Howlin’s strategy driven by goal of centre-left alliance
Left-leaning bloc may serve Labour as bargaining chip in future government formation
Brendan Howlin’s request to Labour supporters to continue their preferences to others on the centre left in coming elections serves two purposes.
In the first instance, it is aimed at helping candidates in the dozen or so Dáil constituencies where Labour hopes to win seats at the next election.
Against stagnant opinion poll ratings, that seems a tough ask. Party figures, however, consistently argue that Labour’s battles will not be fought nationally but on a seat-by-seat basis.
In trying to build an alliance of the centre left – including the Green Party, the Social Democrats and “progressive Independents” – Howlin is seeking to ensure Labour is more transfer-friendly in constituencies where it is targeting Dáil seats.
An obvious example is Dublin Central, which is increasing from a three- to a four-seater at the next election. Joe Costello, the old Labour warhorse, is running to regain the seat he lost in 2016. One of his rivals is Gary Gannon, seen as a star of the Social Democrats.
Labour is quietly confident that Costello can win a seat, and that transfers from Gannon could see him through.
Although Howlin’s appeal was a unilateral offer and not a move towards a formal pact, he was almost immediately rebuffed by Róisín Shortall, the co-leader of the Social Democrats.
Some of the enmity between Shortall and her former colleagues in Labour lingers still, but Howlin and Eamon Ryan have co-operated on a number of issues in this Dáil. The Green Party leader is likely to be more agreeable to a transfer agreement than Shortall.
The prospect of government isn’t keeping any of us awake at night. It’s rebuild, rebuild, rebuild at the moment
Ryan may also be open to using an alliance of the left as a bargaining chip in post-election government formation talks, which is likely the second motivation to Howlin’s move.
One member of the parliamentary Labour Party privately said this is the main thinking behind the transfer announcement.
“If we get a critical mass, and the nature of the scale of that mass could only really be determined based on the outcome of the election and how seat numbers compare, it will get very interesting in terms of government formation.
“Looking at how we think the numbers could fall, we could possibly, along with the Greens and Soc Dems, be in a really strong position to make the difference and literally name our price. At the same time, the prospect of government isn’t keeping any of us awake at night. It’s rebuild, rebuild, rebuild at the moment. That’s our short-to-medium-term priority.”
If the post-election gap between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is tight, and if both parties continue to eschew a grand coalition or an alliance with Sinn Féin, then such a scenario will almost certainly come to pass.
Labour may not even have to vastly improve its Dáil standing to find itself, once again, in the position of post-election powerbroker. Leo Varadkar has privately mused about the possibility of coalition with Labour and the Greens, while Micheál Martin aspires to a centre-left coalition in tune with his social democratic views.
Yet many delegates at the Ballsbridge Hotel expressed deep unease about such a swift return to government after Labour’s bruising experience with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016.
The party has yet to recover from the charge that it broke promises made to the electorate in the 2011 campaign.
In announcing Labour will not countenance government again until a series of “red lines” on issues like housing, health and other policy areas are met, Howlin is trying to get beyond that era.
If he chooses to return to government, he will have to convince the electorate, and his party, that these “red lines” will not be broken.