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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 18 June, 2019
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Labour's choice: Joan Burton is the favourite, but Alex White is banking on his message of renewal

Barring a late entrant one of Alex White or Joan Burton will be the next leader of the Labour Party and Tánaiste.

Alex White and Joan Burton both want Eamon Gilmore's job.
Alex White and Joan Burton both want Eamon Gilmore's job.
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

JOAN BURTON BROUGHT the sun on Wednesday but Alex White pulled a neat trick in decamping from Leinster House to the Rosie Hackett Bridge.

After all, he is looking to “bridge” the disconnect and said as much in his opening speech this morning before events turned a bit grey – much like the weather – as he faced a series of robust questions about the medical cards debacle.

White was keen to focus on “renewal” – a word he used twice in his speech – but he may yet be hit by the problems of old, namely medical cards.

He will hope, as he travels the country to appeal to Labour members, that he is not faced with questions that will overshadow his attempts to beat the clear favourite, Joan Burton.

Barring a late wildcard entrant, like backbench TDs Arthur Spring or Dominic Hannigan, it now appears likely that either Burton or White will be the next Labour leader and Tánaiste. So, the battle lines are now being drawn.

Burton is touting a message that austerity has reached its limits, that people are not feeling the benefit of an apparent economic upswing and that a recovery must be built from the middle class out.

She has been on this message for some time, much to the discomfort of everyone else in government but it has made her popular with voters despite unpopular benefit cuts and the controversial JobBridge scheme.

She is not universally popular among the Parliamentary Labour Party but is likely to be looked upon more favourably by the ordinary membership.

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Burton has been the Labour deputy leader throughout the last three years and the director of elections for what was a disastrous campaign. This was a point supporters of White made privately today.

Her associations with the decline of the Labour Party will not be forgotten much as she has tried to paint herself as being at variance with the leadership on certain issues in recent years.

White is hoping that problem for Burton can help his campaign. His focus is on youth, and the aforementioned renewal. At 55, he’s no young gun, but he is a first-time TD, he doesn’t sit at Cabinet and he is being proposed and seconded by Labour’s two youngest TDs – Derek Nolan and Ciara Conway.

Everything was carefully choreographed at his launch today. He and others wore big, fresh red roses on their jackets. Even the bridge upon which he stood this morning was named after a campaign started by Labour Youth.

He sees a “clear disconnect with our traditional support base”. Burton will feel she has already connected with this base because of the way she has been outspoken in recent years particularly on issues like the ‘living wage’.

Ultimately the next four weeks at open hustings around the country will be dominated by talk and not actions. And most people in the country won’t care a tap how the campaign goes nor what is said. All that will be remembered is the outcome.

Whoever sells the message best will likely win, but the job of actually rebuilding Labour will be much harder as will turning words into actions in the face of what is sure to be significant Fine Gael opposition at the Cabinet table on many issues.

Joan Burton: ‘The limits of austerity have been reached’

Alex White: ‘I’m the right person at the right time’

Read: Three TDs want to be Labour’s second-in-command, one thinks Joan Burton would be a ‘fantastic’ leader

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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