Why Joan Burton is the best choice for Labour leader

‘After nearly seven years of austerity, voters are very unforgiving of Government cock-ups.’

Labour leadership candidate Joan Burton with Galway Labour members Sen Lorraine Higgins, Cllr Billy Cameron, and Cllr Neil McNelis at the recent Labour leadership hustings in the Clayton Hotel. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy.

Labour leadership candidate Joan Burton with Galway Labour members Sen Lorraine Higgins, Cllr Billy Cameron, and Cllr Neil McNelis at the recent Labour leadership hustings in the Clayton Hotel. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy.

Insider is, this week, looking at the contest for the Labour leadership, from a Labour perspective, in the aftermath of what was a disastrous election for the party in which it lost three seats on the Galway City Council.

Locally the party is divided in its selection over who should become the next leader and deputy leader.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton for leader and Alan Kelly, the junior minister for public and commuter transport, are being supported by Senator Lorraine Higgins and city councillors Billy Cameron and Niall McNelis. However Labour’s Galway West TD Derek Nolan is backing the Minister of State for primary care Alex White for leader and Waterford’s Ciara Conway for deputy leader.

A defining moment

Insider considers the election is a defining moment for Labour as it affords the party an opportunity to review its performance in Government; analyse what went wrong; and face up to the fact that most of its voters do not think Labour is doing a good enough job in Government.

Well does Insider recall the comment made to him by a prominent Labour member in the immediate aftermath of May’s Local Elections.

“Canvassing at this election was not easy,” he said. “After nearly seven years of austerity, voters are very unforgiving of Government cock-ups. We need to renew our sense of purpose and the leadership contest is the perfect opportunity for doing that.”

The leadership contest sees Joan Burton in contention with Alex White. Both are strong performers in their own right and both have strong Labour credentials.

Minister White will have a strong legacy in health with both the alcohol strategy and as the person who kicked off the free GP care scheme for under sixes. While negotiations are still ongoing with doctors, this still represents a progressive step in Irish healthcare.

Minister Burton, however, has been the one at the coalface of preventing further austerity being inflicted on the most vulnerable. She has fought tooth and nail for more than three years that the burden of cuts should not have to be borne by the most vulnerable and she has protected core social welfare rates - that is the type of experience the Labour party needs right now.

As much as Insider admires Alex White, Minister Burton has both the experience and the know-how to revive the party between now and the next general election, officially scheduled for 2016, but which could easily be held around this time next year.

While it is essential that Labour asserts itself more strongly in Government, coalitions are about compromise and the way to achieve a policy-win is not always to pick a fight and bang the table. More to the point, Labour’s problems run much deeper.

Essentially, Insider believes Labour has not suffered because of any single decision the party took, but more because of its failure to manage expectations after the 2011 General Election. The problems have arisen because of the overpromising made in advance of starting Government. “Labour’s Way, or Frankfurt’s way!” anyone?

These are the types of mistakes the party needs to learn from. Minister Burton is best placed to do this and to assert Labour values around the Cabinet table and within Government.

The deputy leader?

Contesting the position of deputy leader, Labour can consider itself fortunate as a party to have four very strong candidates seeking this role - ministers of state Alan Kelly and Seán Sherlock as well as Cork’s Michael McCarthy and Waterford’s Ciara Conway.

Insider understands that most Galway members will be supporting Alan Kelly. They regard Minister Kelly as both a worker and a realist and “the real deal”.

As one party member put it to Insider: “Kelly tends to call things as he sees them and his can-do attitude is exactly what the party needs right now.”

Insider is about to get a little parochial here, but in fairness, Minister Kelly has been good for Galway, having advanced a huge number of local projects such as Ceannt Station and he personally drove the city bikes project so that Galway will have its own equivalent of the Dublin bikes scheme.

His reforms in both the taxi sector and for rural transport have been hugely progressive solving many problems that have been built up for many years. He is a young man, 38 and represents the generation that are struggling to pay their mortgage and rely on grandparents to supplement their childcare. He has a lot going for him.

A new Labour leader will be put in place on July 4 following a postal ballot of all party members. Either way, the election of the next leader will be a defining moment and set the course for the party’s fate as it enters the next General Election.

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