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7 things we learned at the Labour conference

At its last big gathering before the election, Labour was doing an awful lot of standing up in Mullingar today.

30/1/2016. Labour Party Conference 2016. L to R. M Ministers Kathleen Lynch and Jan O'Sullivan with Sarah Power, Cadhle Gilhooley and Paidi Collins. Source: Eamonn Farrell

WITH JUST DAYS before the general election date is expected to be announced, Labour gathered in Mullingar today to rally the troops.

With polls showing the party facing a difficult and potentially disastrous election, this one-day conference was about rallying members and hammering home Labour’s message that it’s done a good job in government and can deliver more if re-elected with Fine Gael.

There was no substantive policy debate, but series of workshops outlining what the party has done and what it hopes to do. The manifesto is nearly ready and Labour delegates heard ministers talking at length about the party’s priorities on tax, welfare and childcare.

But what did we learn in Westmeath?

1. There was a lot of standing up

Labour’s conference theme was ‘Standing Up for Ireland’s Future’ with sessions on standing up for working people, standing up for jobs, standing up for families and standing up for modern Ireland. The slogan ‘standing up for… ‘ has been identified by Labour as the message that can convince people to vote for them.

Junior minister Ged Nash said the word ‘standing’ so much during a press conference that it was frankly embarrassing. Backbencher Derek Nolan later claimed the phrase hadn’t come from a focus group.

But there’s no doubt that ‘standing up for… ‘ is Labour’s version of Fine Gael’s ‘keep the recovery going’. If you’re not already sick of these phrases now, you will be very soon.

2. Does anyone know where the fiscal space is? 

While the various parties will have different slogans they’ll all be talking about ‘the fiscal space’. What is it? It’s the total amount the government will have available for tax and spending measures over the next five years assuming the economy grows at projected rates. The amount available will be, according to the government, around €12 billion.

Labour is proposing to use 75% of that money to invest in public services, while Fine Gael is talking about abolishing USC completely and, as Micheal Noonan suggested this week, setting up a ‘rainy day fund’. Labour favours this too but says the money would be used for paying down the national debt, which is still over 90% of GDP.

But it’s worth noting that the government’s own budget watchdog, the Fiscal Advisory Council, believes the fiscal space is only €5 billion. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil reckons there’s a big hole in Fine Gael’s figures:

If the fiscal space is much smaller than the government thinks it would make both parties’ campaign pledges much harder to implement if they’re re-elected. That debate will play out over the coming weeks.

3. The Fine Gael bashing begins 

Fine Gael and Labour will try to disentangle themselves from each other during the election campaign and that much was evident today as Nash had a pop at Fine Gael’s economic plans.

“It seems to me that Fine Gael are changing and adjusting their figures every day,” he said when asked about Micheal Noonan’s mooted ‘rainy day fund’ which has raised eyebrows among some economists.
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While Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin won’t stray into this territory – unless Labour gets desperate – you can expect a bit more of this Fine Gael bashing from other Labour figures in the weeks ahead. Whether voters buy it from a party that has closely aligned itself with Enda Kenny and co for the last five years is another thing.

4. Labour really does believe it’ll be okay 

Though the polls put the junior coalition partner on course to get a wallop next month, Labour insists that it will perform better than expectations, citing internal party data that shows it taking seats where many expect they’ll have no hope.

Alan Kelly insisted today that the quality of candidates will be a key factor but does that matter when Labour’s brand has been so badly damaged over the last few years?

LABOUR 0130 LR Labour's Kathleen Lynch, Jan O'Sullivan and John Lyons in good spirits at the Labour conference Source: Eamonn Farrell

This sort of pre-election bullishness isn’t unusual but right now it’s hard to see how Labour can win between 10% and 12% of the vote given that on average the party has been stuck in single figures for over two years.

5. Getting to know Nolan 

Though the polls have Labour losing seats all over the country, Galway West TD Derek Nolan has a fighting chance of hanging on in Michael D Higgins’s old stomping ground. Nolan was one of several newly-elected deputies in 2011 and is one of the party’s brightest young talents.

Though he joked that Alan Kelly had stolen most of his speaking points during one fringe event – which was of course entitled ‘standing up for… ‘ – Nolan delivered an articulate and engaging speech on the party’s manifesto, which he has been heavily involved in drawing up.

If Labour does make it back to government – and Nolan holds his seat – it would be a surprise if the 33-year-old former trainee solicitor is not in the mix for a ministerial post.

6. It’s still the Alan Kelly Show 

At last year’s Labour conference we reported on how everybody was loving the Environment Minister. No deputy party leader in this country flexes their muscles as much as Kelly does at events like these. He was everywhere.

But spend a bit of time in a room where Kelly is speaking to Labour members and you will, as we did today, catch eyes being thrown to heaven while he’s delivering his latest bombastic statement. By-and-large, Labour members like Kelly, but it’s not universal.

7. Labour wants a Friday election 

Speaking of Kelly, he was making it clear today that he favours a Friday election and noted it would be “decided by government” – even though it’s at the sole discretion of the Taoiseach.

With fresh talk that the vote will be held on Thursday, 25 February, Labour is making it clear it would prefer the following day. Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan said Friday would be the best day for a turnout, though noted she is not the Taoiseach.

This prompted her ministerial colleague Kathleen Lynch to joke that O’Sullivan is also “not the Minister for Environment, who’ll be singing the order”.

Don’t be surprised if a row breaks out between Fine Gael and Labour over this in the coming days as we all await that election date announcement.

Read: Labour TD reveals ‘absolutely disgusting’ hate mail

Read: Labour reckons its incredibly fabulous candidates can win 36 seats

Here’s all our election coverage in one place > 

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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