Labour Party faithful fear blame gameMonday 08 April 2013 16.02
“We got 19% of the vote but are taking 100% of the blame,” the words of one Labour backbencher this weekend as criticism of Eamon Gilmore’s leadership was vented from a few outside the parliamentary party.
It will not sound any deafening alarm bells at Labour’s Ely Place Headquarters, nonetheless it’s a sentiment not previously voiced at any level of the party since it entered Government in March 2011.
RTÉ's Micheál Lehane assesses the Labour's Party's worries following their disastrous outing in Meath East
Yes Labour is bound by the Programme for Government and not its manifesto that was so rich with promises. Minister of State Sean Sherlock said last Saturday that the party did not get everything it wanted in the area of Child Benefit Payments and Student Registration Fees. Talk of any crisis though was dismissed by him.
The backdrop is of course that fifth place finish in the recent Meath East By-Election and a national opinion poll showing party support at just 7%.
In response the Party Leader’s message was clear; Labour had taken on the responsibility to turn the economy around and this came before the self- interest of any TD or councillor worried about their electoral future.
While a number a TDs seem emboldened by this message it may well have to be backed up with something solid at Government level. Perhaps some policy or measure regarded as central to Labour’s philosophy. That is what the small but vocal group campaigning for Labour Policies are demanding.
When just over 60 gathered for a meeting of that group on Saturday, some like Donal Farrelly, a Labour member for 13 years, expressed disillusionment. He forlornly stated that he no longer knew what the party stood for.
Others like MEP Nessa Childers, who last week became the seventh member to leave the Labour Parliamentary Party, urged the group to reject the line from the Labour Minsters that there is “no other alternative.”
The view that the party needs to deliver some type of wealth tax (maybe increased Universal Social Contributions) on those earning upwards of a €100,000 is a popular one. Labour councillors, some of whom have recently met Mr Gilmore and Joan Burton, are particularly interested in this proposal.
They believe it would show that the burden of austerity was being shared more evenly.
There is a problem though. When this was mooted in the lead up the last budget, there followed reports of Cabinet walk-outs and ultimately Labour defeat. At ministerial level there is understood to be some worry about walking this path again. The word this time is that the party does not want to be seen to support high taxes because that could ultimately be used as another stick to beat them with.
But it remains something that councillors really crave. They believe it would give them a chance to hold their seats in what promise to be very challenging local elections next year.
Under threat is Labour’s place as the party with the most councillors in Dublin. Across the country too the party’s representation at local level, they won 132 seats in 2009, could diminish significantly.
The strain felt by Labour councillors was best summed up by Waterford City Councillor Seamus Ryan when he and some of his colleagues met in Gorey last Friday. He said some people in his area are struggling to feed their families, yet they must pay the Local Property Tax (LPT).
Councillor Sean O’Grady from Killarney went even further saying that Labour’s biggest mistake in Government was failing to link the LPT to earnings.
Measures like that could not be tolerated indefinitely, and time was running out on the Government unless it changed direction, he warned.
But of course while comments like that are heated they don’t come from the main battlefield. The Dáil is the place where decisions on further cuts will be voted on.
Five TDs may have left Labour in that arena already, but overall the parliamentary party has remained disciplined in this most difficult period.
As one TD put it “we’ve lived in constant pressure and coped.” However, the biggest challenge yet may be just around the corner.
Later this month the outcome of the ballot on the second Croke Park Deal on public service pay will be known.
If it’s rejected the Public Expenditure Minister, and Labour TD, Brendan Howlin has warned that a 7% pay cut on public sector workers would be imposed by Government.
That would of course require Labour TDs to vote to reduce the pay of workers it has traditionally championed. That could prove to be a step too far for at least some of them notwithstanding the unpopular measures they have voted through to date.
In the meantime Mr Gilmore will probably have to show that Labour still has muscle in Government.
His insistence that water charges won’t be introduced on 1 January next is perhaps the first step in this process.
But many in his party will want much more when they meet for their national conference, most likely next Autumn.
One senses that something key to Labour’s core values will have to be delivered by Government before then. If that does not happen, Mr Gilmore’s task of keeping the party focused on "turning the economy around" will become even more daunting.