Gilmore: the only leader in whom voters have confidence

WHEN Eamon Gilmore claimed last July that his party could win 50 seats in the next general election, it was generally seen as overly optimistic. But the results of the latest opinion polls suggest this is now a more than realistic target for Labour.

Put simply, if Labour is at anything over 30% in the next election, it will win the 50 seats Gilmore believes are attainable.

The party's traditional absence from constituencies along the western seaboard is an obvious obstacle and could limit its potential to get the kind of overall seat bonus that the two big parties usually secure when they poll well.

But, with the party also likely to draw considerable transfers from Fine Gael, it is hard to see it being left with a much lesser share of the seats than its share of the vote.

To say Labour is in an unprecedented position is an understatement. This is a party that has secured an average of 11% of the vote in elections since 1923 and only once reached the dizzy heights of 19.3%. Latest polls suggest it is on track to secure almost twice that.

Of course a lot can happen between now and election day. There is a widespread view in the two main parties that much of this latest surge in support is "soft" and vulnerable, particularly during an election campaign when Labour will come under pressure to reveal its budgetary plans. They also point to Labour's more modest performance in last year's local elections when it secured less than 15% of the vote.

There is some substance to such claims but, against that, Labour has been on an upward trajectory over the past 18 months and the polls indicate it is the only party with a leader in whom the public has confidence.

And the other parties' optimism that Labour will be forced to say what it is going to do about cutbacks and tax increases may be misplaced. There is ample evidence – the recent UK election being one example – that voters don't thank parties for giving them bad news and prefer vague messages of hope.

The policies of the next government – whatever its make-up – will be almost identical to those of the current coalition. The crisis in the public finances means there is no alternative. But don't expect Labour to be highlighting that fact before election day, and don't expect the voters to punish the party for not doing so.

When it comes to voters actually ticking boxes, a lack of recognition may hamper Labour's candidates. But if the mood for change is there, that may not be as big a factor as usual. And even if Labour doesn't live up to its current poll ratings, it's hard to see it dropping back below 25%, which all but guarantees it 40 seats.

A Sunday Tribune assessment of the 43 constituencies last July found that Labour looked set for a seat haul in the mid-thirties, with another 16 seats very much in play. The party's support has increased since that poll. A once unthinkable 50 seats is far from unattainable.