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Why Fine Gael and Labour should come together (and why they shouldn’t)

Analysis: There are strong arguments for and against a Fine Gael/Labour pact at the next election.

21/7/2015 Low Pay Commission Joan Burton and Enda Kenny Source: Mark Stedman

WITH SILLY SEASON over and the Dáil resuming the week after next politicians are beginning to focus on the upcoming general election.

For Fine Gael and Labour the prospect of a voting pact is now the subject of much discussion. The idea is simple: When Fine Gael canvassers hit the doorsteps at election time they would tell voters to give their first preferences to their candidates but to give their following preferences to the Labour candidate, and vice versa.

Each party would have their own distinct manifestos to put to the people, but would be making clear to voters that they’d like to be re-elected to government together. This, argue some, would be the best way of ensuring that happens.

Both parties have, publicly at least, made the argument that there is no alternative to the current coalition and that re-electing Fine Gael/Labour is the best way of ensuring economic stability in the years ahead. Obviously the likes of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin see it differently.

Here’s a quick run down of the reasons why a vote transfer pact between Fine Gael and Labour is a good idea, and why it isn’t…

Good idea…

A good story to tell

As they are not shy of reminding us, the coalition has turned the economy around in the last four years. Unemployment was hitting 15 per cent in its first few months in office, but is now under 10 per cent. The Troika are gone, tens of thousands of jobs have been created and Ireland’s economy is among the fastest growing in Europe.

19/2/2015 Strategic Banking Corporation Meetings Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan enjoy a strong working relationship

Some argue that the coalition has simply implemented the four-year plan drawn up by Fianna Fáil at the height of the crisis. That may be true but the point is that this government has implemented it and along the way has progressed important social issues like legislating for X and successfully passing a referendum on same-sex marriage.

Fine Gael would not have done anything on either of those two issues were it not for Labour in government. In short, there’s a good story to tell voters when it comes to election time. As Brendan Howlin writes in the Irish Times today, Fine Gael and Labour have “a proven track record of working together”.

It could save Labour seats

The simply reality of the polls right now is that Labour is facing an electoral calamity unless things improve. Even if they do there is no chance of the party returning with as many seats – 37 – as it did in 2011. But a pact with Fine Gael could conceivably help save seats in key constituencies.

For example, it’s no surprise that Labour minister Alex White favours a pact when he faces an uphill battle to retain his seat in the Fine Gael stronghold of Dublin Rathdown. Getting re-elected on the coattails of Fine Gael might not be ideal for many Labour TDs but they wouldn’t turn it down if offered it now.

1/4/2015. Prometric Jobs Announcements Fine Gael's Richard Bruton and Labour's Ged Nash

The common platform is already written

The coalition has done a lot of work in recent months to lay out the economic landscape in the years ahead. The Spring Statement was much criticised but it set out the sort of growth we can expect over the next five years on the basis that the current economic strategy is stuck with.

The government has already committed to tax cuts in the Budget next month and more tax cuts in the one after that if re-elected. To some extent while Fine Gael and Labour have different priorities they are already agreed on some of the things they would do if returned at the election.

… Bad idea…

It didn’t work last time 

In 1997, the Rainbow Coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left was pipped by Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil despite having achieved a budget surplus and laid the groundwork for the economic boom that was to follow. John Bruton, Dick Spring and Pronsias De Rossa had as good a story to tell, but it didn’t convince voters.

Dick Spring Dick Spring and John Bruton in 1997

More recently when Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte struck the Mullingar Accord prior to the 2007 general election it was thought to be the best way of getting Fianna Fáil out of office. But it also didn’t work. Two very distinct electoral platforms in 2011 led to the both parties winning more seats than they had ever done before.

Labour unease… and Fine Gael’s too 

As Joan Burton prepares to put her pact proposals to a meeting of the Labour parliamentary party meeting next week plenty of backbenchers have been making their unease known, believing past experience is a cautionary tale.

Others think that Labour has been too beholden to Fine Gael over the last four years and that going to voters on a common platform would do little to enhance the party’s electoral prospects. Meanwhile, some in Fine Gael argue that the party should go it alone simply because it could, like the Conservatives in Britain last May, win an overall majority.

Could they last another five years together? 

22/5/2014. Action Plan for Jobs Reports Enda Kenny got on well with Eamon Gilmore. His relationship with Joan Burton is not as good. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Relations between the coalition parties aren’t great at the moment. Enda Kenny does not enjoy the solid working relationship with Joan Burton that he had with Eamon Gilmore. Issues like water charges, which has dragged on for nearly two years now, have hardly helped matters. Meanwhile, the fallout from the Fennelly report has demonstrated an unease in both parties over the actions of Kenny and the Attorney General Máire Whelan, who was a Labour appointee.

This is to be expected after nearly five years together and with an election in the offing, but could the two parties do it all again for another five years? Labour expects progress on issues like the 8th Amendment in the next government, but abortion makes Fine Gael very uncomfortable. It’s just one of potentially many sticking points facing the two parties in negotiating another programme for government.

Updated at 6.15pm

Poll: Who will you give your second preference vote to in the next general election?

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