Labour gets what it really needs ahead of election: more time
Many in party wary of re-entering government too quickly even if election goes well
Brendan Howlin has grown into the position of leader, with some good scores on Brexit. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When Leo Varadkar disclosed last week there would be no election in November, the organisers of this weekend’s Labour Party conference immediately went to the control box and turned down the volume.
Ergo, today’s one-day gathering in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, will not be an election rally. Nor will it even be a rally for by-election candidates running in races in late November, because, realistically, Labour never expected to win any of them.
Instead it will be a another step on the party’s road to recovery. In reality Labour will be thankful. It might have its posters printed, candidates selected and manifesto published. And it will declare that it is election-ready.
But in truth, that is not the case. It is true that the party would be ready to contest an election if it had no other choice. However, it is not yet ready to win. What the party needs is more time. As much of it as possible.
The longer the distance between Labour and its last time in government, ending in 2016, the better. Put brutally, Labour, for all its protests, is not yet match-fit.
Like all parties who take a hiding in an election, Labour spent the first year punch-drunk: in a state of bewilderment, frustration and torpor after seeing its Dáil representation slump to seven seats.
Since then it has begun to inch itself back on to the pitch. Oddly it has had a tougher job than that faced by Fianna Fáil in 2011, even though the latter got a worse pasting.
Fianna Fáil, at least, remained the main opposition party, still relevant. Labour, however, had to cope with being on a crowded field, competing with Sinn Féin, Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and the Greens.
Besides post-election recriminations, it dealt messily about who should be leader for the first year. Since then, however, that question has been settled and Brendan Howlin has grown into the position, with some good scores on Brexit.
Out of necessity, Labour has targeted a few issues: help for workers affected by technological change, the need for a living wage, and fairness in housing. Tipperary TD Alan Kelly has championed issues such as cervical cancer.
The strategy cannot really be faulted, but it has found it difficult to be seen as relevant in the big debates. It needs more girth to make a difference but to get that it needs to win in an election.
Like so many parties in the past, recovery takes two election cycles. It washed its face in the local elections. If it makes gains in the next general election, they will be marginal.
This time, the Greens have the momentum going into the campaign. If it does well in the election, that will certainly stymie Labour’s recovery in key constituencies.
Four solid candidates
Labour has chosen four solid candidates, all councillors. One, Joanna Tuffy, is a former TD. It holds a seat in two of the constituencies, Dublin Fingal and Wexford, which makes winning difficult.
Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal might be considered its best hope, but he is an outside chance rather than a favourite. The party’s stock has not recovered sufficiently for it to emerge as top dog in any constituency just yet.
In the general election to come, Labour will be in the hunt for eight seats. But equally, it could well lose in Longford-Westmeath, though it should hold the rest.
And then there is the question of what it does after the election. With enough seats, a return to government becomes an option. The party is divided on this, with some of the view it needs a second term in opposition.
There is validity to that argument – it is difficult for a smaller party to regrow when back in office. The Progressive Democrats pulled it off in 2002, but that was a bit of a quirk.
They were eviscerated when they tried to do it again in 2007. Given the volatility of the Irish electoral system, the very future of the Labour Party could hinge on the decision it makes after Ireland has voted.