Labour Party analysis: Paying steep political price for power
Conference to take stock of election potential and voting public’s deaf ear on policy agenda
The public, after giving Labour a thrashing at the last election, have not yet been listening to the party.
At times over the past year, it seemed as if Labour was still struggling to leave government behind.
Brendan Howlin and the party – including Alan Kelly’s ongoing battles over water charges – were an indication of the last war still being fought.
Arguments such as the country’s purse being empty when the Fine Gael-Labour government took office in 2011 took some time to drift into the past.
At the outset of this weekend’s conference, the first since the last general election, Howlin said Labour was ready to move on from licking its wounds and to engage with the voter once more.
One example of this approach was that Howlin, throughout his engagements yesterday, did not seek to justify the party’s past actions but offered ideas and plans for the future.
The public, after giving Labour a thrashing at the last election, have not yet been listening to Labour. The party has yet to break above the 5-6 per cent mark in opinion polls. Howlin pointed out that the polls have not really shifted for any party, and he was correct. Polls are unlikely to shift until a year or so after an election, since the public is still largely justifying the choice it made 12 months previously.
But if the voter is only going to start listening now, Labour cannot focus on niche issues within its liberal comfort zone – as it has often done over the past year – if it is to grow again.
Howlin cannot use the Dáil slot he has to press the Taoiseach for subjects such as judicial appointments, nor jump up and down about visits to Donald Trump.
If it was talking to itself about how to rebuild the mechanics of the party over the past year, Labour was also talking only to its audience by focusing on such issues.
This weekend, however, offers the chance for the party to look outwards again and Howlin has said that is exactly what it intends to do. The conference sees Labour outline its broad approach in three policy areas it believes would enable it to grow: Brexit, climate change, and the future of work in a era of declining trade union participation and the advent of the gig economy through companies like Uber and Deliveroo.
A strong focus on the latter perhaps offers the greatest chance of success. The more earthy language used by Kelly in recent months when talking about those who work but just about make ends meet points in the direction Labour will go.
Kelly spoke of those who meet their bills but do not have enough money to change their beaten-up old car for a newer, but still second-hand, model.
It is that kind of message Labour needs to deliver, and the party will arguably have a better idea of its future this time next year, when the voters have had a chance to listen to what it has to say.