Labour Party members dare to dream

Thursday 09 January 2014 16.09
Labour Party members dare to dream

Katie Hannon, Prime Time's Political Correspondent, blogs following the Labour Party Conference in Killarney.

Shortly after five o’clock on Saturday evening a small group of Labour Party members huddled among the smokers on the front steps of the conference centre of the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney.

They were aligned with the Campaign for Labour Policies, the grassroots movement of Labour members appalled at the turn party policy has taken since it went into Government with Fine Gael.

The Campaign had put out a clarion call to like-minded members to join them in a symbolic walk out from the Labour Party Conference. The plan was to proceed en masse to a nearly hotel where they would hold a meeting to discuss strategies to get the Labour Party back on track.

In the event, when the designated departure time arrived, they had managed to muster just five like-minded comrades for the cause. Neil Warner, a polite young history and politics graduate from the Trinity Branch, admitted that the turn-out was a tad disappointing. ‘There are a few more waiting for us at the hotel,’ he insisted. The modest gaggle of journalists who had bothered to venture outside for this promised procession wanted to know how many. ‘About 10’. He put some of the poor show down to what he said was the large number of members who had already left the party and a similarly significant number who didn’t bother to come to the conference ‘because the leadership isn’t listening.’

Inside the conference centre, the mood of the 700 or so delegates milling about in anticipation of the main event – the Leader’s keynote address – seemed upbeat if not exuberant. It was noted by more than one delegate that, for once, Eamon Gilmore had got lucky.

The 1,000 days in Government with Fine Gael had not been easy. Many members felt that along the way principles had been abandoned and unthinkable compromises embraced. In the circumstance the party’s plunge to 6% in The Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll on October 1 was not entirely unexpected. The disastrous outing in the Meath East by-election where the candidate Eoin Holmes came home 5th on just 5% of the vote had rattled even the most sanguine party strategists. As the countdown to the local and European elections next May began in earnest, the whispers grew louder. Could Gilmore survive as leader? The perceived wisdom had it that even if he could, the anticipated carnage of that campaign would certainly be the finish of him.

But then, just when he needed it most, Gilmore’s luck changed. A poll showed the party back at a very respectable 12%. Employment figures exceeded even the more optimistic predictions.

For the first time since the crisis began, he told delegates, we could ‘dare to hope again’. This nod to Camelot aside, much of the rest of the address had the air of the mutterings of the misunderstood, complaining to an ungrateful nation about the thankless nature of the task he had taken on, about all the sleepless nights endured and the selfless sacrifices made while doggedly listing their many remarkable achievements that had gone unremarked.

All of this was met with brief bursts of applause and a respectable standing ovation at the end. A minor triumph for a leader who was written off as a beaten docket just a couple of months ago.

Neil Warner thinks the delegates are deluding themselves. ‘The reality is we will lose a lot of seats in the next election and I’m not sure what we’ll have gained as a result,’ he said.

But in Killarney this week the Labour members were taking Eamon Gilmore’s advice. They were indeed daring to hope again.

@KatieGHannon