‘There is no question I will lead Labour into the next election’
Brendan Howlin reveals his plans to rebuild his party into a force to shape Irish politics
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin: argues that every statement now seems to be accepted at face value, even if it’s patently nonsense. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Labour leader Brendan Howlin has said his party is prepared to enter Government after the next general election despite the battering it suffered at the hands of voters in 2016.
“We are a party of doers. We are not political (nihilists) on the sidelines, saying these are the problems, something should be done, and somebody should do something about it,” he told The Irish Times. “We want to roll up our sleeves and provide a better life for working people. That’s what we have always done.”
New leader of the British LibDems, 73-year-old Vince Cable, had been in Dublin earlier that day and Howlin half-jokingly extolled the virtues of “experienced leadership” in an age of youthful prime ministers sharing their “exciting” lives on social media.
Howlin (61) needs every moment of his vast experience to deal with the situation the Labour Party finds itself in.
The party has moved from 44 parliamentarians, with a swarm of support teams, to just 11 and a tiny staff. The party has followed the template of others who have suffered the same fate – re-engaging with the membership, rebuilding the organisation, changing structures, finding bright new candidates.
There is one big impediment for Labour though. Other parties have been able to “blood” new Dáil candidates in local elections. But it now looks likely that the general election will fall before the next local elections, scheduled to be held in 2019 .
Despite all that, Howlin is optimistic and confident his party is on the way back and that it will have enough time to present a “biddable proposition” to the electorate.
He has always believed the 32nd Dáil would be short-lived. He says he is not naive enough to think his party will recoup its losses and win 30 seats or more. But even now, he says, it can do well.
He cites as reasons for Labour’s resilience the need for a social democratic party in Irish politics; the party’s continuing strong membership despite the 2016 meltdown; its distinct policy platform; and what he describes as an “embedded” Labour vote in key constituencies. He says it was only after the last election that the party realised the extent to which it had been targeted for negative campaigns at the doorsteps by its opponents on the left.
As happened to Fianna Fáil and the Greens, he believes some Labour supporters “fell out with us”.
But these votes can be won back, he says. “There are steps from not voting for us to voting for us. The intermediate step is talking to us and we are at that stage with a lot of our electorate now.”
Howlin instances the position the party adopted on the budget as an example. He said it rejected the “tax-cutting agenda” of the Government and Fianna Fáil, instead saying additional money should be directed at housing, health and education.
“The fundamental choice is either to go back to the way we have always done it, shrink our tax base, have parallel systems in education or healthcare, or to have world-class health services.
“Labour has always been clear about having world-class public services and doing things we always though were aspirational like eliminating poverty starting with child poverty.
“We can do that. We can ensure that everybody has an equal chance from birth, starting with childcare so that when they go into formal education, all start on a level playing field which is not the case now.”
The party’s reduced status has meant it has been crowded out of debate. In a dig at political opponents and the media, Howlin argues that every statement now seems to be accepted at face value, even if it’s patently nonsense.
He instances Sinn Féin’s 2011 comments to the troika to leave and to take their money with them.
“That was tried in Greece and collapsed the banks and impoverished its people and ensured there was a complete flight of capital. Greece is still on its knees from that sort of approach.
“It is as if you could navigate complex issues with simplistic solutions that are not stress-tested.
“People in Ireland are very discerning. People can be angry and lash out at what has been done but in their hearts they know what was needed to be done and be put right.”
Dismissing Labour’s predicted demise, he said it has taken time for other parties in similar predicaments to recover. His party stubbornly remains mired in the low single digits. He insists he was told to expect this when becoming leader. Still, there has been some impatience expressed, not least by Alan Kelly, who has also not been shy to parade his leadership credentials. So where does it leave Howlin’s leadership?
“Alan Kelly played an exemplary role in the whole justice issue,” he says. “He is ambitious and there are plenty of ambitious people in the Labour Party. I encourage ambitious people because we are ambitious for our country.
“The leadership issue is determined. I have the full support of the party
“Obviously people will have different views about who should be leader at any particular time and that’s a feature of every political party.
“We have one common objective, to build the party and make us strong and make us into a force that will shape the politics of the country.
“There is no question I will lead Labour into the next election when that occurs – be it in six months or in three years’ time.”
What are his views on British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn? Surprisingly upbeat. He does express concern with the influence of the hard-left Momentum. “I would be personally concerned with any outside organisation exerting influence. We went though that with Militant in the past.
“But I know that a lot of people who joined Labour are enthusiasts for change and see Jeremy Corbyn as capable of leading. It is very invigorating and bold. We [in Ireland] can tap into that vision for a different type of society.”
Howlin said he read the British Labour manifesto and there was “nothing in it that the Irish Labour Party would not support.
“It was presented as an ultraradical document. It called for nationalising the railways, which we own here. We believe in State enterprise.”