Among the many factors which has led to the poor Labour Party performance in Meath was the inherent contradiction in its key canvassing message: ‘A vote for any of the other candidates is a vote for the status quo but a vote for Labour will increase our influence and power in Government’. Yet Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore’s advice was that, if he had a vote in the by-election, he would give his second preference to Fine Gael.
Labour’s messaging and optics depicted a leadership and campaign team out of touch with the general mood. Media descriptions of the Labour candidate portrayed an impressively dressed film producer and restaurant owner energetically canvassing for more influence within Government while launching a policy in support of same sex marriage. There was a distinct ‘cool hibernia’ feel to the campaign. And, of course, the backdrop to all this was the coalition’s description of the Cypriot deal – to tax small depositors and increase corporation tax – as a ‘positive development’. Meanwhile property tax notices came dropping through Meath letterboxes.
You do not have to reach too far back into the recent past to find the template for this behavior. The Greens, as junior coalition partners to Fianna Fáil, eagerly promoted civil partnership and a Lord Mayor for Dublin during the worst economic meltdown since the foundation of the State, to a bewildered and angry electorate. A key problem for Labour is that, depending on your view, that is, whether Fine Gael’s election campaign was so successful or Labour’s so inept, the party was panicked into making all sorts of promises during the campaign that it has not kept. Its clever Tesco-style advert ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’ attacking Fine Gael’s policy plans was considered a masterstroke of electioneering in that it halted the Labour slide and ensured Fine Gael would not form a single party government. Labour’s problem is that five of the six items – cuts to child benefit, an increase in VAT, in car tax, on wine and DIRT tax have all been imposed under Labour’s watch while the sixth, a water tax, is due next year. In fact, Pat Rabbitte was heavily criticized for his response when he retorted, ‘Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?’.
Of course, it is not all Labour’s fault. They inherited a basket case of an economy beholden to a troika inspectorate and a four year austerity plan to balance the books and repay the bailout. The political gains of the promissory note deal, if any, are well overshadowed by the cuts to low and middle income public sector workers in Croke Park II. Labour’s vote has been eaten into by Sinn Féin who continue to taunt them as a pro-austerity party supportive of a cosy consensus of cuts. Sinn Féin have been joined by a rejuvenated Fianna Fáil who, while generally supportive of a coalition that is following FF policy to the letter, claim they would ‘do the same, but not that way’.
You may be left scratching your head wondering how Fine Gael have survived the electorates wrath? Well, the 2011 general election was far from a radical transformation – more a shift of voters from one conservative catholic nationalist party to another. What we have now is two Irelands made up of those that are gainfully employed, are riding the recession and managing versus those that are under pressure and feeling the pain. It is the latter that transferred allegiance to Labour and now feel betrayed. Somewhere in this mix, according to the Meath figures, are voters who previously voted Labour but just cannot vote for Sinn Féin and shifted to Direct Democracy Ireland.
For Labour though, even in areas where voters expected them to make a difference it has been otherwise – the failure to reduce or withdraw funding to fee-paying schools, the delays in the introduction of a media ownership bill and ongoing failure to curb bankers pay and reduce, in any significant way, the pensions awarded to senior politicians and civil servants, are just a few. What Labour has produced is the fig leaf of constitutional reform but even these measures fall way short of the sweeping reforms necessary to radically overhaul the decision-making processes the country so badly needs.
Pat Rabbitte has observed that the by-election was fought on national issues and not on local ones. Important as it undoubtedly is, the Labour leadership felt that same-sex marriage was a key national issue.
Finally, the Labour leadership knows it has some searching questions to answer. It went before the electorate and asked for a mandate for more influence and power to implement its policies. The electorate’s reply was ‘What policies?’ and ‘No’.