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Friday 9 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Bluffing Burton is still holding a weak hand for election

Joan Burton
Joan Burton

If Joan Burton finds herself out of a job after the upcoming general election, she might consider becoming a professional poker player.

The Labour leader certainly knows how to make the best out of a weak hand.

As the countdown to polling day continues, Burton has unveiled a long list of promises aimed at shoring up her party's core support - but it remains to be seen how many people are willing to call her bluff.

Labour's new charm offensive covers all the bases. On economic policy the party's election manifesto will propose a 2:1 ratio of public spending over tax cuts, roughly the opposite of what Fine Gael are planning.

On social policy, Burton has committed herself to a new abortion referendum that could repeal the eighth amendment - even though she knows this whole issue makes Enda Kenny distinctly queasy.

The Tanaiste is also starting to talk about next month's Budget as if she has written it herself. Over the weekend she effectively revealed that there will be a €5 hike in child benefit, a 50c increase in the minimum wage to €9.15 and tax cuts for low to middle-income earners between €25,000 and €70,000.

All of these can be marketed as Labour victories over Fine Gael - as can an upcoming bill that will create 'rent certainty' for four years and prevent landlords from sharply raising their prices.

While Joan is eager to show voters that she is not Enda's lapdog, however, there are limits to her independence. The key word of Labour's election campaign will be 'stability', arguing that anything but a second term for this coalition would put Ireland's recovery at risk.

There will be no 'Burton for Taoiseach' posters, an admission that they have as much chance of leading the next government as Romania have of winning the Rugby World Cup.

abortion

So, this is Labour's pitch. But how well does it stand up to scrutiny?

For a start, Burton would be fooling herself to think that abortion can a big vote-winner. The Tanaiste did not actually join Saturday's pro-choice march through Dublin but did send party members a letter that said a change in law "cannot come soon enough".

At the same time, her own junior minister Aodhan O Riordain poured cold water on this idea by admitting that an early referendum "would be trounced... it would be 20 years before we can return to the issue."

Burton's basic problem is that she clearly wants to repeal the eighth amendment but refuses to say what exactly would replace it. This is understandable on one level, because any abortion law is guaranteed to offend a huge chunk of the electorate.

For now, however, people in search of a clearly pro-choice party are more likely to find it on the hard left.

When voters examine Burton's Budget promises, they may also decide that there is less to them than meets the eye. Not only is the child benefit increase tiny, it also highlights her failure to reform this badly outdated system.

Ever since becoming Social Protection Minister almost five years ago, she has talked about the possibility of taxing or means-testing the payments - but now it seems that was nothing but a lot of hot air.

The same goes for some other Labour proposals. A four-year limit on rent increases will be condemned as inadequate by most social housing campaigners, particularly after another homeless man has just died one minute's walk from Leinster House.

Tax cuts are always welcome, but history shows that Fine Gael will be far more likely to get whatever political credit there is going.

Above all, Burton's 'stability' message is a real sign of desperation. It means that she is promising to put manners on Fine Gael while also asking us to put both parties back in power, a difficult balancing act for any junior coalition partner.

The grim reality is that Labour has become a dangerously damaged brand, confirmed last Saturday by the decision of Dublin South West TD Eamonn Maloney to quit the party and run as an independent.

Joan Burton may be a skilful bluffer. Unfortunately for her, too many voters have already looked at Labour and thought, "We won't get fooled again."

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