Next Tuesday morning a school bus will pull up outside a hotel in Galway and a scatter of kids - in shiny new uniforms, with cheese and banana sandwiches in their satchels – will clamber into the lobby.
The fresh-faced ones are Fine Gael’s new TDs. In the immediate wake of the election, the party made a couple of vain and empty boasts like it had won the election (nearly); had got into government (nearly) and had bounced right back from the near-oblivion of 2002 (nearly). The one boast that it could really stand over without having to qualify or explain is that it has youth on its side. At least a couple of those sitting on the FG benches on the first day of the 30th Dail look like they had a tube of Clearasil stashed away somewhere on their person and still need to carry ID to get into pubs.
And sitting alongside them – hardly a zimmer frame length away – was the Labour Party parliamentary party. The tragedy that the media was writing up after the election was one relative one of youth and age. The argument went that the time this Dail comes to the end, the form of ID that most Labour Party TDs will carry with them will be the free travel pass. They must be green with envy comparing its failure to get more than three younger TDs elected with the success of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in terms of renewal. I heard the new super junior minister for children Brendan Smith reeling out the same old lines last week, like he was racing through the first decade of the rosary. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael equals young and vibrant. Labour equals doddery and falling into decrepitude.
It’s an easy exercise to do, to tot up the average age of the parliamentary party and find out that, hey, it’s 55. And what does that tell you? A little bit, sure. Ultimately, not a lot. Fine Gael had the youngest front bench of all the parties in the last Dáil. Performance wise, they had few star performers (Richard Bruton), a bunch of mediocrities and a few who were dire, completely dire. The woeful performers did include TDs who been knocking around for years. But it can also be said that of their younger spokespeople – John Deasy; Olwyn Enright, Denis Naughten, Simon Coveney – none really distinguished themselves as anything amazing.
To be sure, Labour has an age issue. But it’s been over-stated. Sure the party wanted more young blood. And it will be a major surprise if Gilmore doesn’t fast-track Sean Sherlock (and maybe Ciaran Lynch) into a senior role.
But let’s explore another thought for a second. This might seem like a strange proposition but the party is in a far better position than FF and FG to renew itself now and reap the benefits in the next election. If a third of its parliamentary party is retiring in the next election, Labour can spend the next year finding replacements (in addition to the ready-made candidates in the Senate), blooding them in the local elections if necessary, and making them recognisable Dail aspirants long before 2012.
To achieve that, Gilmore as the new leader will need to concentrate on the organisation more than his own profile in the first year. The mistakes made in Carlow-Kilkenny - where the party had no thought-out strategy to find a replacement for Seamus Pattison – cannot be allowed to be repeated. To do that, Gilmore and his team will have to borrow a tactic from Workers Party days – the use of a ruthless centralism to choose the right candidates and strategies locally.
And it’s not a nonsense to suggest that two big parties will have difficulties with renewal even if they have many young TDs.
Fianna Fail’s difficulty is encapsulated by Brendan Smith’s own experience. He’s been a TD for 15 years now and he’s not even at the Cabinet table yet. Bertie Ahern likes his troops to serve long apprenticeships. But when they’re promoted, they tend to stay put … forever. Most of his senior ministers have lots of smarts, granted. The problem is with the second-tier. They’ve also been around for a long time but very few have the necessary calibre or character. To really renew, Brian Cowen (when he eventually becomes leader) will have to be ruthless and skip a generation for some of his key people.
And what about Fine Gael’s lack of renewal? It will have a couple of badly-needed heavy hitters this time around, with the return of Brian Hayes, Charlie Flanagan and Alan Shatter to the Dáil. Its problem is positioning. Its identification of the three election issues didn’t work. Its decision to make the election a referendum on health doesn’t work. It’s been so long out of power now that it has been reduced to being the party that gives FF a rest from government every generation or so. It needs to get radical… and quckly!