by Kevin Meagher
The dangers of being a junior coalition partner are obvious enough – ask Nick Clegg – but across the Irish Sea, the example is, if anything, even starker.
The Irish Labour party has been the junior coalition partner to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael since 2011; administering painful austerity measures as Ireland grapples with the horrendous aftermath of its banking and property bubble explosion.
Now, the party has plummeted to just six per cent in the latest poll for the Irish Times, down from a high of 35 per cent in September 2010 before it went into government.
Along the way, Labour has lost one leader, Eamon Gilmore, a former Marxist turned moderate, who resigned as party leader, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and minister for foreign affairs and trade, following disastrous local election results earlier this year, narrowly escaping a no confidence motion from his own grassroots.
In a Sir Humphreyish back-handed compliment, Taoiseach Enda Kenney praised the Labour party for being “courageous” in pushing through painful economic reforms, which now include household water charges. This seems to be the measure that has now galvanised the country against austerity.
So much so, that Labour’s new leader, Joan Burton, was trapped in her car for three hours last month, surrounded by slogan-chanting protestors. In echoes of the poll tax in Britain, today’s opinion poll also shows less than half the Irish public (48 per cent) intend to actually pay the charge.
All this has been grist to the mill for Sinn Fein, topping today’s poll as Ireland’s most popular political party, with Gerry Adams also the most popular politician in the republic. The Shinners are now well-placed to form part of the next government at the 2016 general election.
But the Irish Labour party’s problems are not cyclical. A pincer movement between Sinn Fein and left-wing independents has squeezed the electoral life out of them. Even the Irish Independent, known for its aggressive propagandising against Sinn Fein, warns today that Labour “continues to struggle to avoid a…meltdown” as it loses ground in all directions.
But as Labour lies dead in the water, its coalition partner, Fine Gael, is still deemed to be the best party for managing Ireland’s relations with the EU, growing the economy and keeping spending under control.
The lesson for Ed Miliband is obvious enough: implementing austerity measures kills centre-left parties. So how does he avoid a similar fate? As he peers beyond May 2015, he needs to take a lesson from Enda Kenny instead.
He is navigating a political course through austerity by managing expectations and being realistic about the scale of the task at hand. By setting the ground early that there are no easy choices to be made, Kenny is showing that amid the howls of protest, it is at least possible to avoid cries of betrayal.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut