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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Burton vs. White: 9 things we learned from the fifth and final Labour hustings

There’s anger among the ‘survivors of the bloodbath’, the threat of Sinn Féin needs to be taken seriously, and Joan Burton has twice as many things to be proud of as Alex White…

Image: Sam Boal

Updated at 9am

SOME 270 LABOUR members packed out the Round Room in Dublin’s Mansion House this evening as the party staged its fifth and final leadership hustings.

Members have been voting since 9 June for who they want to see take over the reins.

The results will be announced on 4 July.

It was standing room only at the back by the time the two contenders for the top job — Social Protection Minister Joan Burton and junior health minister Alex White — took to the stage at the venue shortly before 9.30pm.

Party Chairperson Loraine Mulligan occupied the mediator’s chair for the wide-ranging debate — and for the ‘undercard’ featuring the four TDs vying for the deputy leader role…

Here’s what we learned…

1. The underdog was playing it safe

Source: Sam Boal

‘It ain’t over till its over,’ Alex White  told reporters (essentially) on the way in.

What he actually said was: “I still have every confidence that I can win this election”.

“Ah now,” was the response, when asked what he expected to happen if he lost to Burton, and whether he had his eye on any particular Cabinet portfolio if that should come to pass.

“Health?” someone asked.

These are issues that would have to be addressed after the leadership has been determined. We’ll deal with it then.

2. The past is a different country

Alan Kelly [screengrab]

The contenders were keen to talk up the past achievements of the party.

Alan Kelly, the junior transport minister, referenced his achievements in keeping the Luas cross-city plan on track, bringing in the integrated Leap card for Dublin transport and “maintaining industrial peace in CIE”.

There were also plenty of mistakes since the party entered Government, he said. Bad mistakes… like the “handling  of the water metering”, “and “the way we managed various Fine Gael controversies”.

Michael McCarthy, from Cork, went even further back in time as he addressed the party’s record, talking up Labour’s contribution to the “educational reforms of the 1960s” and campaigns on issues like divorce and contraception.

However, Kelly warned:

The past it is over and we now need to concentrate on the future.

3. Labour needs to reconnect with its voters…

Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

The public had sent Labour a harsh message in the recent local and European elections, the candidates agreed.

Waterford’s Ciara Conway, vying with Kelly, McCarthy and junior minister Sean Sherlock for the deputy leadership gig, stressed the need for Labour to reconnect with its core values.

“Everyone can do fairness,” she said.

The Labour party needs to recommit to equality.

Those who have benefited from inequality within society won’t welcome a resurgent Labour party that prioritised “better ways to redistribute wealth” she said.

4. Abortion was raised…

Michael McCarthy [screengrab]

A member asked the deputy leader candidates a direct question on the issue of abortion: whether they believed the 8th amendment (which bans abortion) should be repealed.

Conway said she “absolutely” believed it should.

Kelly said the issue would no doubt come up again in future governments and “we’re going to have to look again at how to amend the constitution”.

“I support a woman’s right to choose,” McCarthy declared — to a huge round of applause from the floor. He also mentioned the “dark forces of conservatism” in his answer.

(Sherlock didn’t get to the issue… The candidates were dealing with batches of questions from the floor at a time — and in fairness, it looked like he simply got cut off by the clock.)

5. The grassroots are angry…

Junior minister Sean Sherlock

The consensus from the floor seemed to be that the party leadership is out of touch with members, and has been for quite some time.

One recently re-elected councillor called himself a “survivor of the bloodbath” while another member told the panel of contenders for the number two job “we knew we were in trouble in Tipperary a year ago”.

There was also criticism of the centralisation of power. “The annual conferences are a joke,” another member said.

Responding, Kelly said Labour needed to contest the next election “as and independent party” and said that conferences in future should be “non-choreographed”.

There was criticism for the way the current Programme for Government was decided from McCarthy, who said it’s “not good enough that we all come to Dublin and all of a sudden there’s a Programme for Government and then all of sudden you vote for it”.

While Sherlock talked up the process the candidates were currently engaged in, saying the hustings were an “open warts-and-all process”.

He spoke of party conferences he had attended in his youth alongside his father, referring to “passionate debates based on conviction”.

That’s what we have in this party, and its something we need to restore.

Conway said she “absolutely” agreed the party needed reform.

“There’s no reason ministers couldn’t be up here,” she said.

Then it was time for a break…

Source: Richard J/YouTube

6. Joan & Alex seem to be huge fans of US presidents…

Source: Sam Boal

The deputy leadership contenders were on stage for over an hour and a half, with just a short break before the headliners took to the stage at around 9.20pm.

Labour “did a deal with Fine Gael to save the country” after the last General Election, White said in his opening speech.

The party signed up for the coalition “to save people from would have prevailed” if Enda Kenny’s party had been allowed to govern alone.

He said Labour “need to stand up to the so-called left” and “we also need to stand up to Fine Gael.”

Burton told members that as the party continued its term in Government, the coming months and years “will require every one of us to have the stomach for the fight ahead”.

The journey ahead requires us to recover our self-belief… Because if we don’t believe in ourselves, nobody will.

The Social Protection Minister made reference to a scene in Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ in her opening comments, while White came close to declaiming an Obama-esque slogan as he spoke of “change we all know needs to happen”.

7. The Budget could be an outrage…

Alex White said he thought it would be “an outrage” to take €2 billion out of the economy in the upcoming Budget.

“If we were to do it it would kill the economy,” he told members.

He said the party should use the opportunity presented in October to “arrest” the run of poor decisions that had been made in the last few years.

(Burton’s also on the record as being against the mooted figure, saying this week that she thinks such an adjustment wouldn’t make economic sense, and questioning the wisdom of planning to “suck €2 billion in spending out of the economy”.)

8. The threat posed by Sinn Féin was raised (more than once)

Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

All six candidates on the stage faced questions on what would be done to tackle Sinn Féin, following the party’s hugely successful showing in the local and European elections.

White said they needed to engage in a “deliberate process” whereby Labour took on the policies being proposed by Gerry Adams’ party, saying some of them were simply”ludicrous”.

Burton said she had recently listened to a radio interview given by Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, and that he had been espousing a “very unworked-out proposal”.

9. The candidates are proud of…

As another barage of criticism about the ‘out of touch’ leadership came from the floor, Burton and White looked a little relieved to be thrown a softball question for a change: to name the achievement in politics of which they were most proud…

“Carrying through our commitment to legislate for the X Case,” White said, simply.

Burton had two points on her list:

My campaign in opposition for tax justice — exposing the structure of tax breaks that actually drove the building bubble higher, until I beat it out of Brian Cowen and some of the Fianna Fáil people that this was mad economically.

Her second achievement was “restoring the minimum wage” she said — to widespread applause from the floor.

 

Stray observations:

Name and rank, comrades: “I’m sorry to be referring to you all just as numbers,” chairperson Loraine Mulligan told members at one point (they’d been asked to hold up pre-assigned numbers as batches of questions were put to the candidates, in order [theoretically] to make the whole process easier to follow).

Alan Kelly really likes Dublin… From his speech: ”I lived in Dublin for nine years while working for Bord Failte & Failte Ireland and I’ve campaigned and been a member across multiple constituencies in Dublin, Dublin South, Dublin South East, Dublin Mid West and Dublin South Central…”

Where did everyone go?: While the audience swelled towards the 300 mark as the two leadership candidates began their debate, the figure dwindled substantially throughout the rest of the event. ‘Last bus?’ one reporter murmured… ‘Maybe they’ve just already made their decision?’ another suggested.

Read: 13 things we learned from the first Labour leadership husting>

Read: Seconds out, round one in the Labour leadership contest>

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