By John Gormley.
In May of 2013 I predicted in this column that Eamon Gilmore would step down as Labour leader before the General Election to be replaced by Joan Burton. So now that it has all come to pass, as though perfectly scripted, can I apply my soothsayer’s powers again? I’ll give it a go. Without equivocation, and with no hedging of any bets I say: the General Election will take place in the autumn of 2015.
Let me give you my reasons for this. The big tactical question for the junior partner in coalitions is the manner of their exit from government. It needs to be managed carefully. Ideally, the smaller party tries to demonstrate its distinctiveness and effectiveness in order to restore lost credibility and regain lost votes. This is often done by staging a convincing bust-up with the senior partner in government.
All fine in theory, but it carries a degree of risk. The PDs got it right with Fianna Fáil in their row over the Beef Tribunal; but in 2007 they got it spectacularly wrong.
Labour know – or at least should know – that no matter what happens now they are going to lose a lot of votes. Their aim is to limit the damage and save as many seats as they can. Choosing Joan as leader is the first part of their battle plan; choosing the time of the battle is the second part. By cutting and running they risk losing Fine Gael transfers, particularly if the row is acrimonious. And it’s by no means certain that the traditional transfers from the Left will return.
Sinn Féin, the smaller parties of the Left and the independents will immediately accuse Labour of opportunism and cynicism: the party that gave us austerity has suddenly discovered a conscience. A budget row with Fine Gael could also be seen by many voters as contrived.
So why would they do it? They’ll do it because it’s within their power, a last desperate measure to assert themselves, a way of lashing out, of going down fighting for principles that they abandoned on entering government. It’s a strange combination of political calculation and a twisted survival instinct.
And why autumn 2015? Labour needs a big policy win under its belt. They see the Marriage Equality referendum – assuming that it passes – as a major Labour victory, and will play it for all it’s worth. That gives them the entire summer of 2015 for pre bust-up propaganda and allows them room to engineer the row.
In July and August next year we can expect a series of leaks about tensions in Cabinet. It will be left initially to backbenchers, but will escalate into a series of nicely choreographed tit-for-tat events as Fine Gael backbenchers rise to the bait. All good harmless fun – until senior Ministers begin to weigh in. And finally Joan, the leader of New Improved Labour, will issue an ultimatum, which Enda cannot accede to.
If it all goes as planned, Labour could perhaps save some seats. But it could just as easily go awry. Our Taoiseach is a far cannier operator than the superior beings in Labour can appreciate. He won’t allow Labour to run away with the referendum, and if he senses a plot he could steal a march on Joan by calling a snap election. It’s his prerogative after all. He knows the game has changed now. There are no more chumsy photocalls as there were with Eamon Gilmore. The press photos now show a resolute and stony-faced Joan, possibly on the advice of Labour handlers.
The message is clear: under Joan, Labour will not be subsumed by Fine Gael. Some people in Labour have calculated that votes lost to the Shinners in the locals will return. I wouldn’t be too sure. They may have rid themselves of Eamon (‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’) and Pat (‘Sure isn’t that what you do in elections’) but the legacy of broken promises remains.
Those Labour TDs who really do wish to retain their seats could do worse than listen to the advice of the former Labour councillor, Paddy Bourke. Speaking at a gathering of former Dublin mayors, Paddy revealed why he chose to run as an Independent in the local elections. “When you see a tsunami coming – you run”, he told some of his former comrades.
No matter when this election takes place, the tsunami is coming. •