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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 13 November, 2019
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Why Labour isn't finished just yet

Analysis: The party’s obituary has already been written but don’t rule out a reversal in its fortunes.

Image: Sam Boal

LABOUR’S OBITUARY HAS has been written for quite a while now.

The widely-held belief is that the party is facing near annihilation at the next general election and will be lucky to return with more than 10 seats.

While the latest opinion poll has the party on 10% its true level of support right now, based on all the other polls, is somewhere between 7% and 8%.

It has taken the brunt of voter anger over the government’s austerity measures since it came to office and has suffered at successive by-elections and in last year’s local and European elections.

There has been no party literature more damaging than the now infamous ‘Every Little Hurts’ leaflet containing a list of Labour pledges that have almost all been broken since it came to office.

But all is not lost for Joan Burton and her party. Parliamentarians will emerge from Labour’s two-day think-in reinvigorated ahead of the new Dáil term and the looming election. Not least, after Ruairí Quinn’s tub-thumping speech last night.

Labour is now starting to reverse some of the most damaging cuts it inflicted in its first few years in office. Child benefit will be restored to same level it was in 2011 in the next Budget.

This may be tantamount to admitting it was a mistake in the first place, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea, or the right thing to do. As one government spinner often likes to remark: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Similar noises are being made about the truly awful cut in the respite care grant in Budget 2013 with indications that the €325 reduction in the grant for carers could be reversed entirely next month.

17/8/2015 Anti Water Charges Campaigns Joan Burton has faced huge anger over water charges Source: Mark Stedman

One of the main reasons for Labour’s decline is, of course, water charges. It’s badly damaged both government parties, but the junior partner has faced huge anger after telling voters in 2011 that it was opposed to charges.

But it’s easily forgotten that households faced bills of as much as €500 and €600 annually until Labour intervened. On 4 November last year, as the two coalition parties argued over the detail of a new charges regime, Burton stole a march on Fine Gael by claiming in the Dáil that a family-of-four would face an Irish Water bill of less than €200.

This effectively forced Fine Gael’s hand and ensured that water charges could be no higher than Burton had said they would be on the Dáil record. People hate water charges, but the fact remains that they’d be paying a lot more if it weren’t for Labour in government.

The party also forced Fine Gael’s hand on abortion with the legislation for the X Case two years ago. The Protection of Life during Pregnacy Bill may be overdue and not enough in the eyes of many pro-choice activists, but it was a positive step and one Fine Gael would not have taken without Labour in government.

The same could also be said of same-sex marriage. While Fine Gael campaigned strongly during the referendum it was Labour that led the initial charge for marriage equality. Former leader Eamon Gilmore described it as this generation’s civil rights issue in 2012.

Elsewhere, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin has overseen the implementation of a huge amount of largely unreported and unheralded reforms in the public service aimed at making it more efficient and productive. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than it was.

There has been minimal industrial unrest and the partial restoration of public sector pay cuts has come at a good time with an election in the offing. But it’s not merely about winning votes.

14/9/2015. Labour Party Think-in 2015. Brendan How Brendan Howlin Source: Eamonn Farrell

From Howlin’s point of view it’s about reversing measures which were implemented at the height of the crisis. He might call it doing the right thing, Fine Gael would disagree entirely with many backbenchers opposing what they termed ‘pay rises’. But Labour has delivered it in government.

For a variety of reasons the voters aren’t seeing this. Many feel betrayed by Labour’s promise to protect the most vulnerable in society four years ago. They have since fled the party, flocking to Sinn Féin and the Anti Austerity Alliance.

They probably won’t come back at the next election. Where Labour can win support is among the middle classes, the type of people that featured in its recent Facebook ad campaign.

Growing that middle class is the government’s ultimate aim. The more people feeling the benefit of the recovery, the more likely they are to vote the coalition back in.

The coming Budget will deliver more for people in the middle. Labour hopes it will be enough to make voters realise it’s actually done a good job in government and save it from the wipeout everyone is expecting.

Read: Why was Joan Burton in people’s back gardens at the weekend?

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

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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