Una Mullally: Fine Gael rules unchallenged as cowed Labour stays mute
Directionless Labour is failing to cut through former coalition partner’s simplistic slogans
Candidates for the Fine Gael leadership Minister for Housing Simon Coveney and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) changed the header on its website homepage to a photograph of Trump and the text “See you in court”, along with a “donate” button. The organisation was making it clear it would fight Trump if he tried to follow through on the unconstitutionalpromises he had made during his election campaign.
Between January 20th and April 20th this year, donations to the ACLU were up 8,000 per cent compared with the same period last year. Lawyers aren’t viewed as traditional feel-good heroes in most countries, yet the ACLU has done an excellent job at communicating its reason for existing in Trumpland.
By communicating how it fights, in the courts, on behalf of people living in the US, infringements upon civil rights, it has emerged as a superhero and an obvious option for those wondering where their “resistance” cash should go. The ACLU’s simple but effective messaging has succeeded in that cliche of “owning the conversation”.
Right now in Ireland, the political conversation is disheartening for anyone who does not vote Fine Gael. As the country deals with two acute crises – in housing and in healthcare (between them, the two would-be taoisigh have worked these beats, Leo Varadkar as minister for health and Simon Coveney, currently, as Minister for Housing) – the lack of alternative political voices challenging the prevailing narrative is deflating.
I’m not sure what Labour’s communications people or strategists are doing, but the conversation has continued to drift away from the party
The same question has to be asked repeatedly: where is Labour? During Enda Kenny’s protracted long goodbye, there has been no challenge from Labour on ideology, policies, ideas or ideals. Instead we have Ireland’s favourite political sport, a horse race, with nothing else cutting through.
I’m not sure what Labour’s communications people or strategists are doing, but the conversation has continued to drift away from the party since it collapsed during the last election. The 2011-2016 coalition government seems to be something the party still can’t let go, despite the fact that voters want to see Labour as an alternative, not a collaborating force. Now would be the perfect time to communicate to people in Ireland that it doesn’t just have to be Varadkar versus Coveney, that there is a bolder alternative. Once again, Labour is mute, despite the fact that so much of the Irish electorate is compatible with its ideals, and not with Fine Gael’s.
Most of my peers are natural Labour voters, yet no one is talking to them. Besides vocal Senators – primarily Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin – Labour’s voice has been lost. This is not the media’s fault, even though most of it has fallen into its horse-race comfort zone of following the Fine Gael leadership contest.
You don’t need to get invited on to RTÉ or interviewed in newspapers to get your point across. Where’s the smart viral video campaign from Labour to cut through the vanilla messaging of the Fine Gael leadership contest? Why isn’t Labour communicating to those jaded by the fallacy that political “change” in Ireland is apparently confined to old conservative Fine Gael morphing into younger conservative Fine Gael?
Bizarrely, the greatest critic to emerge has actually been another Fine Gaeler, Kate O’Connell, which, unfortunately for her, can’t spell good career news with Varadkar being on course to win, and given that his campaign manager, Eoghan Murphy, another Fine Gael youngster who seems to go out of his way to say nothing of substance, shares her constituency.
Varadkar talks about wanting to lead a party for 'people who get up early in the morning' (that’s me out, then)
Within the uninspiring messaging of Varadkar and Coveney are clues to their intentions. Varadkar talks about “the squeezed middle”, a meaningless term designed to appeal to as many people as possible, because most people see themselves in “the middle”, and one which tells a lie that middle-class people are the ones suffering the most in society, which is not an unsurprising message given Varadkar’s clumsy and patronising disdain for poor people.
Varadkar talks about wanting to lead a party for “people who get up early in the morning” (that’s me out, then), a warped echo of Mark Killilea’s Fianna Fáil demographic defined as “the people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day”. Varadkar is dog-whistling to stressed parents and commuters. He says he likes the leadership of Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, which makes sense as they are politicians routinely criticised for style over substance, for being perceived as slick communicators without actually saying much, for dressing up neoliberal ideology in smiles and suits.
Labour needs to ask itself why it is failing to communicate to an electorate presumably ripe for the picking. The grassroots energy in Ireland is no longer naturally Labour’s. Campaigners and organisations that have emerged, particularly among young people who were politicised following the marriage-equality referendum, don’t have a natural party, because Labour has failed to communicate that it is compatible with their ideals and vision.
Individuals are taking it upon themselves to form groups and campaigns across the movement to repeal the eighth amendment; homelessness; the rent crisis; secular education; gender equality; and so on. And while all of these things are Labour issues, issues that Labour has done a lot of work on, the party seems at a loss to communicate, to people who are clearly naturally political: “We’re here, we’re with you, we understand you, we want the same thing.”
As the bumper-sticker one-liners are trotted out by Fine Gael, Labour remains in the depths of an identity crisis, a marketing crisis, a confused brand that doesn’t know who its audience is. And if you don’t know who you are, and if you don’t tell us who you are, how can you expect others to identify you?