Ivana Bacik’s first task as Labour leader is to broaden her own appeal

New party leader’s challenge is formidable and winning more seats will be her acid test, writes Harry McGee

In a speech delivered before party members at Ringsend and Irishtown Community Centre, Ms Bacik said she did not believe politics was about “contrived shouting matches” or “tearing people apart.” Video: Reuters

It was significant that Labour chose the Ringsend and Irishtown community centre as the place to announce Ivana Bacik as the party’s leader.

It is the biggest working class area across Dublin 4 and 6, even though - like other places close to the city centre - it has become a sought after place to live.

The last big political event at the centre was an appearance by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald just before the 2020 general election. Such was the momentum of her campaign then that the local welcome only stopped short of laying palms at her feet as she arrived.

When Bacik won the Dublin Bay South byelection last year, she pulled most of her vote from the more affluent parts of the constituency, particularly its large middle-class, liberal cohort.


If Labour has any hope of surviving in the long-term, Bacik will have to succeed in broadening its appeal beyond a handful of Dublin and commuter strongholds, and in a small number of rural constituencies - like Cork East and Wexford - where strong local organisations have managed to defy the odds and maintain a Dáil presence.

Not only will Bacik have to compete with the Social Democrats and left-leaning Independents for the liberal and soft-left vote, she will also have to battle Sinn Féin and the smaller, further left parties in ‘blue-collar’ constituencies.

There was a time when half of Labour’s TDs came from working class areas or industrial towns in rural Ireland. It’s going to be an uphill struggle for the party to reestablish a foothold in former strongholds like Dublin South Central, Dublin South West, Cork North Central, Dublin North West, Carlow-Kilkenny, Wicklow, Kildare South, and Kildare North.

Electoral brunt

Bacik is the party’s fifth leader since 2011. Since then the party has seen its representation fall from a high of 37 seats to a low of six, which increased to seven with Bacik’s byelection victory last year. That win gave the party its first fillip in almost all that time, after it shipped the electoral brunt for being a part of a coalition that imposed austerity measures as the State tried to recover from a financial crisis caused by others.

Not since Dick Spring in 1982 has the Labour Party taken a chance on a recently-elected TD. But in Bacik’s case, it is highly different.

She is vastly experienced as a politician and as a campaigner, but all of her career has been spent in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Seanad rather than amid the cut and thrust of the Dáil and constituency politics. She has never held ministerial office nor had a government role with the party.

Her profile is high and her record as a campaigner for equality in Irish society is second to none. We have seen highly experienced politicians become party leaders before and fail abjectly. The only test of Bacik as a leader will be to evaluate how she does as an actual leader. You can only get the measure of a leader by seeing how they do in the actual role.

The challenge is formidable. The party has been flatlining in the opinion polls for a decade and has never really shed its shackles for being in that infamous coalition. If you look at the transfers from the 2020 election, most other parties still regarded Labour as if it were a government party.

Track record

Bacik’s track record and integrity might allow the party to overcome that ‘original sin’. For one, her leadership will certainly draw away some supporters from the Social Democrats. Indeed, under her leadership, it is arguable that only a sliver separates the two parties in terms of policies, outlooks and values. The main difference is that Labour is more amenable to going into government than its rivals.

Can Bacik extend her own appeal beyond what people regard as her middle class stroke liberal base? That will be the real test. She will also have to show that reach extends to rural Ireland. That will test her in a way she has not been tested before.

Can she take on Sinn Féin? There has never been any love lost between the parties. It is much too early to say what Labour’s attitude to a coalition with Sinn Féin might be, but at the moment the gap of trust between the parties would be nearer to Fine Gael on the spectrum to Fianna Fáil.

And what will be her acid test? More seats. If Alan Kelly decides not to stand, the party will struggle to retain in Tipperary. The likes of Rebecca Moynihan in Dublin South Central, Marie Sherlock in Dublin Central, Mark Wall in Kildare South, Annie Hoey in Meath and John Maher in Cork North Central will be contenders but they will need to be more attractive as transfer options from other Opposition parties if they are to have any chance.

So the party needs to broaden its appeal. And that will be Bacik’s first task, broadening her own appeal, hence the choice of the community centre in Ringsend/Irishtown.