By John Gormley.
Labour’s W****loo: political luck comes and goes on the grandest scale.
Eventually a tabloid sub-editor will come up with a headline to sum up the imminent demise of the parliamentary Labour Party. It will involve some bad puns on water, loos and the party’s final Napoleonic election battle..
Older Labour heads are not giving up the fight and are standing their ground with a series of statements on the water issue. Pat Rabbitte dismissed the idea of water privatisation as a “red herring”; and another Labour grandee, Fergus Finlay, tweeted that the proposal for a referendum was “daft”. Such is the credibility of the Labour party hierarchy that these statements have been interpreted by a sceptical public in the following way: (a) that privatisation must definitely be on the cards and (b) that a constitutional change to prevent the privatisation of water is eminently sensible. So sensible, in fact, that Labour party senators broke ranks in the Senate to support a Fianna Fáil motion. The Labour leadership was reported to be “relaxed” about this minor revolt, but the signs are ominous. Many of Labour’s top people are now privately conceding that the game is up. When I asked a Labour Party Minister of Sate last week how the Christmas cards were going, he observed ruefully that he had no supporters left to send cards to. He also gave a brutally bleak assessment of their electoral chances: they’d be lucky to come back with two to five seats, he said. I know the feeling. Let’s call it the Homestore political effect: when you’re electoral luck is gone, it’s definitely gone. Just look at Obama, a president with charisma and a recovering economy, yet an ungrateful American electorate still gave the Democrats the heave-ho.
But, the converse also applies. When you’re electoral luck is in, you can do no wrong in the eyes of the electorate, as evidenced by the spectacular poll results of Sinn Fein.
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour had all expected that the sustained attacks on Sinn Féin in recent weeks would cause their poll ratings to tumble. But the Shinners have once again confounded their critics. Their continued climb in the opinion polls has shocked their opponents. One Fianna Fáil TD, with whom I spoke, just shook his head in disbelief. They are perplexed and deeply frustrated.
I stated in my previous column that the Shinners would learn quickly from the defeat in the Dublin South west by- election. And they certainly have. Both Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald are now standing with the people, declaring that neither will pay the water charge. They must be very relieved that Alan Kelly won’t be cutting off their water supply or turning down their water pressure. The new minister is desperately trying to present himself as the good cop, as opposed to Big Phil’s bad cop. The Labour Party media handlers have also opted for the set-piece media appearance. We used to call these a ‘standy uppy’. It means you stand before the microphones and cameras of the assembled hacks, deliver a few key messages and make a swift exit. There’s no real probing or scrutiny by journalists allowed. That’s the theory, but there is a downside. If government ministers constantly refuse to do more in depth, sit-down interviews, frustrated broadcasters on RTE, Newstalk or Today FM have no real choice but to hand over the space to your political opponents. Paul Murphy et al will only be too happy to oblige. They have long understood that water is the defining issue for the people. It’s visible, ever-present and visceral. Every time you make a cup of tea or flush the loo or have a shower, or anytime it rains, the people are reminded of the injustice, as they see it. Capping the cost of the bills may help a little but essentially it’s not the amount but simply the idea of charging for water that angers many voters.
The water issue has altered Irish political landscape in ways that were unimaginable a few short years ago. If the opinion polls are to be believed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined won’t have the numbers to form a government without the assistance of some independents. This would leave Sinn Féin as the main opposition party. It reflects too a European trend as voters’ distrust of and disenchantment with mainstream parties has seen the rise of AfD in Germany, UKIP in England and host of other anti-establishment parties throughout the EU.
Dealing a heavy blow to Labour party TDs may seem like an attractive proposition to weary and cynical voters right now, but they could be replacing them with a politics they had not bargained for. Unfortunately, for the Labour Party this is a line of reasoning that seldom works with the electorate.