Is the Irish Labour party finished, is a question that’s been asked for nearly as long as the party has existed. In the last year or so however, or more accurately since a couple of years into the Fine Gael-led coalition, the party’s tail-spinning poll numbers have started to feel symptomatic of a terminal decline. The old question has a new urgency. The regular Irish Times’ poll with Ipsos/MRBI hasn’t placed Labour over 10% since February 2013. The same poll has yet to rise above the benchmark set in February last year, when the party’s support bottomed out at 6.6% in the general election.
On some level, the party recognises that the negative association with the last government isn’t going away in a hurry. Asked whether Labour’s problems might stem from increased competition on the left, Councillor Martina Genockey, recently selected as the party’s candidate in Dublin South-West, is quick to retort that no, “our biggest problem is that we were in government for five years”.
Abatement of hostility?
“People are still seeing things through that lens”, she says. A year on from the nadir of Labour’s worst general election result, policy proposals are still met on the doorstep with shouts of “you didn’t do this when you were in government, you didn’t do that”. That isn’t to say that canvassing is as rough as it once was. The increased amiability on doorsteps is a recurring line in conversations with the new array of candidates.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a swing to Labour”, says Andrew Montague, selected to run in Dublin North-West, “but the anger against Labour has dissipated”. Ged Nash, elected to the Seanad and selected in April to run for his old Dáil seat in Louth, says that “there’s been an abatement of the hostility experienced on the doors”.
That the polls have, if anything, gone in the wrong direction since the election, misses the point, says Kevin Humphreys, also a Senator. “Don’t necessarily expect movement in the polls”. Labour, he says, are focussing on 15-20 winnable constituencies, such that national opinion polls may not reflect the party’s strength.
How credible is this? According to a spokesperson for the parliamentary party, plans are well underway for the next election, whenever it comes. The plan is to contest a minimum of 30 out of 39 constituencies. All selection conventions are intended to be completed by Christmas, with conventions already on the cards to select Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Seán Sherlock, Brendan Ryan and in Meath West, newcomer Tracy McElhenny. A draft manifesto has been prepared, a fundraising drive is underway, while a membership recruitment drive is ongoing, said the spokesperson.
The stated aim of party leader Howlin has been to double the party’s Dáil representation at the next election. Achieving that, bringing Labour to around 14 seats, would see it back around its historical average. That’s when the real rebuild could begin, you might think.
Labour’s problem lies partially in its vote distribution, says Adrian Kavanagh, a lecturer in political geography at Maynooth University. Until not that long ago, Labour’s real base was in rural Leinster and Munster, and not necessarily in Dublin. That changed after the amalgamation with Democratic Left in 1999. “The change in the last number of years is in the loss of traditional working-class areas”, says Kavanagh. The party’s result last year saw it shrink back to a core of largely personal votes in rural Leinster and Munster – with the likes of Howlin in Wexford, Willie Penrose in Longford- Westmeath, and Alan Kelly in Tipperary clinging on.
This leaves the party in a precarious position as regards vote share. Its vote is more thinly spread than that of Solidarity-People Before Profit, who won only one less seat on a lower vote total. If Labour falls a few percentage points below the 6.6% from last year, “they’ll struggle to win any seats” says Kavanagh – his analysis of the most recent Sunday Business Post poll has Labour winning only one, with Brendan Howlin in Wexford perhaps the sole survivor. Such is the geographical distribution of Labour’s vote, this could come about even as Solidarity- People Before Profit leapfrog them to 7 seats, still on a lower vote share. On the other hand, if Labour go up a few percentage points, “then it’d be possible to get back up to the mid-teens in terms of seats, which is quite a respectable result”.
Separate, and socialist?
Fairly or not, the primary accusation that’s been levelled at Labour in the years since it entered government has been that it turned away from its working-class base, with the consequences being felt at the ballot box. Joan Burton, the then-leader, lost more than 3,000 votes at the 2016 election. Party figures are reluctant to give credence to this viewpoint – Labour stepped up in the national interest, they still say. According to Nash, Labour’s “unique selling point is that we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is”, minus a harmful obsession with being “philosophically pure”. Humphreys rejects the idea that Labour’s social democratic roots were abandoned, and emphasises the traditional idea that the party has a record of delivery. “Protest, not People: is all those on the hard left are good for”.
Labour are in many ways dealing with an old problem, says DCU academic Eoin O’Malley. “They’re not radical enough for lots of people, while at the same time, they’re a bit too radical for a lot of people in centrist Ireland”. Furthermore, says O’Malley, “as pragmatic as the Labour Party is, it damaged them as a brand to go into government”. Better in 2011, would have been to lean on Fianna Fáil to prop up a Fine Gael government, sailing into 2016 as the uncontested leader of the opposition for the first time in its history.
Counter-factuals are fine but what should the party be doing?
The party has taken the implications of its diminished representation seriously – rewriting the party constitution, re-energising ordinary supporters and, says Ged Nash, turning the party into a “membership-based organisation”.
Mark Wall, candidate in Kildare South, argues that “we have to go back to the roots, and to where we were founded…We were there to protect the working man originally, the working person, and that has to be the strategy”. Emmet Stagg in Kildare North, considered to be on the party’s left flank, says he is “very clear that we are a separate socialist, social democratic party”. Nash is clear that “our agenda should be a radical, social democratic agenda, but also a pragmatic and realistic one”.
Candidates point to work done by the party’s new Policy Unit, headed by ex-TD Alex White, in the wake of the last election, to produce substantial proposals in ‘The Future of Work’, a document looking at workers’ rights and the changing workplace in the digital age. Similarly, rises in the minimum wage and the establishment of the Low Pay Commission while in government are still points of pride for the party. Others mention local issues, such as crime in Ballymun, local transport provision in Kildare North.
Realistically of course, throwing words like ‘socialist’ and ‘social democrat’ around is easy, and no Irish election was ever really won on the finer points of political philosophy. In conversation, the candidates bring the discussion around to policies and positions that will win some votes at election time: housing, capital spending, childcare and public transport. What Labour needs are decent, waterproof policies, and a ream of candidates people trust over some of the negative connotations the party has acquired.
Have they any hope? “Anything that’s 100 years old probably has deep enough roots”, says Eoin O’Malley. Labour has a sizeable membership, something which post-election reforms have sought to emphasise. The party has had success on freelance workers’ rights in opposition, and is part of the energetic campaign to repeal the 8th amendment. “For a couple of electoral cycles at least, the party will be in reasonably good shape”, says O’Malley. More concerning maybe is the increased level of competition on the left, with Labour candidates being shut out last year not only by the Civil War parties, but by popular fellow-travellers on the left such as Roisín Shorthall, Joan Collins, and Tommy Broughan.
Andrew Montague says that “competition is good, it drives innovation in other walks of life and in politics. We have to work hard to earn our vote”. It’s never been easy for them, at least.
LABOUR’S NEW HOPES
Some are party veterans with decades clocked up in the Dáil. Others have a high profile already, most notably Aodhán Ó Riordáin, who has done a good line in Democrat-style anti-Trump shtick in the media since his election as a senator. Andrew Montague is a Dublin City Councillor and former Lord Mayor, while Rebecca Moynihan in Dublin South Central, Deirdre Kingston in Dún Laoghaire, and Martina Genockey in Dublin South West (including Labour’s unhappy hunting ground of Jobstown) are councillors from the generation that will ultimately have to revive the party and bring it forward.
DUBLIN BAY NORTH
Possibly the party’s best-known name, and certainly so internationally after his November Seanad speech branding President-elect Trump a fascist went viral, Aodhán Ó Riordáin lost out to ex-Labour independent Tommy Broughan and Sinn Féin’s Denise Mitchell last year. A decent swing to Labour should see him in with a shout, though after finishing the final count 1,000 votes behind Mitchell, he has ground to make up.
DUBLIN NORTH WEST
Andrew Montague was Lord Mayor of Dublin 2011-12. Last February Labour lost 2,000 votes, leaving Montague with a hill to climb. Almost 60% of the vote went to other left candidates, with Social Democrat Roisín Shorthall and Dessie Ellis of Sinn Féin pulling half the electorate between them. Fine Gael’s Noel Rock is the lowest-hanging fruit in the three-seater.
DUBLIN SOUTH CENTRAL
Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin last year, Rebecca Moynihan takes over from Eric Byrne as Labour candidate in South Central. The constituency is among the country’s most left-wing, electing Bríd Smith, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, and Joan Collins last year, though whether much of that anti-establishment vote will ever transfer back to Labour is an open question. Moynihan will need to add 1,000 or so to Byrne’s total from last year to have a chance of dragging Smith into a battle.
Deirdre Kingston, a Councillor from Blackrock, faces a constituency currently represented by three Fine Gael TDs after then-Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett was automatically returned last time. Back to a four-seater at the next election, Kingston will need to reclaim some of the enormous 2011 vote, when Éamon Gilmore and Ivana Bacik collected 30% between them, a far cry from the 8% Gilmore’s replacement candidate Carrie Smyth picked up in 2016.
Mark Wall, son of retired TD Jack, ran unsuccessfully in 2016, getting 4,277 first preferences, and beaten by Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl at the final count. With the recommended addition of a fourth seat to the constituency from the Constituency Commission’s report, Wall is in with a fighting chance, with the most likely outcome a straight dogfight with Sinn Féin, who ran Patricia Ryan last time out.