Labour Party: Green shoots arise from grassroots focus
Party keen to see support bounce back after big losses in 2016 general election
Brendan Howlin: it was “the lowest ebb in my political life in 2016”. “Many people felt we could not recover.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Labour party leader Brendan Howlin with Jan O Sullivan, Cllr Deirdre Kingston left and Rebecca Moynihan: “You are not on top unless you are active on the ground,” says Ms Kingston. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Billy Cameron and John McDonagh stand at the top of Ashe Road. It’s in Shantalla, an inner suburb of Galway. It’s a long-established blue-collar neighbourhood, much gentrified because of its handsome houses and location.
Cameron and McDonagh survey the street as they begin the canvass. You wonder how many dozen times they have done this exercise before. Both were born and grew up in Shantalla. They know every crack on the pavements, recite all the residents by name. As we go along they point out the Doherty house, where renowned singer Mary Coughlan grew up.
Cameron has been a councillor for this area since 2004 but is stepping down this year. He is a lean, athletic man with glasses and a soft cap. He is a postmaster in the area and has the “bedside manner” personality you find in many good councillors.
Beside him stands McDonagh, a stocky likeable man with an unpolluted city accent. He hopes to succeed Cameron on Galway City Council. He works in Deasy’s fish shop on High Street and has an easy manner.
There are two things to note during the canvass. The first is how mundane it is. That in itself is remarkable. The second is the focus never ventures too far beyond Shantalla. There is no talk about Brexit or about Labour’s fortunes or about the economy. Much of it focuses on a nearby plot of land used by the community for allotments, which University College Hospital wants to use as a helicopter pad. It’s a “land grab” by the hospital, you hear McDonagh and Cameron argue more than once. The point is the focus is hyper-local.
Strategy for success
There are signs that the strategy is working. At 7 per cent, support for the Labour Party in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll last week has reached its highest level since the 2016 general election. Support for the party is now at 12 per cent in Dublin, a three-point increase since our last poll and their strongest showing in Dublin in almost four years. The party has gained support among both 18-24 year olds (up five points to 6 per cent) and those aged 65 and over (up three points to 8 per cent).
The area of Galway canvassed by McDonagh and Cameron was once a redoubt for Labour, and its longtime local TD Michael D Higgins pulled a lot of votes from here. But that was before the seismic shock that was the so-called austerity coalition government of 2011. And its tremors were felt along Ashe Road.
“2014 was tough and you could sense the anger all along here,” said McDonagh who ended up getting only 4 per cent of the vote in his ward.
“But,” he adds hopefully. “People are more open to Labour now.”
On today’s canvass, not a word is raised in anger, nor are doors slammed. That represents change. “The reaction has been good,” declares Cameron at the end. No BS. If this is repeated in all the streets, Shantalla will be behind John.”
Labour’s 2014 local election campaign was a portend for the annihilation it suffered two years later. With controversy raging over water charges, the party lost 81 seats, plunging from 132 to 51 seats. The losses were most dramatic in urban areas. It lost all seven seats on Cork City Council, plunged from 19 to eight in Dublin City; and went from five to two in Galway City. It failed to hold any European seats. Party leader Eamon Gilmore resigned soon afterwards.
In February 2016, it went into a tailspin. After winning 37 seats in its best-ever electoral performance in 2011, the pendulum swung fully and it salvaged only seven seats in its worst-ever outing.
Losses of that shattering magnitude are not all that rare in recent Irish electoral history. It has happened to Fine Gael (2002); Fianna Fáil (2011); the Greens (2011); the PDs (2007); and Renua (2016). Invariably, some commentators who look solely through the prism of parliamentary politics predict extinction.
Sure, a few parties have foundered. But most do manage to recover, though it is a slow and painful process.
“Not only did we lose so many TDs and senators in 2016,” says Cathal McCann, the party’s head of communications, we lost a huge number of staff and resources in headquarters and in constituencies. All our organisers were gone, all our institutional memory was gone.”
For party leader Brendan Howlin, it was “the lowest ebb in my political life in 2016”.
“Many people felt we could not recover. Others predicted new entities would eclipse us,” he reflects.
Any party that’s suffered that kind of debilitating blow will be familiar with the stages of recovery. Friendless and eschewed, in the early stage there are recriminations about lack of direction and self-doubts.
“There was antagonism towards us that was palpable for the first few years. People wanted to vent that anger over water charges and [austerity]. All of it was valid,” says Luke Field, a candidate for the party in Cork city south.
In that scenario, leaders become whipping boys – Enda Kenny was lambasted as lightweight; Micheál Martin as the first Fianna Fáil leader “who would never become taoiseach”. Howlin was similarly rebuked for being an establishment figure. There were mutterings about his style of leadership, with some openly backing Alan Kelly as the coming man. It all came to a head at an emotional meeting of representatives and candidates in Drogheda last autumn. Just when all seemed resolved, the high-profile Tallaght councillor Martina Genocky resigned. Genocky was unhappy with the move away from what she saw as core Labour values taken by the party under Howlin.
“Martina was a huge loss to politics. I am very sorry that she left,” says Rebecca Moynihan, a councillor and Dáil candidate in Dublin South West who is seen as a rising star.
“That Drogheda meeting was cathartic and brutally honest. The truth is Brendan Howlin has now stabilised us as leader and the question is settled.”
It’s true the tundra landscape has thawed a little over the past year. The process for this is easily explained but is tortuous to implement, and involves largely unseen work. The template was there, from Fianna Fáil. After 2011, it went back to its 1926 Corú (core principles) and ruthlessly pruned the party’s creaking cumann system.
“The lesson from Fianna Fáil is there is no substitute for good candidates embedded in the community and working on the ground,” says McCann. “You need strong representatives in local government in housing, environment and community work before you move back to national level.”
Another of its Dáil prospects, Deirdre Kingston in Dún Laoghaire, looks at providing “practical solutions” to local issues ranging from housing to swimming facilities at Blackrock. “You are not on top unless you are active on the ground,” she says. It’s being hyper-local, same as Cameron and McDonagh are doing in Shantalla.
‘Back to basics’
The other big element is reconnecting with the party’s base. “We needed to go back to basics and back to core principles and values,” says Nat O’Connor, the party’s political director. “It’s about social justice and giving everybody a decent share in society, about reconnecting our links to trade unions, about workers’ rights and worker’s pay.”
The party’s liberal credentials were well-established but there was a sense that in government it had strayed from its working-class roots. O’Connor and its TDs and Senators have steered legislation towards what they say are core values: campaigning for a living wage, against bogus self-employment, against zero-hour contracts.
“We need to put more emphasis on a centre-left or social democratic orientation,” he says, pointing to it keeping water and public transport in public ownership.
Unsurprisingly climate change is also central. O’Connor alludes to Sean Sherlock who championed a just transition for peat workers while strongly supporting all the far-reaching measures in the climate change committee.
Sometimes a little serendipity is needed. The Repeal campaign, and last year’s presidential elections, were events that gave impetus.
“We had a huge involvement with the abortion referendum campaign in Galway and with canvassing for Michael D Higgins,” says its Galway West candidate Neil McNelis. “That gave us a huge boost and brought a lot of people back to us.”
Kingston agrees: “Confidence and enthusiasm were rock bottom in 2016. The two campaigns were positive for the party. We were able to show we could make a massive difference and our supporters saw that. The anger that was there has dissipated a lot.”
Until recent months the party was bracing itself for a general election first which would have been deep-end problematic for a party trying to recover.
“The timing of the locals and Europeans has helped,” says Howlin. “It will allow us to measure where we are and give us confidence again to ensure we can still be pivotal in terms of policy.
“We are significantly on the road to recovery even though we will need a couple of elections.”
But how do you measure that recovery? There are a couple of factors coiled into this, not easily separated. For instance, what is the party’s natural size? People easily forget the party had two seats in most Dublin constituencies until 2016. But when the trapdoor opened, it was left with a measly two seats in the capital. That was scorched earth territory. It survived strongest in rural heartlands.
“The core vote was always a [rural] town vote,” explains O’Connor.
“The foundation of the Labour Party,” says McCann, “was in the organisation of labourers on farms in places like Cork, Tipperary, Kerry, Limerick and Wexford.”
One senior figure points out the Spring Tide in 1992 and the “Gilmore Gale” were outliers, that the party’s natural level is between 12 to 15 seats. “The 2½-party definition of Irish politics was never true. Labour was never near being a half.”
This person is pessimistic for these reasons: the liberal agenda is no longer exclusive to Labour; the Dublin working class vote has increasingly moved to being a permanent protest vote and Labour is not in that space; plus the field has become too crowded with new parties, especially Sinn Féin.
There is some strong lineage with constituencies in Dublin too, both middle-class liberal and working class. For example, Kingston’s home constituency of Dún Laoghaire had a Labour connection going back to the 1960s with Eamon Gilmore, Niamh Bhreathnach and Barry Desmond.
The party needs to make strong recoveries in Dublin and Cork in order to survive. Howlin talks of it happening over a few electoral cycles. But even now there’s a debate in the party about going back into government next time round. Would that not be a kamikaze mission? Surely, a party must ensure its own survival? Axiomatically, if it does not exist, it can make no impact.
“The business of politics is the business of implementing policy,” says Howlin. “I am acutely aware of the searing nature of government and I am not desperately anxious to advise the Labour Party to go in.
“If anyone talks about government afterwards it will be on the basis of very clear policy objectives and without equivocation. You can influence government from outside,” he adds.
All of the interviewees talk of “red lines”, core principles that can’t be compromised, a Tesco ad that is inviolable.
Realistically, what are the party’s prospects in the short and medium term? It’s still in single figures in polls but the figures are creeping up in Dublin.
“The key for us is to be ahead of similar parties. The big risk was that the Greens or Social Democrats would overtake us. But that risk has passed,” says McCann.
The party has 38 incumbent councillors and will run about 100 candidates in the local elections with a goal of winning more than 60 seas. Four out of every 10 candidates are women and the party will be more transfer-friendly this time round.
Beyond that, it must try and retain its seven Dáil seats (Willie Penrose in Longford-Westmeath is retiring) and target gains in Dublin constituencies like Central, Bay North, Bay South, Dún Laoghaire, South Central, in Kildare North, in Kildare South, in Cork North Central, in Galway West, in Louth. Like Fianna Fáil, its slate could include a smattering of veterans on the comeback trail including Joe Costello, Kathleen Lynch and Emmet Stagg. Success? Probably going into the next Dáil with 10 or more TDs.
There’s no doubt the party is in a better place now than three years ago. But translating all that into tangible seat gains in a crowded complex political landscape remains an imponderable.
Labour’s history of election losses
Labour’s 2016 result was the party’s poorest performance in seat terms, returning only seven TDs, but in percentage terms there was one worse election than its 6.6 per cent showing.
That was in 1987 when the party, again coming out of a coalition with Fine Gael, gained only 6.5 per cent of the vote. However, it somehow managed to retain 12 seats. The newly formed Progressive Democrats, while winning almost 12 per cent of first-preference votes, won only two seats more, with 14.
In truth, Labour’s two biggest electoral successes came about for particular reasons and were “outliers” in terms of the party’s election history. In 1992, the party benefited from a bitter and damaging internal coalition row between Fianna Fáil and the PDs, and stagnation within Fine Gael which was also deeply divided.
In 2011, the party won 37 seats because Fianna Fáil’s vote imploded after the banking crisis and the economic collapse.
Labour’s core vote traditionally has been 10-12 per cent, or between 15 and 20 seats. If you look at maps of the party’s support base in the past, it was predominantly in Leinster, Munster and in Dublin, with pockets of support in Galway and Sligo cities. Many of these eastern and southern rural counties have been Labour heartlands for generations.
The party has won in non-traditional constituencies like Clare, Galway East, and Cork South West only when there has been a major surge in support.
The other clear pattern is the party has always suffered seat losses when coming out of coalition with Fine Gael, none more so than in 2016.