Last weekend’s national Labour Party conference in Mullingar set out its platform for the forthcoming elections.
Not since the 1992 general election, when the party obtained 19 per cent of the vote and 33 seats, has there been such optimism within the organisation. Labour’s opinion poll ratings have fluctuated between 17 per cent and 24 per cent over recent months.
Eamon Gilmore is the most popular party leader, judged on the highest satisfaction rating. He has best communicated public anger, fear, and hope. His sound bites have been catchy and punchy.
Fianna Fáil has hit back by accusing him of hollow opportunism. The party claims he has failed to articulate alternative solutions and too few specific measures to stabilise the public finances. Unquestionably he has been nakedly opportunistic - that’s the job of opposition politicians.
Labour faces into the European elections with decent prospects. I rate its chances as follows: Proinsias de Rossa (Dublin ) should get elected despite the constituency being reduced to a three seater; Alan Kelly (South ) is a real dark horse and could grab the independent seat of Kathy Sinnott; Nessa Childers (East ) will scrap with FG for the last seat; Susan O’Keeffe (North West ) has an uphill battle.
There have been rumours that Liz McManus may be added to the East constituency ticket, subsequent to Avril Doyle’s retirement. She would probably get elected if she stood.
The key battle ground for Labour will be the next General Election. Previously Labour failed to hold the seats of long standing retiring deputies such as Seamus Pattison in Carlow-Kilkenny and Michael Bell in Louth. The key to Labour’s success lies in good candidates and effective party organisation. If the leadership can resolve these there are a number of probable and possible gains.
On present poll ratings I envisage 10 extra seats. These are Meath East, Carlow-Kilkenny, Dublin North, Kerry, Tipperary South, Louth, Dublin South, Laois Offaly; a second seat is possible in Dublin South Central and Dun Laoghaire.
It is vital the party use the local elections to get the right candidates in situ. Notions of Labour leading the next Government are fanciful when you study the figures across all constituencies.
Unlike Sinn Féin, Labour punches above its weight in the Dáil and in the media. The front bench is made up of a formidable, experienced, and articulate team. Pat Rabbitte, Brendan Howlin, Ruairi Quinn, Joan Burton, and Liz McManus have all held ministerial office for varying periods. They are credible future office holders.
Current national political issues are: stabilising the public finances, fixing the banks, stimulating the economy, and ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. There is little clarity about the detailed approach of Labour to these questions. During the white heat of a general election campaign they will have to give greater visibility on these policy areas.
Two key unanswered questions for Eamon Gilmore cannot be avoided indefinitely. Firstly, given that Labour will hold the balance of power in the next Dáil, who will it coalesce with, FF or FG?
It’s hard to be a little bit pregnant. Pat Rabbitte found it impossible to have an each way bet. Gilmore will try it, but the public will insist on knowing whether he would repeat Dick Spring’s endorsement of FF in 1992.
The other dilemma is the relationship between Labour and the Trade Union movement. Sources indicated last year that the party’s commission was charting a course of separation from the unions, akin to New Labour in Britain. This didn’t happen. Will Labour be the downtown office of ICTU or based on an independent wider membership and philosophy?
Labour is poised to make a significant breakthrough. It has flattered to deceive before in terms of electoral success. Effective adversarial prosecution of the Government will bring them only so far. Further work on candidates, organisation, strategy, and policy can deliver the required breakthrough of more than 30 seats.