Labour struggling to shake off the toxic legacy of coalition

Fresh faces are needed if the party is to come back from the brink of irrelevance

Brendan  Howlin has to rely on experienced, well-known political figures in an attempt to maximise seats. Photograph: Mary Browne

Brendan Howlin has to rely on experienced, well-known political figures in an attempt to maximise seats. Photograph: Mary Browne


Many have yet to come to terms with the new politics but the Labour Party has struggled more than most. It has yet to figure out its place in the current political set-up which leaves it isolated and at risk of irrelevance.

The primary obstacle it has to overcome is its failure to distance itself from its time in government. Its main spokespeople were key figures in the 2011-2016 Fine Gael/Labour coalition and were linked to some of its most toxic decisions.

Party leader Brendan Howlin had the unenviable title “Minister for Cuts” as minister for public expenditure. Former leader Joan Burton was minister for social protection when child benefit was reduced by €5, while former minster for the environment Alan Kelly was tasked with selling water charges to an unconvinced public.

Many parties in the same position had time on their side. After Fianna Fáil’s disastrous general election result of 2011 it had five years to recover and a local election in 2014 to field new candidates.

Age challenge

Labour does not have the luxury of time. A general election could be called at any point and it is under pressure to field electable candidates.

Instead of finding fresh new candidates, Mr Howlin has to rely on experienced, well-known political figures in an attempt to maximise seats.

This brings an age challenge, the average age of its seven TDs is 58. But for Labour to recover it must appear fresh, vibrant and young.

Seven candidates have been chosen to date and a number of conventions are planned . It aims to contest a minimum of 30 constituencies in the next election and double its number of seats . The party embarked on a recruitment drive recently and has now almost 4,000 members.

One of the party’s most prominent TDs, Alan Kelly, has garnered a high media profile and carved out a particular niche on the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee and engrossed himself in the recent controversy over financial irregularities at Templemore Garda College.

Senators Kevin Humphreys, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Ged Nash have also used the platform given to them wisely. For example Ó Ríordáin’s passionate speech labelling Donald Trump a “fascist” on his election went viral across the world.

It will be the job of these politicians to bring the party back from the brink.

The initiatives the party has pursued in opposition have been worthy causes and have the hallmark of traditional Labour values. For example the party last year secured the first Government defeat on a private members’ motion calling for better rights for workers.

New voters

However the party then struggles with itself when it poses questions on judicial appointments or criticises the Taoiseach for visiting president Trump. Neither position will endear the party to new voters.

Labour will meet this weekend in Athy, Co Kildare and one of the questions it faces is its role in any future government. It made a firm decision in 2016 not to hitch its wagon to Fine Gael this time.

As an election creeps nearer, can Labour resist the allure of power again? Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has been making loving eyes at Howlin .

It is clear the Labour leader would relish another stint in office but whether the membership would allow it is another question. One party member insisted it would not get through a party conference as they were “so badly burned” from government.

In opposition, the party is competing with Solidarity, People-before-Profit, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and Independent TDs . Without a clear, defined and distinctive message, Labour will struggle to demonstrate its relevance in an ever-changing political sphere.