Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Labour – What to do next?

The Labour leadership contest has not been ideal. If ever a party needed quick and decisive action it was Labour at this juncture. However, their own rules and voting procedures have conspired to give a long and drawn out contest that will appear more like indecision and navel gazing to the public.

That said I can’t see Labour looking further than Joan Burton for leader. Alex white is her only competition and to be honest that can’t really work no matter how unpopular people say Burton is among certain TD’s.

Camp Burton only has to mention the Alex White replaced Roisin Shortall and by doing so helped back James Reilly and it will leave many people queasy. Obviously if Labour hoped to attract the likes of Shortall back, then White is not the man. If they want to put distance between themselves and FG then White will not appear like the right choice given his support and ability to work closely with Reilly and many in Labour see their problems often originating in the Health department.

Then there is the medical card fiasco. White has tried to extend blame for this across the cabinet but in the end the buck stops with Reilly and himself. If camp Burton is not afraid to raise these matters quietly then the leadership is already theirs.

That’s only the start. Bigger problems are to come for the new leader after that. If its Burton, she must show a completely different tack to what people have seen thus far in cabinet.

Let’s start with her appointments. Unfortunately Labour don’t have many full cabinet seats. They cannot make the ‘Cowen mistake’ (2009) of safe bets and old experienced heads. That error was made in 2011 too. If Labour is to have any chance they need new faces. Burton has to keep herself there further limiting choice. Gilmore has to be gone, as does Rabbitte. She may decide between Howlin and Quinn but can only keep one maximum. Anything less and it will all just appear more of the same. She will need to have new energetic voices that will be committed to back her and her new approach. There is no room for the older heads.

Then comes managing Labour expectations. The party must realise that it is not going to recover dramatically. This is now about saving seats. The poll figures will at best improve by a few points but more importantly the party may become more transfer friendly with the right strategy and that could save several TDs. That is the target. This must be made clear.

The relationship with FG cannot continue as it has. Burton will need to put distance between herself and Enda Kenny. The same would apply to White if he became Leader. They cannot afford to be seen as too close. The relationship can be professional and pragmatic but never best mates. A healthy tension must be visible to the public. Labour must be a party of stability willing to see out the term of government but not stability at all costs. Major redlines must be introduced and the party must be willing to walk away if needs be. Enda Kenny will always give in rather than face the government collapsing. You can bet the house on that. There are others in FG who will be angered at this but that’s not a Labour problem for now.

Rows need to happen at government and more importantly they need to be seen happening. Even of it is political theatre at times. This is the only way to attract those vital transfers. The new Leader must then set up a strategic emergency group with responsibility for Dublin. Their purpose has to be the organisation on the ground and getting it in shape for the coming battle. They need Dublin. SF is biting at their heels. They need new policies for the city and they need to get involved in communities and find projects they can advance quickly over the next 18 months. This committee has to oversee all of this, the identification, the people, the response and the communications. Labour will stand or fall in Dublin.

Finally, Labour needs to examine government policy. The priority has to be economic. They must find the areas they can win on. This may be simply finding token measures for taxing wealthier individuals and it will upset FG greatly, but they must do it. At the end of the day it probably won’t even affect that many people. The message is important though. Labour must identify what the difference between themselves and FG is on economic matters and push this. Right now people cannot see any difference between Labour and FG on these issues.

Labour has done its job for its voters on some social issues but it needs to pick its battles here. There are several issues that people will broadly support and find modernising. These should be pushed in the interest of fairness and equality. However, radical changes to schools, hospitals, and other areas of society are not seen as urgent and while Labour can make progress they might be well advised to prioritise their battles. If it cannot be finished or done in 18 months there is not much point getting stuck into the war now.

The party must realise that they are set for huge losses. This is a damage limitation exercise. They are now in the trenches and need to fight hard. They need every one of their members to be fully informed, briefed and out and about fighting their cause and looking for projects to influence. The new leader must set aside someone to focus on this task and spend the next 18 months on the road continually energising the organisation and preparing it. It will be too hard to fight for media space but your supporters can do a lot on the ground and must face the challenge of other parties. To do this the must have a direct link and contact with those at the top. Find your internal leader and put them on the road. The party leader has enough to be doing.

After that they can only hold back the flood for so long and will have to eventually let it wash over them. They cannot save all but if they give a few some firmer footing then they have a fighting chance of holding on to enough to recover in time.

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