Analysis: Labour in need of fresh blood and united front
Brendan Howlin must bring the party back to its core and reclaim working-class votes
Alan Kelly will have to settle for a position below Howlin, and is likely to be a brooding, bulky presence in a parliamentary party too small to pretend he isn’t there.
In the end it was a coronation. The process that resulted in Brendan Howlin becoming the new leader of the Labour Party was seamless. The politics of it, on the other hand, is more gnarled and twisted.
There will be uncomfortable questions asked about the uncontested nature of the process.
Over four days this week, the remaining seven Labour TDs met for hours in tense sessions to discuss the leadership of their party. Six agreed that a consensus candidate should emerge from the parliamentary party, and that person should be Brendan Howlin.
Party rules stipulate that anyone wishing to be leader needs a proposer and seconder from the ranks of TDs. Alan Kelly could propose himself but failed to get a seconder. Limerick TD Jan O’Sullivan came under particular pressure to second him but held firm.
Kelly’s supporters claim that Howlin wanted a coronation and felt a contest was beneath him; that the Wexford TD, who lost out on leadership twice before, was afraid he would lose again.
There will be blowback, there’s no doubt about that. The respected Galway councillor Niall McNelis yesterday complained that the leadership question should have been put to the wider membership. In a cutting line, he said the fate of the party had been decided by four people (neither Joan Burton nor party chairman Willie Penrose participated in the decision) rather than 4,000.
Respect and authority
The tailwind that saw Kelly triumph in the deputy leadership context two years ago might not blow quite as hard this time of asking.
And it wasn’t really undemocratic. The rules were observed to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. But the optics are not great. Kelly was not there when the new leader was unveiled. It suggests a split. Howlin will have to work hard to ensure it’s temporary, not permanent.
That said, there were stark, unavoidable, political considerations. The party is in dire straits. Most of its base built up over generations has evaporated, or gone elsewhere. A long painful period of rehabilitation awaits.
Howlin is vastly experienced. A previous minister for health and minister for the environment, he was a highly effective minister for public expenditure and reform between 2011 and 2016.
After the election, questions were asked about his appetite for the chase. His demeanour in recent days suggests he is no longer reluctant but up for the challenge. He needs to examine his manner and presentation, though, which can tend towards pomposity.
Lost territoryFine GaelFianna Fáil
There’s no avoiding a difficulty within the parliamentary party. Kelly’s “AK47” nickname is not for nothing, and speaks to his quick temper and aggressive manner. His scrapes with officials have become the thing of legend in political and government circles.
“He’s the opposite of what we need to win back voters in the leafy suburbs – which is where we’ll win them back first. He’s a Fianna Fáiler who is in the party through accident of birth,” was the cutting verdict of an internal critic.
Few believe this will be the end of Kelly. Howlin will lead the party into the next election but it is unlikely for much longer after that. At that juncture, Kelly will have strong competition from the likes of Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Ged Nash, among others.
For now, Kelly will have to settle for a position below Howlin, and is likely to be a brooding, bulky presence in a parliamentary party too small to pretend he isn’t there. Howlin’s immediate challenge is to present a united front, work on core principles, and be assertive. Eclipsed by others who are bigger and more shouty, the first six months will be crucial if he is to make a success of his leadership.