THE people do not want pain. Fianna Fáil and the Greens are inflicting pain and the two parties' opinion poll ratings reflect that. They are at rock-bottom. Labour is different. It has tapped into the public mood. Eamon Gilmore has become a lightning rod for public anger.
As the coalition government has implemented swingeing cuts to save the economy from oblivion, Gilmore has played a blinder. He has taken the Fianna Fáil blueprint on how to behave in opposition and emulated it.
The public are baying for Fianna Fáil blood so Gilmore acts as the conduit for that feeling. He opposes everything the government does, while his critics argue that he does not put forward enough alternatives.
Accusing Taoiseach Brian Cowen of "economic treason" was seen as below the belt in government circles. But it garnered media headlines – the necessary currency for an opinion poll surge.
By opposing everything in an angry manner on one hand, while sitting on the fence on a lot of issues on the other, Gilmore has broadened his appeal. Labour's meteoric rise in the opinion polls is testament to that.
Gilmore's ambiguity is working a treat. Take the Croke Park deal, for example. Every other political party pinned its colours to the mast from early on about the new public service pay and reform deal. Gilmore did nothing of the sort. Why alienate a massive group of voters, such as the public service, when you can take the high moral ground?
The Labour leader was repeatedly asked about his party's position on the deal, and he repeatedly deflected the question with the reply: "Let's have a bit of respect for the people who are party to that agreement and let them conduct their ballot without having political parties trying to interfere in it".
For weeks now, a procession of Fianna Fáil TDs and ministers have condemned Gilmore's position on the deal and pleaded with him to "stop sitting on the fence".
The irony is lost on the Fianna Fáilers: Sitting on the fence, being ambiguous and being everybody's friend was Bertie Ahern's modus operandi as taoiseach.
This begs the question: Is Eamon Gilmore the new Bertie Ahern? Has he become more Bertie than Bertie himself?
There are similarities. Bertie liked to portray himself as a man of the people with the common touch. And an initiative begun by Gilmore in recent weeks intends to communicate the same message.
Instead of touring around the country delivering speeches about Labour policies, he has taken a different approach. The 'In Conversation with Eamon Gilmore' roadshow is on tour around constituencies where Labour has the potential to make electoral gains.
It works like this. Instead of boring the crowd with a long political speech, he entertains them without any speech. Gilmore, the interviewee, sits on a comfortable armchair, and the interviewer, former political correspondent with INN and now a freelance journalist, Ken Murray, sits on another armchair on the stage.
The show they put on is more Afternoon Show than The Week in Politics. By all accounts it is a Nama-free zone as Murray asks the Labour leader about pre-arranged topics such as his family life, his entry into politics, his views on the issues of the day, and his background. Gilmore talks about how he has the solutions to Ireland's ills. But the devil is not in the detail, as there is very little detail.
Why get bogged down in boring policy details when the crowds are not that interested? It is better to give them what they want – the frivolous stuff.
In a recent 'In Conversation with Eamon Gilmore', the party leader revealed something about himself. He divulged that he never used to watch the RTE current affairs show Questions & Answers on a Monday night. The reason? He preferred instead to unwind after a long day of constituency clinics in front of Ally McBeal, the US comedy-drama about a fictional Boston lawyer.
Responding to Murray with an answer the masses would love, he said: "Funnily enough, I actually try to avoid current affairs programmes as they are like a busman's holiday. I remember I could never watch Questions & Answers.
"I used to do clinics on a Monday, and I'd get in worn out from listening to the complaints of constituents about 9.30pm or 10pm on a Monday evening, and the last thing I wanted to do at that hour of night after a long day was sit down and watch Questions & Answers. I was actually tired and I'd watch Ally McBeal or I'd watch something a lot more interesting and a lot more watchable..."
He went on to say that he does not have a lot of time to watch TV nowadays but he enjoys watching box sets of TV series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. He is looking forward to getting into The Wire creator David Simon's new series about post-Katrina New Orleans called Treme.
Why talk policy and politics, when you can talk about TV series that probably most people would prefer to watch rather than anything John Bowman presented?
The Sunday Tribune recently carried out an experiment, employing Britain's leading confidence expert, Nikki Owen, to analyse video footage of Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Brian Cowen speaking at their most recent party conferences. Owen had analysed the recent leaders' TV debates in the UK for Al-Jazeera and other stations.
After watching footage of Gilmore, Owen said: "He is emotionally connected, making him very compelling to watch. He conveys that he is a man of the people, that he understands how they feel.
"This is reflected in some really good people-orientated phrases such as 'human values rather than economic policies' and 'to govern is to serve the people'. His voice has an almost religious fervour. He exudes charisma. He is strong, emotionally compelling."
Charlie Haughey once said of Bertie Ahern that he was the "most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all". Gilmore also ticks a lot of those boxes in that he is a master political strategist. He knows exactly what the electorate wants to hear. And, like Ahern, he is willing when necessary to be ruthless. The way he wielded the knife against John O'Donoghue at the height of the expenses scandal was a case in point.
Gilmore has probably made a calculation. By constantly slating the most unpopular government in the history of the state his popularity can only surge. Last Friday's historic MRBI Ipsos/Irish Times opinion poll proved him right.
With a massive 46% satisfaction rating, Gilmore is the most popular party leader in the Dáil by some distance. One leader has surged above the others, like it's 1999. In June of that year, a similar Irish Times poll found that "the Teflon Taoiseach had bounced back" after Ahern's popularity jumped nine percentage points to 67%.
Although Gilmore's satisfaction is not at Ahern levels he is miles ahead of anybody else. The 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' signs that were held up at the 2009 Labour party conference were laughed at in many quarters, but Friday's poll now gives Gilmore the opportunity to sell Labour as the third player in a three-way battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate when the general election happens.
There is an argument that, when it comes to the election campaign, Labour cannot keep opposing everything without coming up with alternatives. There is a feeling that some of its current supporters may be "flushed out" if Labour fails to come up with the policies to match the rhetoric.
But the party is having its day in the sun at the moment and there is also an argument that this will continue. Bertie Ahern did it in the past, so why can't Eamon Gilmore?
In opposition, Fianna Fáil constantly berated the Fine Gael justice minister, Nora Owen, for failing to get tough on crime. Labour has taken a leaf out of the Fianna Fáil book with its approach to the banking crisis. And it is working where it matters most, with the public.
By meeting every interest and protest group at the gates of Leinster House, Labour is also keeping everybody on side in the same way that Ahern did in a previous era.
During the 2008 RTE documentary series on Bertie Ahern, foreign affairs minister Micheál Martin came out with a superb five-word analysis of his former leader when he said: "You've got to decode Bertie."
Martin was referring to Ahern's ambiguity. We should all probably set about decoding Gilmore. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Bertie Mark II may have been born.
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