The recent enlistment of Johnny Walsh, who served as an Independent councillor on Ballinasloe Town Council for the past 13 years, into The Labour Party, might seem like a ‘small fry’ incident in local parish politics, but it is in fact, far from that.
Cllr Walsh’s move to Labour indicates that while the local elections are more than two years away for voters, as far as the political parties are concerned they are just around the corner.
You know the old Harold Wilson observation that “a week is a long time in politics”. That refers to what his predecessor in 10 Downing Street, Harold Macmillan, described as “events, dear boy”. However, there is one “event” this does not really apply to - elections.
As soon as the dust has settled on an election and the winners have rejoiced in their victory and the losers ponder over what went wrong, the planning for the next one gets under way. Yes very slowly and quietly at first, but then the momentum begins to build, until a year out from the likely date when things really get going.
We are a long way from that six to 12 month run-in to the 2014 Local Elections, but rest assured the parties are already plotting likely courses of action. The most overtly so is Labour and it has been quite up front about this. An official press release from party HQ described Cllr Walsh’s joining as being “part of an on-going gearing up for the 2014 Local Elections”.
Why? The reason is that Labour faces the toughest fight of all the political parties - with trouble coming from both the electorate and the parties to its left.
A look at the recent Sunday Times poll shows that despite the recession, austerity, and doing the bidding of the Troika unquestioningly, Fine Gael’s support is holding up well at 32 per cent, an increase of two points from the last poll and only a four point drop from the election last year.
That FG support has not declined to any significant degree is interesting, especially when we consider that Government satisfaction is at 26 per cent with dissatisfaction at 70 per cent.
Insider believes there are two reasons for this. One - the public understand the economic crisis is not FG’s making. The recession, our bust economy, and the billions we are having to pay out to dead banks and bondholders is the legacy of Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan. This is Fianna Fáil’s mess FG is having to clean up.
(Indeed Fianna Fáil are at 16 per cent in the Sunday Times poll, dropping under the record low of 17 per cent achieved in Election 2011 and well, Insider must say, 16 per cent is too good for them. )
It would be interesting to see the breakdown of people who voted for the Government parties but who would not count themselves dissatisfied. Insider suspected that many of there are ‘floating voters’ and people who voted Labour.
The poll found that Labour support had dropped by one per cent in this poll to 10 per cent. This means the party’s vote has almost halved in the year since the election, where it got 19.5 per cent. A bit like Fianna Fáil, Labour is back to its traditional support level; - ie, its core vote.
Why is this? In the last election, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was declaring that it was to be “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way” when it came to dealing with the EU, recession, and paying back loans.
While no one expected him to go all Baader-Meinhof on the Troika, the electorate placed trust in Labour to be the conscience of the new Government and to ensure the most vulnerable and those struggling in society had a voice at the cabinet table.
Instead we see Labour ministers swinging the axe to front line services, welfare, and education with the kind of relish previously thought possible only from Thatcherites. Given this, voter anger is mostly directed at the smaller party - as the poll illustrates.
Labour has to start planning now to ensure it can face and fight the challenges ahead. So how could this play out in Galway?
Labour in the county
The party is targeting Galway East for seats and Cllr Walsh is a key factor in this. To have him elected in 2014 would ensure, provided Cllr Shaun Cuniffe retains his seat, that Labour has two councillors in County Buildings, both located in two of the largest population centres in the constituency - Ballinasloe and Tuam.
If Labour can pull this off, it would mean a presence of four representatives (including Sen Lorraine Keane in Athenry and Dep Colm Keaveney in Tuam ) all strategically located and all from an area that was, until only a few years ago, a wasteland for Labour.
It will also be interesting to see who Labour may start promoting for the Oranmore and Loughrea electoral areas over the coming two years.
The 2014 locals will coincide with the EU parliament elections and it is understood Labour is interested in encouraging Sen Higgins to run for the North-West seat. Party HQ does not believe she can win the seat, but it has a longer-term strategy in operation.
Sen Higgins performed well in Election 2011 and HQ is keen she build on that good start and so the EU elections will be a dry run for the 2016 General Election. There is also a more, ahem, covert, reason for wishing her to run - Labour is likely to struggle to win two seats in Galway East in 2016 but if Sen Higgins displaces Dep Keaveney, who is not (and never has been ) a favourite of the Labour hierarchy, that is not the worst of outcomes as far as HQ is concerned.
The problem with the above scenario is that Labour needs to maintain the Tuam base that Colm Keaveney has built for it - but can the party do that by undermining him and his supporters? Just as well the locals come before the next general election.
The other, and indeed greater, problem is whether the above plans will actually work come 2014. Predicating what the state of the State will be like in two years is rather awkward. However people in rural areas by that time may still be seething over the septic tank charges, the household tax, and water meters (and whatever other money grabbing wheeze the Government has come up with to ensure bond holders do not suffer the ravages of capitalism ) and the obvious targets for voter anger will be Labour for the reasons outlined above.
For Labour in the county, these could prove to be significant headaches and could well halt the momentum the party had started to build in the region.
Labour in the city
In the last local elections Labour won five seats to become the largest party in City Hall. It will be determined to retain that status and while Labour will never admit it it is likely to be keen on emulating the Crowe brothers’ achievement for Fianna Fáil in the 2009 locals - while FF candidates and councillors were being shot down in their droves in that election, the Crowes retained the three seats for the party and increased its vote in the city - the only instance in that election where FF actually achieved such a feat.
The environment was hostile for FF on that occasion and Labour knows it faces similar terrain in 2014. Yet Insider, even at this stage, believes the party can be confident.
Billy Cameron would enjoy wide support and have a personal vote that should overcome any antipathy towards Labour. He is also an able campaigner, able to withstand any onslaught from those who would try to take him down.
His city centre ward colleague, Colette Connolly has a certain ‘cult following’, but while remaining loyal to the party, she would also be able to articulate the sense of anger and unease many feel at the policies of this Government, without really appearing to break ranks. That ability will stand to her.
Niall McNelis loves being a councillor - goodness knows he toiled long enough for the chance to become one, but his appeal has nothing to do with Labour. It is because of his community spirit and his profile as a city businessman that he will attract votes from people who otherwise will not vote Labour.
The interesting contest will be in the North and East Ward. The wily Tom Costello has held a seat there for 21 years and will not relinquish it lightly. His colleague is Nuala Nolan, whose performance in the 2009 locals was unimpressive. As a result there was much surprise when she was co-opted to the council after Derek Nolan’s ascension to Dáil Éireann. Not many would expect her to poll well and she is easily the most vulnerable of the five.
Still if Labour can hold four out of five in what may well be a hostile climate in 2014, it can count that as a good day at the office.
They haven’t gone
away you know
However, in 2014 Labour in the city could face its biggest challenge in the form of Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance.
Insider is doubtful that the party will be able to achieve in the elections the 25 per cent it gained in the Sunday Times poll, but it does show that for left leaning and Republican votes, tired of Labour and FF, SF is now a plausible option.
SF were once a basket case of disorganisation in Galway, but that is changing. A new breed of young, intelligent, and articulate party members is emerging. Less into the sloganeering and ‘Brits Out!’ rants of old, this generation is able to articulate the anger and disgust at the inequality that austerity and bail outs are engendering.
In such a climate that SF could make a breakthrough. In Ballinasloe, with Cllr Dermot Connolly, and in An Cheathrú Rua with Sen Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, SF has a foothold in the county and it will be interesting to see how it will build on this and target winning a seat(s ) in the city.
The ULA are also ones to watch. With high profile involvement in the anti-household tax campaign, etc, they are becoming a more visible force on the fringes of Galway politics.
Think about it, if you wish to give your support to the Left, or simply register a vote against the Government, then the obvious choice is with SF or the ULA, not with the left party in the same Government whose agenda you cannot support - and this has to be of concern to Labour.
A coherent and organised left is important as a counterbalance to Government policy and right wing hegemony. The challenge for SF and the ULA is to convince and prove to Galway voters that they can offer a better alternative and have the ability to be that counterbalance