Eamonn Gilmore promises no change
The new Labour leader has abandoned the radicalism of his leadership bid of five years ago. He is following the same course as his predecesors and seems fated to fail as they did
When Eamon Gilmore stood for the leadership of the Labour party in 2002, against Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin, he offered a very different prospectus from the one he has advanced this time.
In 2002 he argued Labour should seek to construct a united Left, which Labour as the strongest element, would lead, harnessing the combined energies of Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens to present a challenge to both the leading capitalist blocs – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. His focus then was on a left agenda, on substantive equality and justice.
But now that is all abandoned. He has made it clear there will be no alliance of the left, no cooperation with Sinn Fein and left-wing Independents. Labour is not to change, it is to be available yet again for government with one or other of the ‘capitalist' parties.
Five years ago he was talking about becoming a Labour Taoiseach, implying an objective of 40 plus seats, now that too is pared back, the target is ‘up to' 30 seats.
Perhaps this repositioning was because he expected a challenge from Brendan Howlin or Joan Burton or Tommy Broughan and he did not want to be exposed again as he was in 2002 when he got just 17 per cent of the party membership vote, a dismal performance. But whatever the reason, he is now stuck with the mantle he has taken on. Labour under Gilmore is to be undistinguishable from Labour under Rabbitte, from Labour under Quinn.
The absence of a leadership contest has done Labour no favour. The party needed a contest, needed a debate about itself and what it was about and where it was going. Now that opportunity has been closed down, the debate can hardly centre credibly around the deputy leader contest – who cares who is deputy leader, who knows who is deputy leader?
The failure of Pat Rabbitte's Mullingar Accord will lie unanalysed, the paucity of the position ABFF (Anyone But Fianna Fáil) has sufficed as the main identifier of Labour, now is it to do so again?
So far Gilmore has been satisfied to claim Labour nearly did it, another three seats would have put them in government with Fine Gael and the Greens thereby enabling Labour to implement its programme of “equality and solidarity”. All that is needed, it appears, is more effort and better organisation.
Labour had as good an organisation as it is likely to get in most of the constituencies where seats were a prospect. It failed to convince voters that it offered an alternative that was in any way a real alternative and it completely failed to harness the unhappiness with health, education and transport in any effective way.
And when voters were asked who would be best at managing the existing economy, within its existing parameters of defined policy, there was really no alternative to Fianna Fáil.
And had Labour won through and brought the Rainbow to power, the result may not have been what Labour expected. There was an assumption in Labour that they define the direction of any such government, completely ignoring the self-confident assertiveness that a Fine Gael revival would have prompted. Fine Gael would not have been as quiescent, rather triumphant. It would have set the agenda, not Labour.
Gilmore's strength is his ability to focus on detailed policy options to deal with problems that people have: on housing, for example, he is far and away ahead of every other competitor in any party, whatever he turns his mind to it seems he can come up with the goods.
His personality is aloof and defensive, very alike Pat Rabbitte's. And like Pat Rabbitte he is prone to pomposity and arrogance, which will do him no favours. His resort to cliché and banality for the purpose of that anticipated leadership contest has blunted his policy-wonk strength.
Where now stands the Seanad deal with Sinn Féin? That deal is done, and Gilmore is unlikely to renege on it. In essence, even if the idea of Left unity is played down, the reality of that deal is closer cooperation in practice between Labour and Republicanism.
It is just a pity that Gilmore feels the need to slink his way in rather than argue openly for the strategic changes that Labour must adopt if it is to avoid decline and irrelevance.
Eoin O'Murchú is the Eagra Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity.