Election 2020: Labour’s poor result reveals a party in need of renewal
Brendan Howlin presented the party with a challenge in terms of image
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin with candidate Ged Nash: There might have been a view that the party’s leading personalities had been around for a long time and it needed an injection of youth. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Politics is a brutal business and the fate of the Labour Party is proof of that.
In 2011, the party returned 37 seats and most constituencies in Dublin were stuffed by at least two of its TDs.
Like Sinn Féin this time around, the party elected a number of TDs of whom most people had never previously heard – and who then quietly returned to near-anonymity when they lost their seats five years later in 2016.
Labour’s huge success in 2011 was portrayed as “historical”. It’s a reminder that in Irish politics breakthroughs quickly become breakdowns when a party goes into government.
One of the only informal political rules that has remained in this very unusual election, is that it takes two, and sometimes three, election cycles for a party which had taken a pasting to recover its fortunes.
It must be remembered that Labour lost 30 of its 37 seats in the election four years ago. And while it did expect to make some gains in this year’s poll, its ambitions were relatively modest.
On a good day, it reckoned it had chances in Kildare South with Mark Wall; in Dublin Bay North with Aodhán Ó Riordáín; in Louth with Ged Nash; in Dublin Bay South with Kevin Humpreys; and perhaps one or two others such as John Pratt in Waterford and John Maher in Cork North Central.
But its hopes were emasculated by Sinn Féin. Out of nowhere, Patricia Ryan did for Wall’s ambitions in Kildare South. The only glimmer of optimism was the likelihood of Ó Ríordáin regaining the seat he held in Dublin Bay North until 2016. And Nash could not be ruled out as of Sunday night.
The Sinn Féin surge, allied to the emergence of a strong Green competitor in Roderic O’Gorman, rendered Joan Burton’s re-election campaign a tall order. And in the final week of the campaign, Labour knew that seat was gone.
And with Maurice Quinlivan’s change in status from vulnerable to dead cert in Limerick City, it also pitched Jan O’Sullivan into a fraught battle for a final seat, the outcome of which was uncertain last night.
Willie Penrose was retiring in Longford-Westmeath and Labour knew it could not retain the seat.
With those three losses, the party was facing the certainty of retaining only four seats – party leader Brendan Howlin; Alan Kelly in Tipperary; Seán Sherlock in Cork East; and in Dublin Fingal where Duncan Smith has succeeded Brendan Ryan.
Still, it’s a poor result for the party, even given its much humbled status after 2016. There was a lot of wrangling about the leadership then, with Kelly staking a claim. Eventually that issue was settled and the party rallied around the leadership of Howlin.
But Howlin presented the party with a challenge in terms of image. He’d been associated with the austerity government of 2011-2016 and even though Labour’s position on entering government was not settled, it was no secret that he would have been willing to go back into coalition, if the party had enjoyed a favourable bounce of the ball.
Besides, he strongly ruled out a coalition agreement with Sinn Féin, which – as the results have shown – was not in sync with the prevailing mood.
The party identified the need for change and had a simple and uncomplicated election message, focused around change.
The centrepiece was a €16 billion plan to build housing over five years, along with a firm commitment to Sláintecare. Like the Social Democrats, the party offered no tax breaks.
Howlin had an effective line to the effect that what good was it to give somebody an extra €5 in their pocket when they were stepping over a person in a sleeping bag the moment they hit the street.
But the line just did not have purchase. Labour was still viewed as establishment. While Howlin had taken well to leadership, there might have been a view that the party’s leading personalities had been around for a long time and it needed an injection of youth. And that extended to Howlin himself.
The party needs renewal and it needs generational change, a younger leadership and a fresh batch of local representatives. That means that Howlin’s leadership may soon come to an end.