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Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister Joan Burton Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Conference a key test of whether things really are improving for Labour

Labour members and delegates gather in Killarney for the start of their conference tonight with some signs of improvement in the party’s fortunes.

HAD LABOUR GATHERED for its annual conference two months ago, or when its former chairperson wanted it to, the mood in Killarney would have been a lot different.

At the beginning of October, the party was at six per cent, divided over the fate of the Seanad and faced into another harsh budget with much talk of the divide between party leader Eamon Gilmore and his deputy Joan Burton.

Even as recently as the end of October, the party had a string of councillors resign on an almost daily basis.

But as Christmas and the bailout exit approach, their is a hint of positivity. A poll this week showed it at 12 per cent which is just two per cent off its best ever result in the local and Europeans elections four years ago.

Add to that a Budget which – depending on whether you believe the spin – wasn’t as harsh as it threatened to be and with the bailout exit in just over two weeks, Labour can justifiably say the worst is over.

But it’s the bailout exit that really sums-up the big issue facing the party: We’ve left the Troika programme but what tangible benefit will that have for ordinary people?

And in Labour’s case, how can it convince voters that things are actually starting to get better for them and their families and that they’re getting better because Labour is in government?

Social progress

One indicator is jobs and the creation of 58,000 over the past year, according to CSO figures published this week, is a real and solid sign of economic recovery.

Labour can point to huge progress on social issues that are important to many of its members and supporters, with abortion legislation and a commitment to a same-sex marriage referendum in 2015.

But there are still a lot of people hurting and a lot of Labour people who feel the party has, as one TD put it, ceded too much ground to the right wing point of view.

One key test of rank-and-file members’ feelings towards the leadership this weekend will be the election of the party chairperson.

Gilmore and other senior figures are said to prefer the incumbent Loraine Mulligan. But she faces competition from the party’s former general secretary Ray Kavanagh, who has support among the likes of TD Robert Dowds.

Last year the party faithful opted to vote against the leadership’s preferred candidate in selecting Colm Keaveney whose chairmanship became hugely problematic after he voted against the Budget in December 2012 and was kicked out of the parliamentary party, eventually quitting altogether.

Seanad tension

But it’s not just those of who have left. There is a degree of internal displeasure in Labour, with the often perceived disconnect between Labour ministers and ordinary rank-and-file.

Senator John Whelan told earlier this month he had lost confidence in Pat Rabbitte. The Communications Minister brushed off the criticism, as one would expect, but Whelan is not one to shy away from expressing his views and will continue to do so.

But despite this Whelan and other senators who’ve been critical have not withdrawn their support from the government, backing all of the Budget measures.

On the leadership issue, Gilmore looks secure. Burton may have lost her opportunity some time ago and there is also a sense that were she to actually make a move on the Tánaiste it would only serve to split the party and do more harm than good.

Despite all this, there are plenty of pitfalls that lie ahead, not least this conference.

Will anger at what’s happened over the last two-and-half-years spill over among some members and delegates? Will some of the more contentious motions – of the ones that have been allowed – be passed?

After this weekend we should have a better idea of how things are shaping-up for Labour heading into next year’s local and European elections.

Read: 18 interesting motions to be considered at the Labour conference this weekend

Read: The Labour Party is livestreaming its entire conference on YouTube

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