There was a time when party leadership contests were decided by a show of hands (or a secret ballot) in a smoke-filled room by a small select group of elected representatives.
Nowadays, for the Labour Party at least, it has become more like a Bear Grylls survival expedition – a six-week battle of attrition. And for Labour, survival is the apposite word.
Six years ago, after a disastrous local election campaign, the party went through a similar exercise with Joan Burton and Alex White. A winner emerged but there were ultimately no winners. Both have since lost their Dáil seats, and Labour’s slump has not really been arrested since.
And so on Monday night, in the Clayton Silver Springs Hotel in Cork, the latest leadership tussle began in earnest with the first of four hustings for party members.
This time the contestants are Alan Kelly and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and the dubious prize for the the winner will be the task of halting the party’s slide into oblivion.
Still, there was a decent showing for a cold Monday night, about 140 or so. Nothing like the show of strength from Sinn Féin in Cork the previous week but still decent for a party with only six TDs.
The stump speeches of the two were most noteworthy for the number of times they chimed with each other. Neither minced their words in terms of analysis, saying the party was struggling to be relevant and must change.
“We haven’t been relevant to the national conversation, we haven’t connected with people outside of our own circle and we assumed that opposition alone would give us a natural bounce after government,” Kelly said.
“We are not viewed right now as a competent agent of change, a party ready to solve society’s problems and not culturally relevant. That’s what we must change. But we can’t just speak about change. We need to make change.”
Ó Ríordáin said bluntly: “If people feel we have let them down, then we have.”
He continued: “We have a choice to make. Either Labour is part of the establishment, or we are part of the change. And I want the Labour Party that I lead to be part of that change. I want people to look at the Labour Party and say: ‘They are on my side’.”
Both also emphasised their campaigning credentials. Ó Riordáin said he wanted to tackle the “sky-high price of housing and childcare, access to quality healthcare, disadvantage and the fact that we have 25 per cent of workers in this country on low pay – second only to the United States”.
Kelly pointed to his track record on the Public Accounts Committee and on health issues such as the National Children’s Hospital overspend and the CervicalCheck scandal, name-checking Vicky Phelan in the process.
Perhaps because of those high-profile campaigns and his ability to make an impact, Kelly is the clear favourite. He has mellowed since earlier in his career and the antipathy of some within the party – which saw him fail to get the support of TDs and Senators for a leadership bid four years ago – has dissipated.
His presentation was low key, as was Ó Riordáin’s. Kelly is probably seen more as a doer and as an activist, while Ó Riordáin is adopting a more cerebral approach.
There was more gusto on show from both during the question-and-answer sessions.
“Let’s make Labour sexy again,” exhorted Kelly when referring on his party’s failure to attract a youth vote.
Ó Ríordáin wryly noted that the new leader of the party would definitely be a man but said the deputy leader of the party should be a woman – one of its new Senators, presumably.
Interestingly, both said the natural place of Labour was in government.
Ó Ríordáin said the party had to have a vision for the party in 2040.
“The future of the Labour Party is 32-county,” he declared.
Although 2040 is a long time away, given Labour’s current status, it could conceivably take almost that long for the party to return to government.