Government - not quite the bed of roses that Labour might have expected

Insider rarely tires of the vicissitudes of Galway politics. The city and county’s petty intrigues, feverish whisperings, internecine squabbles, and comical characters are usually enough to keep even the most amateur political observer entertained.

A new circus is coming to town, however, and Insider may just be caught peeping under the big-top canvas. The great and the good of the Labour Party will gather in Galway this weekend, as its National Conference sets up camp in NUI Galway.

As the Labour Party faithful reflect on the past year, they could be forgiven for indulging in a bit of backslapping. The ministerial Mercs still have that new car smell about them. On the surface at least these past 12 months have been kind: an unprecedented number of Dáil seats, a by-election victory, and their very own man in the Áras.

However, this is all surface. No sane person could confuse a vote for Michael D with a vote for Labour; Patrick Nulty, the by-election victor, split with Eamon Gilmore and now sits on the Opposition benches; and although the Mercs are still gleaming, Labour’s ministers have largely retreated from public view.

Taking their cue from Gilmore et al, local boys Derek Nolan and Colm Keaveney have similarly maintained a low profile. One might be forgiven for thinking that Labour had nothing to say.

It is well known in political circles that Dep Nolan prefers the backbenches of Dublin to the bread-and-butter-parish pump politics of Galway. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for him, his constituents are becoming more and more concerned with the economic and political ‘big picture’, rather than the medical card and housing list issues.

Not only are Labour TDs shying away from cameras and microphones all over the country, but they are also shying away from the very issue that is occupying the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people.

‘Unemployment

remains too high’

“It’s the economy, stupid”, a former American presidential candidate once declared to his campaign workers to focus their minds on what he felt was the most important thing for ordinary people. How apt that phrase is today for most of Ireland suffering under a yoke of austerity and the consequential economic decline it has ushered in.

Despite all the economic hardship being experienced by those still in employment, it is the fate of workers who are unemployed or, under-employed, that most dramatically exposes the Government’s puny efforts to reverse the emigration-induced shrinkage of the labour force.

We have heard a lot of rhetoric, particularly from Labour, before the 2011 General Election, that it would make job creation a priority. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone on the dole that this ‘priority’ has been pushed down the line of other ‘priority’ areas by the Government since then.

Who said recently, “Unemployment remains too high. Too many families are struggling to make ends meet. Too many worry about losing their homes. Too many of our children are still moving away.” Richard-Boyd Barrett of the United Left Alliance? Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty? Willie O’Dea from Fianna Fáil? No, it was Enda Kenny himself from his Árd Fheis speech on March 31.

Notwithstanding the bluster from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, and indeed from Labour Galway West TD Derek Nolan, about unemployment figures improving slightly, the statistics prove otherwise.

According to the Quarterly National Household Survey for the last quarter of 2011, published in March, the Government scores nil points on the four headline labour-market indicators. The number in employment is down by 15,400 to 1,807,800 versus the last quarter of 2010. The number unemployed is up by 3,000 to 302,000. The labour force has shrunk by 12,400 to 2,109,800 and finally, the number not in the labour force has increased by 5,600 to 1,395,500.

Furthermore, the QNHS also reports that the unemployment rate increased from 14.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2011 to 14.6 per cent in the last quarter and the Standardised Unemployment Rates published by the CSO for the first quarter of 2012 show unemployment at an average of 14.4 per cent so far.

JobBridge - is it worth it?

The Government plan is to create 100,000 jobs over the next four years - that is 25,000 jobs a year! Creating jobs is one thing, reversing the economic slide we are in, where jobs are being lost by their thousands every month, is completely different - and this where the Government is losing the battle.

The private sector is on an investment strike and is unable to provide enough jobs to reverse the drain on the number of people in employment. Instead of engaging in a massive commitment to provide jobs by reversing the cuts to capital spending, investing in infrastructure with an emergency programme of public works, and investing in modern industries through State companies, the Government’s best effort to date has been the “flagship commitment” of Joan Burton’s ‘JobBridge’ scheme.

The scheme creates temporary internships for people currently unemployed, for which they receive €50 per week from the Department of Social Protection on top of their existing welfare entitlement. The abuses this sort of scheme is subject to are manifold. Primarily, it is a scheme whereby private employers enjoy State subsidised employees that they are not obliged to hire at the end of their six or nine month ‘internship’.

Why the State would subsidise trainees for jobs that often amount to no more than stacking shelves in supermarkets or cleaning offices is beyond most right-thinking people - unless it is simply a rapid means of getting people off the Live Register, albeit temporarily. Even in this respect, with the numbers of unemployed actually increasing, one wonders how long this scheme will be tolerated.

Tensions within Labour

Whether politicians wish to acknowledge it or not, Insider cannot help but note that one-half of all homeowners that were required to pay the household charge did not do so.

This is despite a high profile, publicly funded advertising campaign, and a much touted deadline. This is not so much evidence of a quite ordinary desire not to fork out €100 for nothing, but is rather a sign of a principled stand by ordinary people all over the country.

No-one can fail to notice the absolute inequity of a flat-rate tax on, for most people, primary, sole residences. Eamon Gilmore’s defiant boast that it would be “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way!” has been conveniently forgotten as he gets on with the invisible task of country-hopping diplomacy.

Gilmore has been silent on all matters relating to the economy, and his bluster over the Vatican embassy is rightly seen for the cynical red-herring it is. Joan Burton’s shrieking attacks on the unemployed has alienated this large and increasingly politicised population. Insult is added to injury as the State goes after the unemployed rather than the bankers, developers, and corrupt politicians who caused the crisis.

The only time Ruairí Quinn comes to public attention is when he is cutting education funding for the most vulnerable of children. He has done a complete about-turn on his pre-election promises with regard to third-level education. Insider wonders if Quinn believes that if he lies low for long enough, the students affected will have dropped out and gone to Australia?

Added to the external pressures of an increasingly disaffected and militant electorate and an inept front bench, is the unhappy tensions within the party.

A well-attended meeting of disgruntled Labour activists took place in Dublin a little more than a month ago. A small, but vocal left-wing is raising its head in Labour and questioning the leadership’s dogged refusal to countenance an economic solution to the crisis that does not come ready-written by the ECB or IMF.

Already the trickle of Labour members leaving the party to seek a political alternative is causing alarm bells to ring in HQ. The ULA Counter-Conference, in the Harbour Hotel tomorrow and Saturday, organised to coincide with the Labour National Conference illustrates the growing threat on the Labour’s left flank.

The ULA TDs have been more successful in gaining recognition than the majority of Labour’s front bench, and the continued rise of Sinn Féin, the ULA, and independents is robbing Labour of all but its most loyal voters.

A growing section of Labour grassroots is following the lead of the ULA and left-wing independents, in calling for an end to austerity. Deputies Nolan and Keaveney are not among them.

Austerity has already affected hundreds of thousands of people, and will doubtless cause more people to suffer. Continued spending cuts will prevent a return to growth and damage the economy in the long term. Austerity will be the rock on which Labour runs aground. Fine Gael may survive the storm as its voters are those best placed to cope with its effects.

However, Labour’s traditional support base, the unemployed, working people, women, students, and pensioners will bear the brunt of austerity and will punish its architects harshly.

Manifestations of the anger already building among working people, both urban and rural, was plain to be seen a fortnight ago at the Fine Gael Árd Fheis. The time of good-humoured, albeit sincere, protest is over. The sense of injustice and the depth of anger are becoming more obvious by the day.

This Saturday will witness another outpouring of anger as people from Galway and nationwide take to the streets to march on the Labour National Conference. Insider would wager that the ghosts of Connolly and Larkin, long ago spun out of their graves, will be outside with the protesters rather than on the conference floor with their supposed political descendants.

One hundred years after its foundation, Labour is not the party James Connolly founded and who once said of it: “It’s not a Labour party the workers need. It’s a revolutionary party pledged to overthrow the capitalist class in the only way it can be done; by putting up barricades and taking over the factories by force. There is no other way.”

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