It is fair to say that Labour would probably rather forget their time in the 32nd Dail, when the badly reduced party was relegated to “Also there” status. The person that led them into the electoral maw last time remains the party’s Dublin West candidate, even if her time as a headliner appears to have conclusively ended.
Joan Burton is a sitting Labour TD, and the party’s spokesperson on Finance, Public Expenditure, Reform and the Arts. First contesting a Dail seat in 1989, she was elected to local council in 1991 and then to the national legislature in 1992, becoming a Minister of State for Social Welfare in the Fianna Fail/Labour coalition, and later for Foreign Affairs under the Rainbow Coalition. She lost her seat in 1997, got elected back to the council in 1999, and returned to the Dail in 2002. She topped the poll in 2007 and became Deputy Leader of the party, before becoming the Minister for Social Protection in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in 2011. In 2014 she became the first women to lead the Labour Party and Tanaiste. Clinging on to her seat in 2016, she resigned the leadership of the party once a government was formed.
Joan Burton is lucky to be here at all. It is extraordinary to think on it, but there is an alternate universe where Labour refused to go into government in 2011, became the biggest party within five years, and propelled Burton into being the nation’s first female Taoiseach. Instead, the defining image of her political career may be that incredibly awkward moment when Enda Kenny left her standing on her own as he drove off having just called an end to the 31st Dail.
Part and parcel of Labour’s less than stellar record as Fine Gael’s minority partner, she was widely tipped to lose her seat in 2016, but somehow managed to upset the odds, with the party diverting an excess of funds to her Dublin campaign, and Leo Varadkar informally encouraging his supporters to give her preferences, two things that allowed her to stay a few hundred votes ahead of Sinn Fein’s Paul Donnelly. But it is fair to say that, along with everyone else in Labour, she has been a diminished figure in the Dail since. She may in time come to inhabit a sort of elder stateswoman role as Michael Noonan sort-of did for Fine Gael in similar circumstances, but for now 2016 is too close, and the party have others to look to, and the fallout from the Jobstown trial continues to reverberate a bit.
This is not to say that Burton is a total waste of space in the Dail. She’s been there for the better part of quarter of a century, and she has spearheaded plenty of initiatives in that time. Her advocacy for female politicians is to be welcomed, and, as unpopular an opinion as it may be in some circles, I still feel that the Jobstown protest crossed lines. But I also think that she is part of a generation of Labour politicians that will need to quietly disappear before the party actually gets to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the Irish public, who will not so easily forgive five years of broken promises and “It would be worse if we weren’t here” excuse making.
To that end, it is difficult to analyse what she is promising to deliver and what she is criticising without immediately thinking “But why didn’t you do something about this when you had the chance?”. Increase the minimum wage to the 60% median? Great idea, why didn’t you do it? Require employers to engage with unions/facilitate collective bargaining? Great idea, why didn’t you do it? Creating new sustainable jobs in clean energy and eco-tourism? Great idea, why didn’t you do it?
Speaking purely on an electoral level, Burton has been mostly very solid since 2002. In three straight elections she increased her vote share, with the apogee being her poll-topping show in 2011, when she bested the current Taoiseach (and that was with a running-mate also in the race, the now ex-TD Patrick Nulty). As stated, her numbers dropped by a third in 2016, but she had enough to retain her seat.
But what about 2019? Well, it is reasonable to think that if she was able to ride out the storm three years ago then she should be able to be re-elected now, as the general opinion of Labour slowly goes back on the uptick. Nearly every local constituency returned a Labour councillor last year, which bodes well.
But there is the rise of the Greens to consider, a party that has been adept at siphoning off votes from the centre and left over the last 12 months. Roderic O’Gorman is going to take some of Burton’s votes. Ruth Coppinger’s election to the constituency in 2014 has also muddied the water a bit, providing an additional outlet for the left-leaning voter who may otherwise balk at the suggestion they would be “throwing away their vote” on a hard-left non-starter. And Paul Donnelly, only 400 first preferences off Burton three years ago, is still around and still in contention.
But I do think Burton will be re-elected, albeit she will probably take the last seat, and it will not be entirely comfortable. Labour are (very slightly) on the up, Solidarity-PBP had a disheartening performance around here in the locals while Sinn Fein have never been able to break through in the constituency: is the current state of the party adequate to make up the gap? I don’t think so. I would back Burton to retain her seat.
Not that I can claim to be especially delighted at the prospect. On a personal level I know a few people in the Labour Party and I know that there is a younger element that wants to get back to workers rights, left-wing solutions and progressive politics. They are a rejection of the austerity-backing centerism that has defined much of the last decade, which has not been obfuscated under Brendan Howlin’s lame-duck leadership or with Michael D. Higgins in the Aras. Their time is coming. Joan Burton, as well-intentioned as she may be, is an obstacle in their way. In a more general sense, Labour remains lost in the shuffle, and will need another election cycle before they can really be taken as seriously as they were pre-2011.
For Burton, victory is retaining the seat, pure and simple. Defeat is losing it, especially to Donnelly, which would cement Sinn Fein’s status as the preeminent left-wing party.
Next up, Fianna Fail.