What’s gone wrong for Labour?

Eoin O’Malley (15 February, 2011)

There’s is some degree of agreement in the opinion polls of all types (different companies, candidate based ballot paper questions and party questions, local polls and national polls) that over the course of the campaign Fine Gael has trended upwards and Labour downwards. As we can see from the Red C first preference vote trends, which is the only properly comparable trend of polls, that where Labour was within touching distance of Fine Gael in October and November (Millward Brown had Labour ahead of Fine Gael in September, but its estimates for Labour are usually above the Red C ones for some reason) since then Fine Gael has pulled away. The closeness of the race last autumn, with Kenny’s unpopularity, presumably gave rise to the ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ strategy.

While Fine Gael has run a good campaign, the focus by the electorate on policy issues and not leadership qualities has suited it. Fine Gael has also emphasised the team in Fine Gael rather than the leader, who we knew had not convinced the public. Labour’s focus on leadership when voters were concerned with policy has not worked. But what else may have gone wrong?

One big difference between Labour and Fine Gael is the position on the policy spectrum. Fine Gael has had very little policy competition. The PDs are gone, which removed an old threat for Fine Gael whenever it moved too close to the centre. Fianna Fáil is persona non grata for much of the electorate, so it has not posed to be a real competitor (although Fine Gael was careful to ensure that voters were reminded of Micheál Martin’s past). It could position itself where it wanted, without too much fear of seeping votes anywhere else (the odd independent excepted).

The Labour party, on the other hand, was squeezed from both sides. If it wanted to position itself in the centre, it had to be careful not to concede too much ground to ULA or Sinn Féin candidates. The delicate balancing act it had to manage was exploited by Fine Gael. Each time Labour mentioned more tax than cuts (to protect its left flank) Fine Gael could attack it as a high tax party – something that wouldn’t play well with Labour’s middle class support. Most Irish people, by a margin of two to one prefer cuts to taxes according to an opinion poll taken in the autumn. On the other side Sinn Féin and the ULA characterised Labour as part of the consensus of cuts.

The election is far from over. We can still see from the Red-C SBP poll that Fine Gael and Labour have a lot of ‘soft’ support of ‘likely to’ and might do’ potential voters, which can be won from each other. But Labour need to change its strategy.

The problem for Labour is that this two front war is one that is not going to change in the next ten days, whereas the absence of a lift in support for Fianna Fáil (despite Martin being the most popular leader) means that Fine Gael has no such fear.

22 thoughts on “What’s gone wrong for Labour?

  1. I would tend to agree with the overall argument you are making. Labour needs to have the courage to differenciate itrself from FG and attack some of their shaky policy positions e.g. their position on the banks and the corporate tax question (it would appear that Kenny’s trip to Berlin was a lot less productive than he hoped for and the flip/flopping of Noonan, Leo and others opens up a good attack front) and the universal health insurance (there is no guarantee that this will work and that it will not create mayhem in hospitals which will have to march to the beat of the insurance companies drum).
    Unfortunately, as FF are left neutered because of the legacy, it has to be left to Labour to provide the robust scrutiny that FGs policies require. Otherwise they will continue to concede to the populism of the FG approach.

  2. First off, I think this campaign to date has shown that the popularity of a leader doesn’t appear to be hugely important with regard to party support. Not much of a suprise really, its what all the political science evidence suggests but it frequently seems to be forgotten. Second off, I think Martin has had a huge impact on this campaign to date. By focusing on the policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour, he has forced people who want stability and certainty to roll in behind Fine Gael and shown up the irrelevance of FF. Probably the most ill thought out campaign ever.

  3. How much of the support in polls that Labour did have last year is now seeping to the “misc” category of IND/Other?

    If Labour are averaging low 20s in polls that’s still a good 10% points or so up on 2007.

    • Yes it might be a party that could be up 10%. But in all honesty it’s a disaster for Labour. Firstly, The ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ strategy that Eoin mentions above certainly outlines the parties ambitions and with Fine Geal flirting with a majority, a 10% bump will still result in another stint in opposition. A failure no matter what way you window dress it! Secondly, will a 10% bump return many more seats or will it be soaked up by previously elected, popular candidates getting a higher percentage of the 1st pref. votes than in 2007, and fail to bring in a running mate when the transfers are counted?

  4. The big difference between Labour and FG is that Labour is a trojan horse for the Unions especially public sector unions. A vote for Labour is a vote for Jack O’Connor, David Begg and Blair Horan. Maybe the people have some cop on after all.

    Anyone that votes Labour may as well go the full hog and sign up officially to fund union fat cat salaries some of which are over 170,000 Euro per annum. These make a TD’s salary look modest by comparison were it not for the fact we have to borrow 40% of the money to pay our TD’s. That is the problem with Labour/Unions that no leaders debate can obscure.

  5. Interesting post Eoin, and judging from the debate the other night and some recent media performances Labour appear to be taking note.
    Gilmore had a right go at Enda over the €5billion ‘gap’ in FG’s budget strategy. Ruairí Quinn on Newstalk this morning was highlighting the inevitable rise in indirect taxes and service charges that would follow from FG’s commitments to leave income tax alone. He also highlighted the damage FG’s planned 30,000 reduction in PS workers would do to frontline services – 1 in 6 nurses, 2 teachers out of every school.
    Labour can and should continue to exploit these topics as not only would it allow them to differentiate themselves from FG, it also doesn’t harm their Left flank – arguing against regressive taxation and budget cuts.
    The only problem is that to do this they would have to be willing to ignore the ‘how can you two work together after the election policy’ – this is the main limiting factor, if Labour want to make gains they have to go for a win or bust strategy. Unfortunately, it might be too late for that at this stage.

  6. I have mentioned this previously but Labour is really at nothing while it proposes inceasing taxes on anything that moves (and on anything that doesn’t), demonises markets, advances the preservation and expansion of state ownership and control of economic activities and protects well-heeled public sector ‘insiders’ (hypocritically using the unemployed and social welfare recipients as ‘human shields’). Combine this with the double squeeze you highlight and its organisational and candidate selection deficiencies that won’t turn votes into seats and they will be lucky to beat the Spring-tide.

  7. For the first time as Eoin notes policy is playing a much bigger part than usual in this campaign. Labour’s mistake was probably as long as a year ago. At that time FG were putting serious effort into publishing policy documents while Labour preferred to profile press releases in the policy section of its website. In fact most of the policy development which I noticed came via Joan Burton and other Labour policy came fairly late in the day. At the same time FF and the Greens appear to have been caught up in the travails of government to such an extent that neither spent much time on future policy. As a result both manifestos were seriously lacking.

    Generally, I think Labour would probably do better to ignore the threat from the left flank and tack to the centre both to attract some soft FG voters who are far more numerous than soft Sinn Fein or ULA. In addition, Labour traditionally do well (as do FG) when transfers are maximised between them. Despite the absence of a pre-election agreement many voters already appear to be planning to transfer between the two. Thus a good way to maximise transfers is for Labour to go for maximum Fine Gael transfers, both second preference and soft voters. In the last Red C poll as the chart below shows over 40% of FG voters say they will give a second preference to Labour, with an even greater percentage of Labour voters doing likewise (perhaps because they have fewer constituencies with two candidates). Given the transfer toxicity of FF, where only 20% of its own voters plan to carry on down the party list, this could have a serious impact on seats. Having difficulty uploading image so right click on little box or see second preferences table http://redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/SBP-13th-Feb-Poll-2011-Report.pdf
    Second Preferences

  8. Maybe another mistake was to admit on the Late Late that Croke Park would be left in place and worked and that Labour would change nothing from the infamous budget. Maybe another mistake, was to effectively vote in the budget and then all of ten seconds later say that the IMF deal had such onerous terms it had to be renegotiated as it was crucifying the Irish tax payer. Why breathe life into a deal and then seconds later start saying it had to be renegotiated? The deal put the burden totally on the back of the Irish people for the faulty design and loose regulation of the Euro zone economies. Our regulator and his 200 staff were asleep while drawing their salaries but the EU was also day dreaming into a crisis.

    Not tabling a vote of no confidence in Cowen was an endorsement of the budget and by extension the IMF/EU deal. The honest thing to have done would have been to bring down Cowens government and stop the IMF/EU bailout in its tracks while simultaneously telling the EU that we were having a democratic election in Ireland and that for once the result of that election would be respected. They could have waited to see what the mandate of the people was but that would have been too honest coming from a party that is being led by people that have changed parties, policies more times than a snake can shed its skin. FG also indulged in the same cheap shot tactics of an orchestrated delusion of the people.

    Some people are going to vote for Labour because they think they will not shed jobs but by the end of this year the Croke Park agreement will be gone.

    Meanwhile, talking out of both sides of their mouth Labour have handed a clear advantage to FG who are ruthlessly exploiting Labour’s “High Tax” policy to ostensibly pay for the Public Sector salaries guaranteed by Croke Park. We need targeted redundancies in the PS full stop, Otherwise, front line workers are going to get it on the back of the neck. The government must get out of bed with the unions, in any event, they can no longer pay the extravagant union “dues” involved.

    Mollycoddling unions who are nothing less than professional agitators, habitual blockers of reform and who are led by a rabble of self interest individuals on 150,000 a year who care not a whit for the country. They are the Jackie Healy Rae’s of Ireland but on an industrial scale. They have subverted the true meaning of trade unionism and changed the course of Irish history just as much as Anglo, Cowen, Bertie and Lenihan. Reform of the whole trade union movement is a blindingly obvious necessity that nobody wants to deal with least of all the Beggs and O’Connors of this world.

    • Just a minor point of information on the above, Labour knew they didn’t have the numbers to pass the motion of no confidence as the Greens reiterated their commitment to passing the finance bill even after pulling out of government. The choice, for Labour, wasn’t between passing the finance bill or passing the motion of no confidence rather, it was between losing a no confidence bill and then allowing the government to stumble on for an extra 7 or 8 days to pass the finance bill or allowing their Dáil private members time to be used to debate the Finance bill and facilitate an early election. Insisting on the motion of confidence when you didn’t have the numbers would have been pointless grandstanding.

  9. A number of things went wrong with Labour one of those was this Tony Blair type presidental style of Gilmore for Taoiseach campaign. Also they were begining to look to much like Blair’s New Labour which amounted to nothing more than Tory Lite. In doing this they moved too far to the right even though they talk of raising taxes. Its the old case of trying to please everyone and not managing to please anyone.

  10. I don’t think Labour’s campaign problems have much to do with ideology at all. Even ULA, Joe Higgins, Sinn Fein or their ‘right wing’ counterparts need to attract high preferences from across the political spectrum to ensure election under our PR-STV system. That’s part of the beauty of it in a way!

    I think Labour’s currrent campaign lethargy has more to with the limitations of negativity as a political strategy and a hubristic miscalculation of the public mood.

    Since this crisis developed Labour’s sole response has been one of relentless negativity; opposing every measure proposed to deal with the fallout from the collapse, whether good, bad or indifferent, and thereby seeking to capitalise, and sometimes stoke, the understandable public anger with what Fianna Fail and ‘Bertieism’ has done to this country.

    Which is all fine until FF are taken out of the equation and the career of the latest lightning rod for public anger, Brian Cowen, comes to an ignominious end. A strategy entirely based on knee-jerk reactions to the public mood at any given moment in time and mired in negativity, rather than any constructive engagement with the issues, was inevitably always going to head for a brick wall. The Labour elite failed to appreciate that. In fact, there was no telling them!

    In this election, as well as consigning FF and its cronies to the political wilderness, the public want to know what the alternatives on offer are going to do to fix the awful mess we’re in, or at the very least, stop it from getting any worse. The Irish public have lost confidence in all the political parties and in politics in general. Like the Church and the Banks before them, our politicial institutions are rightly perceived as having failed this society. So this election is about picking the best of a bad lot; it doesn’t mean there is any great faith in what FG, or any other alternative, can do to put the country back on the right path.

    Prick the balloon of Labour’s negativity and all that comes out is hot air. Unlike FG, little or no work was done on policy alternatives. I agree with Jane Suiter that Labour was particularly lax on the policy front over the past two years whilst FG was beavering away on policy ideas, testing them and refining them long before the GE was called. Even where Labour did produce policies on the economy, they were generally lightweight in content and, when subjected to any scrutiny, tended to be exposed as impractical. Labour finally lost the debate on the economy at the time of the last Budget. Unlike FG and Sinn Fein, who presented their own versions of a Four Year Plan – however much one might disagree with aspects of their respective plans – Labour contented itself with a one year Budgetary response. A poor quality effort at that. In the course of the actual election campaign, Labour has already shifted its ground so often on tax and economic strategy that it’s hard to keep up with them. And what is one to make of those nasty, negative half page ads in the newspapers over the past couple of days, attacking FG policies without explaining how their own might differ, especially given their 50/50 tax/cuts plan to resolve the deficit? Do they think the Irish public can’t do simple arithmetic?

    The ‘leader cult’ strategy has turned out to be a fiasco too, and there’s been more than a whiff of Stalinism about the general tone of the Party’s campaign. What, for example, was the average civil servant to make of Gilmore’s description of the head of the ECB as a civil servant ‘who would do as he’s told’? Or the rest of us of that ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ line? What does that sort of language infer might happen to the rights of freedom of speech or expression for any who don’t fall into line with ‘Eamon’s Way’ in a Labour-dominated regime? Such a perception of the Labour mindset would, of course, in reality be entirely unfair and unjust. Eamon Gilmore is a fine leader who would be a credit to any party. However, when a party is competing for power and leadership of a country, how they put what they say becomes just as important as what they mean to say.

    As for the TU factor, Jack O’Connor’s advice to trade unionists to vote Labour is aruguably more a hindrance than a help and not helped either by the fact that there’s apparently a Jack O’Connor (the same) on the national executive council of the Labour Party, which calls the shots within the Party itself. Or that the public have also lost trust and respect for the Irish Trade Union Movement, as well as the church, the banks and our political institutions. If Eamon Gilmore wanted to achieve his ambition to place his party into contention as a party of government, he might have started by breaking the union connection when he became leader in 2007. But there’s something very old-fashioned and traditional about Labour. Endearing in many ways; but capable of frightening the horses in other circumstances.

    For many in the Labour elite, this election represents their last chance of power. I’m not convinced by the argument that if FG end up being able to form government on their own, with independent support, that Labour will blossom in opposition. Many of the party’s front bench will retire come the next GE – that is unless they want to hang on, hoping for office, into their ‘seventies! But can the party in the meantime, with its current front bench and leadership age profile, attract sufficient new recruits, especially among younger age cohorts, to reinvigorate it as a force in Irish politics?

    I think Labour will have a very good day out on February 25th; but maybe not quite the day it may have hoped for. If current trends continue in the opinion polls, there is a risk that Labour could yet again live up to the old adage of the ‘see-saw party’, constantly up and down in the polls, but ultimately going nowhere. But there’s always hope…. they may yet be able to turn their campaign around and pull the irons out of the fire! Stranger things have happened in Irish elections in the past.

    • Wow! A comprehensive and compelling analysis. (The Stalinist tag might be a bit extreme; my sense is that it’s some Marxist-Leninist ‘democratic centralism’ carried through from DL’s reverse take-over of Labour. This is a different Labour party from the one that Lemass once described as ‘the most honourable, decent, harmless bunch of men that ever graced a parliament’.)

      I think, though, you have arrived at the same conclusion as I have: barring a miracle, they will struggle to set a marker much above that of the last Spring-tide.

      • Thanks, Paul. On reflection, I stand over my remarks. Lenin gave birth to it, but Stalin’s regime was the perfect exemplar of what happens when the principles of democratic centralism are taken to their logical extreme. There have, very regretably, been echoes of that ‘dc’ mindset in the behaviour of certain members of the Labour Party elite over the past couple of years.

        One of the other things that has struck me about their approach to economic policy sicne the start of the crisis has been a seeming inability to prioritise issues – everything that happened engendered the same level of negative response/overreaction irrespective of whether or not it was justified in the circumstances. That kind of approach eventually runs out of road.

        Unless Jehovah parts the clouds and pours forth his shining light and beneficence on the dear old party in the next week, I’m not even sure they’ll reach the high water mark of the Spring Tide. The poll gap with FG is too wide for a start. And then there’s some fairly fierce competition on the left as well.

      • I work in the private sector and just rang my sister who works in the public sector both of us are preparing to vote strategically (independents then FG) to keep Labour out of government because we both know that smug unions have played a disgracefully dishonest game to date in return for a deal that will fizzle out. They blithely allowed NAMA “only game in town” to be foisted on us. That money borrowed at one per cent should have been used as a stimulus. When 40bn of borrowings was being channelled into NAMA it was obvious that we were running out of international credit. The unions could have organised a series of marches against NAMA. Why did they not? Because they had Croker in their sights. They sacrificed the common good for the good of the few and propelled along the road to loss of sovereignty. Lenihan had to be stopped but nobody was prepared to stop him the hard way.

        You cannot champion the Public Sector and then expect those outside the pale to vote for you. Labour are lucky to have the level of support they have and would have less if people really understood what was going on.

    • Alan,

      In a way, those ill-tempered outbrusts by Shorthall and Burton make the point about a mindset in the Labour elite that tolerates no dissenting views of the world to their own – especially not coming from Trotskyists or Maoists or such other ‘fringe’ left tendencies – and the ‘groupthink’ that encouraged them to believe they could build a leadership cult around the personality of Eamon Gilmore that would cut the mustard with the general public. And it’s oh so last century. It’s like FFers labelling FGers ‘blueshirts’, except that there’s some cultural and historical resonance to that. How many Irish voters even know who Trotsky was? Or care?

  11. Strong connections with the unions has gradually become a real problem for Labour. This connection was fine in the 80s when almost 2/3 of the entire workforce were in unions, and unions could quite validly claim to represent the ordinary worker. But union membership in the last 30 years has for various reasons become increasingly ghettoized in the public sector. There’s almost blanket union coverage there now, with only about 1/3 union membership in the private sector. And even the upper echelons of unions have become staffed with a certain type of careerist (often straight from university) rather than ordinary members rising through the ranks from the factory floor. Labour is increasingly viewed (perhaps with some justification) as being a sectional interest group. And union heads putting their heads into Bertie’s social partnership trough hasn’t helped this perception.

    An aging Labour party is in a real quandary. SF and ULA are starting to eat into traditional support they’ve managed to retain up to now in more deprived working class areas. And while they’ve probably managed to gain a lot of support from PS workers for this election (and maybe the next if out of government), that’s probably quite a fickle vote, and could as easily leak back to other parties in the future. Really difficult to see how Labour can manage to maintain this delicate balancing act (traditional working class base v more centrist PS vote) long term. If somehow union membership could be extended back out into the general workforce again in high levels that would solve all Labour’s problems. But those kinds of days are probably over.

    • In those circumstances Labour’s problems might be addressed, but the problems we, the citizens face would be compounded.

      The public and civil services resolutely oppose change precisely because of the manner in which Unions have buried themselves into the operational functions of departments.

      It is simply not acceptable that the response to any change whatsoever is a demand for more money. This is effectively demanding more money for the same effort/application of skill. It is dishonest, and it is extortionate. It is an abuse of the public purse, and it must be excised as a practice that will not be tolerated.

      The fact that Labour and the Unions are effectively one and the same demonstrates that Labour cannot implement the real change that is necessary in Ireland.

      All the adjustments to governance, local government funding, electoral reform, and similar initiatives will be utterly ineffective without parallel root and branch reform in operational practices in the public service.

  12. The stupidest thing that the Labour party did was to realise from their past experience that having a pact with fg was a bad idea on one hand and then saying they would not go in with anyone else except them on the other.

    As much as they may loathe SF or FF they should have just kept to the line that they were standing as an individual party and would not be aligning themselves with or against any party.
    But the biggest Problem the labour party have is the lack of new blood. FG seem to have all the exciting new kids.

  13. While acknowledging that it’s easier to evaluate strategy post hoc than in advance, it still seems a little puzzling that a party would first declare that there is only one other party with whom it would be prepared to form a coalition, and then proceed to concentrate most of its fire on precisely that party.

  14. Pingback: Irish Labour’s desperate gamble | Left Futures

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