Burton’s departure was no surprise – but can Labour survive?
New leader will need energy, patience and a huge dollop of luck to bring the party back
“The choice facing the party now is the identity of the new leader.” Brendan Howlin, Seán Sherlock and Alan Kelly at a Labour Party press conference yesterday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Joan Burton’s departure as Labour Party leader came as no surprise. The only surprising thing was that it took so long for it to happen following a disastrous election result.
As Burton explained at her final press conference as leader, there were technical reasons to do with the Labour constitution which hindered her from resigning earlier. Yet her decision was inevitable given the scale of the electoral setback which saw the party drop from 37 seats in 2011 to just seven.
To be fair the downward spiral for Labour was in place long before Burton took over the leadership in the summer of 2014. Her predecessor, Eamon Gilmore, was pressurised into resigning following dismal local and European election results in 2014.
Burton, a popular and highly regarded minister for social protection, was installed in his place by the parliamentary party in an effort to reverse the trend. While she made history by being the first woman to lead the Labour Party, the change did nothing to revive the party’s fortunes.
If anything it made the problem worse as experienced and battle-hardened ministers such as Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairí Quinn were removed from the front line in the run-in to the general election to give the Labour ministerial team a fresh look.
The tactic didn’t work. Instead of recovering ground, Labour’s fortunes continued to slide, and Burton’s popularity evaporated as the election drew ever closer.
Her relationship in government with Taoiseach Enda Kenny was nowhere near as close as the one Gilmore had with the Fine Gael leader. She was blamed by Fine Gael ministers for cabinet leaks and accused by both friends and foes of being indecisive.
There were divided opinions about Burton within the Labour Party. Supporters regarded her as the only senior minister who fought for party policies at the cabinet table, but critics believed her poor relations with Gilmore when he was party leader and her bad relations with her own deputy leader, Alan Kelly, contributed to Labour’s difficulties.
Despite securing increases in child benefit and the old age pension and being the Labour leader when the same-sex marriage referendum passed, Burton was not able to connect with the public.
The big question for the party now is not so much who will be the next leader but whether the party has any prospect of survival as a viable entity.
Labour has hit a number of low points in more than a century of existence but its future has never been more uncertain. The next leader will need enormous energy, great patience and a huge dollop of luck if he is to bring the party back from the brink of extinction.
With just seven TDs it will not be easy for the party to carve out a distinct identity but the very fragmentation of the Dáil could work to Labour’s advantage if its TDs pull together and present a united front.
The Trotskyist left showed a capacity for splits and divisions in the last Dáil, and it will be interesting to observe if the same process takes place in the 32nd Dáil. If so Labour could begin to recover some ground.
Optimists in the party believe that the addition of five Senators to its seven TDs has begun the recovery process, and it will certainly add some much-needed extra State finance to the party’s coffers.
The choice facing the party now is the identity of the new leader. Brendan Howlin would be the obvious choice if he is willing to go for the job given his experience and standing with party members.
Initially he appeared reluctant to engage in a potentially bruising contest for the position but he is coming under a lot of pressure from party members to enter the race.
His most likely rival is the current deputy leader Alan Kelly, who has made a number of impressive speeches since the election and shown the kind of fighting qualities that many members would like to see in a leader.
Labour election rules
The executive board of the Labour Party will meet on Saturday to set out the process for the election of a new party leader.
The entire party membership is entitled to vote in the event of a contest.
The executive board will set a date for the opening and closing of nominations and that is expected to be the beginning and the end of next week. If there is more than one candidate the contest will last for a minimum of 45 days and a number of hustings will be arranged around the country at which the candidates can make their pitch for support.
If there is just one candidate he or she will be declared the new leader on the close of nominations.
To be eligible to contest the post a candidate must be a TD and be seconded by another party deputy.