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Bacik embraces optimistic view of a possible Labour renaissance

The party’s 14th leader has an immense task ahead with aggravation behind the scenes

For a party that is almost 110-years-old, it is remarkable how often the narrative around the Labour Party's fortunes have swung between either renaissance or oblivion.

The election of Ivana Bacik as the 14th leader has opened up old wounds and revealed the extent of the angst still facing members after a torrid time in Government in 2011 following the crash.

Facing a rising Sinn Féin, Labour members know they have not only lost votes to Mary Lou McDonald's party, but elsewhere, too, including the Social Democrats, parties further to the left, and, even, to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

The task ahead is immense and there is still aggravation behind closed doors about the manner in which Alan Kelly was ousted and Ivana Bacik was chosen. Despite this, there is a belief that a new chapter must open, and quickly.

'Labour should not go into Government with anyone. Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild'

Instead of celebrating after she was elected leader last Thursday week, Bacik hurriedly left the Ringsend Community Centre to head back to Leinster House to chair a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality.

Across the room, her former pupil and current Minister for Children, Green Party TD Roderic O'Gorman was not willing to let the moment go unnoticed, making a point of congratulating her.

“Yes, we will have to have a celebration at some point,” Ms Bacik says, “but it is one of the reasons why I am in politics, to try and achieve change for women’s rights.”

Party stalwart Willie Penrose, a TD from 1992 until 2020, disagreed often with Bacik in the past: "She could argue her point, yet win or lose she would come out afterwards and have a cup of tea with you."

“She has conviction. A politician without conviction is like a willow. It bends in the wind. It is always totting something up in the air to find out what is most opportune. That is useless politics. You are found out,” he says.

Councillor Dermot Lacey has seen 11 Labour leaders during his years of membership: "It is no secret that I was a friend and a fan of Alan's. But I think Ivana is a unifying figure.

“I think the public like and respect her. I think we have to just get on with it. They have all brought different strengths to the party. At this moment Ivana brings a sense of unity when it is needed.”

However, not everyone agrees, even if, for now, they choose to speak anonymously. One party figure, active for decades and speaking off-the-record, has a different view to Lacey’s.

“Her appeal is to a certain demographic, middle class liberal suburbia. Beyond that, I don’t know. She is bright and committed but (as for) her appeal to the wider constituencies ... ,” the voice trails off.

Just as importantly, there is concern shared by many members that “for the second time in recent years the leadership of the party seems to be have been decided by a small cohort in a private residence.”

The unhappiness centres around a meeting of Oireachtas members in March in Senator Marie Sherlock’s Phibsboro home, where the final decision was made to confront Alan Kelly with the message that the jig was up.

History is repeating itself.

In 2014, eight members of the Labour parliamentary party gathered in former TD Ciara Conway's apartment in Rialto, Dublin, to discuss tabling a motion of no confidence in Eamon Gilmore's leadership.

“The way in which this has happened has affected her credibility as leader of the party. It will make it harder to win over ordinary members and councillors. If we are still stuck on three or four per cent over the next two years, does another ‘cabal’ meet in another private residence somewhere?” the member says.

However, the parliamentary party is unrepentant. Two choices were available. Neither was palatable, but only one made sense. They could have engaged in a long and damaging internal and external debate.

Or they could rip the Band-Aid off, replace Kelly and move on.

A week after Kelly’s shock resignation, Labour councillors gathered for what Lacey has described as a “very lively” meeting. There was anger in the air.

“There was very strong support for Alan at it but a sense too that Ivana was likely to be the next leader and people were supportive (of that). People were disappointed because he had been a good leader.

“He was the first leader that took councillors seriously in a long time. Councillors represent 56 of the party’s 67 public representatives so they are fairly determined now they will play an active role in what happens next,” said one.

Despite the unhappiness, the fact remains that 29 constituencies gathered to discuss Ivana Bacik’s candidacy and all 29 endorsed her, many expressing that same desire to reunite and re-establish the Labour movement.

Kelly’s leadership style has been viewed as combative both internally, and externally and Bacik’s promise for a more constructive approach was made for a reason.

There are, however, concerns about her length of Dáil experience, since she was elected for Dublin Bay South in July 2021. She has, one experienced hand says, been a TD for "a wet day", but Dick Spring learned on his feet. So can she.

Leader from 1982 until 1997, Spring had been a TD for just 18 months when he took the reins, but he went on to take Labour to unprecedented heights in 1992 when Labour won 33 seats, compared with today’s paltry number.

No party is ever fully at one, but there are clearly still questions to be answered on Kelly's departure. In an RTÉ Drivetime interview, Bacik failed to clearly answer the question of why he left, and she did no better in later interviews.

Quite why she could not answer simply is a mystery, since a coherent narrative is easily fashioned: yes, Oireachtas members were worried; yes, they met; yes, they went to Kelly and told him, reluctantly, that change was needed.

Her repeated failure to answer is baffling. When Labour TDs are asked what the true reason was for his departure, some of them visibly or audibly pause and seem like they are afraid of what they might say next.

When it is put to one Oireachtas member that people in the party and indeed the wider public are still wondering what exactly happened, they joke that they will be left wondering. Is there more to it than meets the eye? “I’m not going to respond,” they say haltingly.

Given another chance to explain, Bacik does no better: “He expressed the reasons in his own speech and there were a combination of factors as he said and I thought he spoke in a really dignified fashion.

“Really that’s it, people resign for all sorts of reasons but he gave his reasons and behaved with immense dignity,” the newly-elected leader told The Irish Times this week.

The biggest question for the Labour Party, however, is what comes next. The focus is squarely on the 2024 local elections, which will be the first test of the new leadership.

“The Labour Party has a strong rural base. In fairness, when the period of nominations was open she made contact with a lot of the Labour people here in Westmeath and that impressed a lot of people. She was saying she was going for the leadership and she wanted their contribution and input,” says Willie Penrose.

The message from the party grassroots appears to be that it is time for Labour to go back to basics: “Her first priority must be to go and meet the grassroots and do the chicken and chips tour.

“It will be very important to meet the councillors. They are the launching pad for political progress,” says one party stalwart, “I think she has to be seen to represent traditional Labour values and principles.

“She would have been associated with a social agenda. That is very valuable, has become mainstream, but industrial relations, employment and workers’ rights is an area that Labour traditionally works in,” said the figure.

Bacik agrees: “We do need to re-emphasise our core Labour values of equality, solidarity and fairness and we need to move on the key issues that matter to people.” Affordable housing, renters’ rights and childcare are priorities, too.

“It is a key task now to ensure we have a really strong team of candidates and that we can build on the successes of 2019 and increase the numbers of councillors.

“Over the coming weeks I will be travelling around a lot more. I’ve been in touch with quite a lot of people in recent days about looking to try and recruit more people to run and people are approaching us too,” she said.

It will not be an easy road. One organiser previously involved in recruitment remembers days when Labour was riding high in the polls when they were “getting phone calls from people who want to join and stand.

“But when you are on 3 and 4 per cent, it is much more difficult to make that sell. They are looking at figures and saying if I am going to stand it is not going to be for a party that is at 3 per cent,” the former organiser said.

Bacik's grassroots now want her to mobilise in areas that were once Labour heartlands and to make in-roads in places like Galway, Waterford, Limerick and Cork.

Every party member interviewed for this piece - bar one - says Labour should not entertain the idea of going into government after the next election, whether that is with Sinn Féin or anyone else.

“Labour should not go into Government with anyone. Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild,” says Penrose. This, said Bacik, chimes with her own views, and with what she is hearing from party members

“My own view is we should not go into Government unless we have a critical mass and we are in a position to deliver on key policies and I think that is the lesson for all smaller parties envisaging going into Government.

“We are serious about delivering change, we do not want to shout from the side-lines forever. We aspire to be in Government and it distinguishes us from others on the left. But it does also mean we have to be sure we are going in for the right reasons to deliver our policy.”

The one sole voice who said Labour should not rule it out emphasised Labour cannot say it is a party of Government and a party of action while simultaneously ruling itself out before the race has even been run.

Bacik must also move the party forward from the mistakes made post-2011, while not completely criticising the record of Labour colleagues during one of the toughest periods for any ministers in office.

One TD is frustrated by the constant references to the past.

"It is becoming tedious. They don't ask Fianna Fáil, 'Why should everyone vote for you when you destroyed the economy.' It is a bit perverse that the arsonists are scot-free and the fire brigade are being critiqued on their firefighting methods. We made the best possible decisions we could at every juncture, evolving the economy into a functioning economy again."

So where will the Labour Party position itself and how does it face-off with Sinn Féin?

Former leader and Wexford TD Brendan Howlin says there is a place for the party between a populist Sinn Féin and the two bigger parties.

“There is an artificial option being presented to people at the next election, as was the case in the byelection, that the choice for Government next time around will be between the conservative forces of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and nothing else. I think a lot of people will want a third option, a social democratic environmentally positive party.”

Other members, speaking privately, agree and argue there is a place for a party that does not “promise free lunches, because there is no such thing.”

The attitude is: “Sinn Féin should go into Government and see how it works out. You don’t have untrammelled power to do whatever you want,” as one former TD says.

For her part, Bacik embraces the optimistic view that a renaissance is possible and oblivion is not inevitable.

She says that in last year’s by-election “we were written off and told it would be Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. There was a clear view taken we haven’t a hope. We showed there is a space there for an alternative vision. There is a hunger for positive change, a centre-left change. That is the space for Labour.”

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