Incoming leader will be vital to Labour’s revival
Renewal is vital but part of the process will likely mean a spell in Opposition
The new leader must not destabilise relations with Fine Gael to such an extent that it would plunge us into a general election.’ Above, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore speaking on his resignation as Labour Party leader. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Over the weekend Labour Party members watched in stunned disbelief as the votes came tumbling out of the ballot boxes.
Everyone had been realistic enough to understand that the local and European elections would be difficult. There is a long history of voters using mid-term elections to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with government parties. In addition, the Labour Party has been a member of a coalition government that had inherited the greatest economic crisis the State had ever faced. It had been forced to take corrective measures that were deeply unpopular and painful for the public. Voters felt battered and broken by six years of austerity.
But even in the gloomiest days of a difficult election campaign, most Labour members had not anticipated such a level of carnage. Long-serving councillors who had served their communities were swept aside as the voters unleashed a tidal wave of anger against Labour. It was a long way indeed from the heady days of the last general and presidential elections.
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The drop in Labour vote and the scale of the losses are such that some commentators have questioned whether or not Labour has a future.
Those who are looking to dance on Labour’s grave are underestimating the resilience of the party. In its 102-year history, Labour has survived splits, defections, disastrous election results and – in one famous case – the resignation of its leader and his defection to Fine Gael.
Some commentators fail to recall that Labour has been in this territory before. Under Dick Spring, the party did not win a single seat in the 1984 European elections. In the following year’s local elections almost two-thirds of its council seats were lost and the party’s representation on Dublin City Council was reduced to one seat. Labour regrouped and went on to win what was then a record number of Dáil seats in the 1992 general election. Of course, the emergence of Sinn Féin as a significant political force has made the challenge of recovery much greater than it was in the 1980s.
Process of renewal Despite this, I am confident that the Labour Party can recover from the drubbing it received last weekend and continue to play a vital role in Irish politics, promoting social democratic values. It still has so much to offer.
The election of a leader to replace Eamon Gilmore can play a vital part in the process of renewal. Members face a crucial decision in the choice of a new leader. They will want one who can reconnect with the public, restore trust that has been lost, assert Labour values in Government and win several achievable victories for Labour voters. At the same time, the new leader must not destabilise relations with Fine Gael to such an extent that it would plunge us into a general election. That would be disastrous for the party and damaging for the State. All of this is a big ask for the incoming leader.
Ideally, Labour also needs a new leader who will serve for at least two Dáil terms. Part of the process will probably involve going into Opposition, a decision that may be made for the party by the electorate.
The leadership election campaign can play a part in the process of renewal. Uniquely among Irish political parties, Labour allows every one of its members to cast a vote for the new leader. Candidates for the post of leader and deputy leader will appear at a series of hustings around the State as they can set out their positions.
Labour received a stark message from the electorate last weekend. The party now needs to listen to its members as it tries to chart a way back. It requires a leader who will acknowledge that mistakes were made in the last general election campaign. Promises were made which could not be delivered upon. Labour needs a leader who will acknowledge that the party took its eye off the ball in regard to the withdrawal of discretionary medical cards.
Eamon Gilmore and other Labour Ministers are decent, humane and genuinely caring people. But in focusing so much on macroeconomic issues, the Cabinet allowed decisions to be made in regard to the withdrawal of medical cards which, to most people, appeared cruel and uncaring. That cannot be allowed to happen again.
The general election whenever it comes, will present a huge challenge for Labour. There is no evidence from the past to suggest that voting patterns in mid-term elections are repeated at general elections. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that it could not happen.
There will be a difficulty in finding candidates in some areas. While most of those Labour TDs who were elected for the first time in 2011 will probably run again, in many cases the support networks of local councillors, on whom they depend, have been swept away. In other cases, likely successors to older TDs considering retirement have lost their council seats.
Daunting economic task It hard to find any silver lining in the elections and their aftermath but, apart from the honourable and dignified way in which Eamon Gilmore handled his departure, one ray of hope is provided by the election of a number of
young, women councillors around the State. Thirty-five per cent of Labour’s diminished body of local councillors are now women. That is a good augur for the future.
The Fine Gael-Labour Coalition is a government born of unprecedented circumstances, and it has already achieved its primary goal of restoring economic stability and beginning the process of recovery. But now it is time to ensure that the recovery translates in real improvements in the living standards of those who have suffered so much.
A renewed Labour Party under a new leader must take the lead in ensuring that this happens.
Tony Heffernan is a former press and parliamentary director for the Labour Party and is now an account director with DHR Communications