have been at work.

The party’s final convention will be in Kelly’s Tipperary constituency. Those retiring or standing down, such as Jack Wall and Robert Dowds, were encouraged to make early announcements.

“Our manifesto is 80 per cent there. We have an advertisement campaign and messages ready to go. We have already been putting out our stall [the key economic slogan is ‘recovery versus chaos’] since summer with short You Tube video ads,” said one source.

Another said: “Our ground operation is ready and organisers are in place . . . We are more ready than we were in 2011.”

Manifesto

Siptu economist Marie Sherlock has been brought in to help write the manifesto, collaborating with Tánaiste specialist advisor Claire Power.

In addition to Howlin, Kelly and and their committees, the Tánaiste’s special adviser Ed Brophy, Howlin’s special adviser Ronan O’Brien and other ministerial advisers have been giving advice, as has party general secretary Brian McDowell and his brother Derek McDowell, a former Dáil deputy.

Party communications director Ronan Farren has taken the lead role in preparing a media strategy, along with the head of its press office. The party has taken on others to help formulate policy, including former USI president Laura Harmon.

While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have each been able to raise about €1 million each year from fund-raising, Labour’s funds are minuscule by comparison. However, it has managed to carry forward an unspent €3 million from its two State allowances into 2015. Strict rules govern how it is spent, and it cannot be directly applied to election campaigns.

So what about timing? There’s no doubt February or March remains the thinking within Labour: “We were elected for five years, not 4½. If you say this is a government of national unity to pull the country back from the brink, you stay the course,” said one.

The party believes the economy is on a slow upward trajectory and is banking on it peaking in spring. “It’s still showing as very fragile. The sentiment is positive but people are not there yet in terms of confidence,” said the same source.

Another strategist said: “The tectonic plates are shifting. This whole issue of risking the recovery is becoming a meme and a theme. We are confident we are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly . . . A large part for us will be holding our nerve.”