Labour may find improving fortunes not as easy as changing leader

Party has been grappling to establish place in a changing political landscape

Labour’s latest defenestration of its leader was prompted by long-rumbling unhappiness among TDs, senators and staff over Alan Kelly’s personal style of leadership which came to a head in a row over an internal appointment.

But deeper than that is a near-existential despair over the state of the party and the question of whether it has a viable future on the Irish political landscape.

These are issues for Labour that go beyond the party leader, whomever it may be. After all, the next leader - presumed by all to be Ivana Bacik - will be the party’s fifth in a decade. If a bit of switcheroo in the leader’s office could fix Labour’s problems, they’d have been fixed by now.

The grim-faced assassins that flanked an emotional Kelly on the Leinster House plinth on Wednesday evening have been lately muttering politesses about “not getting our message across” and Kelly’s failure to elevate the party’s standing in the opinion polls.


Putting aside the internal controversy that has wracked the party in the last week, if they really believe this then Labour is in even more trouble than it appears.

Kelly’s Labour has trundled along at the same level of support - occasionally higher, actually - than it attained in the last general election, which was less than 4.5 per cent. It is hard to see what evidence there is for the proposition that more people weren’t turning to Labour because of Alan Kelly. And what exactly is the message they haven’t been getting across?

More importantly, national opinion polls just aren’t that important for small parties. They depend on high profile candidates outperforming the party’s national standing in the handful of constituencies where they stand a chance of winning seats. A popular or effective leader can help with that, of course. But only up to a point. When you’re Labour’s size, it’s bonkers to be making a big deal over national polls.

Secondly, tying the party leadership to the polls is making a noose for the neck of the next leader. What happens if the polls don’t shift in six months or a year? Dump her as well?

Enormous changes

Fundamental to the party’s problems is its inability or unwillingness to process the enormous changes that have taken place in the structure of Irish politics since the financial crisis and the painful return to economic prosperity that followed it.

At its most basic, this has seen the sharp contraction of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support to maybe half of what those parties previously enjoyed, and its replacement by the growth of the left wing vote.

But that vote has not flowed to Labour; rather it has gone to Sinn Féin, to the Greens, to the Social Democrats, to the smaller parties of the radical left and to independents.

This is not just because of Labour’s participation in the unpopular coalition with Fine Gael that governed in the difficult years of the post-crash period from 2011-16.

Voters have shown a Christian willingness to forgive parties for their past sins; the leader of the current Government, after all, is a member of Fianna Fáil. Even if that party is a much reduced force, it retains a central part in the political life of the country.

So Labour’s difficulties stem not just from its troublesome past - but from its inability to adapt to the present. And that does not bode well for its future.

There are a handful of constituencies where Labour can nurture reasonable hopes of being competitive for extra seats at the next general election. But it will only play a central role in the political life and government of the country as part of a larger centre-left alliance.

Trying to pull that force together and defining Labour’s role within it will be one of the key tasks facing a new leader.

The decline of the old and the emergence of new political forces happens all the time in European politics. Ireland would be unusual in Europe if there wasn’t a strong centre-left force here. But what role Labour might play in that - if any - is very much an open question.