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13 things we learned from the first Labour leadership husting

The first of five hustings took place in north Dublin last night as the Labour Party decides on its new leader and deputy leader.

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THE SIX CANDIDATES for the leadership and deputy leadership of Labour gathered at the Radisson Blu Hotel near Dublin Airport last night along with up to 300 party members who came to hear what they had to say.

It was the first of five hustings events taking place as part of the month-long process of finding a successor to Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton, the current deputy leader.

First up was the deputy leadership debate with TDs Ciara Conway and Michael McCarthy and junior ministers Seán Sherlock and Alan Kelly making their pitch. Then Joan Burton and Alex White went head-to-head.

All candidates set out their stall and answered the many, many questions that came from the passionate and outspoken audience of ordinary members, councillors, and former councillors.

TheJournal.ie was there for the full three and a bit hours of the debate and here is what we learned:

1. Sinn Féin dominated 

There was a huge amount of discussion about Sinn Féin and the possibility of a future alliance with the party.

“There is still a Sinn Féin-IRA nexus,” Joan Burton said to loud applause from the audience as she set out clear distance from Alex White who said that although he “absolutely abhors” their economic policies he could not “absolutely exclude” Sinn Féin in any future coalition negotiations.

Aside from the leadership rivals, there was lots of targeting of Sinn Féin by the deputy hopefuls. Alan Kelly was probably strongest when he said that he would “absolutely not” go into government with the party, adding categorically: “They’re the enemy.”

Michael McCarthy said that Sinn Féin are “not economically serious ” and operate in a fairytale space while Seán Sherlock (below) said SF is a “populist, catch-all party”.

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2. Joan Burton is focussed on a debt deal and helping the low-paid

“We have unfinished business with the EU,” Burton declared during her opening remarks, saying that she would press Ireland’s case for relief on our bank debt through negotiation “rather than carless confrontation”.

Burton also proposed a “low-pay commission” to examine the impact low pay has on society. She also talked again about her long-standing proposal for a living wage whereby people would have “the guarantee of a decent outcome”.
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3. Alex White thinks missing the deficit target would be okay 

The key line from the junior minister’s speech last night was that there can be “no question” of cutting €2 billion in the next Budget, and if that means missing the agreed deficit target of 3 per cent of GDP by 2015 “marginally or by a few months so be it I say”.

If he is Tánaiste White will have a tough time trying to pitch that idea to Fine Gael which has consistently said that whatever about the €2 billion in cuts, reaching the deficit target is sacred.

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4. He also wants to decentralise the leadership

One of the big criticisms of the Gilmore regime, even before Labour went into government, has been the centralisation of power around the outgoing Tánaiste and his close advisors. White made a firm commitment to have a “much less centralised type of leadership”.

5. And is in favour of a wealth tax 

“I think Labour should look to introduce a wealth tax,” White said last night. In the same way that Burton floats the idea of an undefined living wage, the junior health minister hopes his backing for an undefined wealth tax will help win votes.

6. Labour made mistakes – and they know it 

There was widespread acknowledgement that Labour had made mistakes in government from all those who took part in both debates. In the deputy leadership husting, Seán Sherlock talked about being “in the trenches” for the past three years. Burton said that mistakes were made and that the recovery needs to be “felt in people’s pockets”.

7. The Tuam babies story came up

Joan Burton described the Tuam babies story as “another distributing, horrible legacy” from the institutions where Ireland once hid its “unwanted women and children”. She made the point that former Labour leader Frank Cluskey introduced payments for unmarried mothers.

Ciara Conway (below) was the only Labour deputy leadership candidate to refer to the Tuam babies story. She said that it was a “manifestation of official policy” and that this can lead to “heartless outcomes” even in the modern era, citing the medical cards debacle of recent months.

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8. Members are angry

From the start of the audience participation the candidates were made fully aware of the anger that many members are feeling towards the party. “The reality is we don’t communicate,” one gentleman from Cabra said.

Another member got a round of applause when he made the point that it wasn’t Labour voters who left the party but the party that left those voters. The same member went as far as to compare the leadership contest to the reorganisation of the deckchairs on the Titanic and said that the choice facing members was picking one of two deckchairs.

9. Communications has been a problem

“There has been an absence of clarity from us… there has been an absence of visibility from us,” Alex White told members, many of whom had expressed a belief that the party has not been communicating effectively in government. Michael McCarthy made the point that Labour had taken 100 per cent of the blame in government despite having gotten only 20 per cent of the vote.

10. There was no doubt about what caused the election bloodbath

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Dublin city councillor Mary Freehill described herself as a “survivor of the local elections” but there were plenty in the room we weren’t having lost their seats. Alan Kelly acknowledged that the medical cards and water charges controversies had cost people their seats. McCarthy (below) identified people being unhappy with the impact of coalition of government policy on their daily lives.

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11. Alan Kelly is the deputy leader favourite for a reason

The Minister of State listed his achievements in government, firmly ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin and more than once agreed with members in the audience who voiced criticism, starting his answers with “I agree” or “you’re absolutely right”.

He had good soundbites – “I’m not obsessed with Sinn Féin, I’m obsessed with the Labour Party” – and talked about the need to give ordinary workers a break describing it as his “number one ambition”. He said all the right things and performed well but ultimately it’s about what the members actually make of him.

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12. Would Labour go into government again?

Ciara Conway spoke of the need to address the disconnect between the Parliamentary Labour Party and members by reforming the way conferences are held. Michael McCarthy touched on the fact that the programme for government was only seen by members hours before it was rubber-stamped by a special conference in March 2011.

Hindsight is a great thing but there appeared to be an appetite among the candidates to reform the way Labour chooses to go into government in the future given the cost of doing it this time.

Sherlock also spoke a lot about the need to reconnect with the branch structure saying “the branch must become the core political unit of this party”. But Burton did later make the point that the best way of achieving progress is by being in government.

13. Alex will appoint Joan, but Joan won’t necessarily appoint Alex 

There was an awkward moment towards the end of the debate as Alex White said he “certainly would” appoint Joan Burton to Cabinet if he is the next Labour leader. But could Burton make the same commitment?

“I will do my best to appoint the best people to government,” she said during a long, winding answer that didn’t actually contain any guarantee that she would appoint White to the big table.

Read: One TD wants to be Labour’s deputy leader, but not a minister. What about the others?

Labour’s choice: Joan Burton is the favourite, but Alex White is banking on his message of renewal

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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