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Labour needs to stop aping Sinn Féin

Since losing office the party appears more concerned with apologising for what it failed to do rather than claiming credit for what it achieved

Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik delivering her keynote speech at the party's annual conference last weekend in Cork. Photograph: Andy Gibson.

After the crushing defeat of its motion of no confidence in the Government the Labour Party needs to engage in some serious soul searching about whether it wants to offer voters a serious social democratic vision or a pale populist imitation of Sinn Féin.

Languishing in the polls, the party can be forgiven for trying to do something to get public attention but attempting to grab on to Sinn Féin’s coattails on housing was hardly the way to go about it. The fact that the Government had such a comfortable margin of victory highlighted the pointlessness of the Labour manoeuvre, particularly as the party is the one that can least afford an early general election.

To be fair, Labour is in a difficult bind. Sinn Féin has hoovered up most of the anti-Government sentiment swirling around the political arena, while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have become the bastions of stability for those who fear for the country’s future under a Sinn Féin-led government.

Presenting a coherent social democratic alternative to the Coalition on the one hand and the desire for change represented by Sinn Féin is not an easy task but Labour has to find a way to do it or face oblivion. Changing leaders has done nothing to change the party’s image and time is running out.


An alliance of some kind with the Social Democrats, or even a merger of the two parties, has been talked about in Labour circles for the past few years but Holly Cairns put paid to that from the moment she took over the leadership of her party. She didn’t simply reject the idea of a merger but went out of her way to insult Labour.

While the Social Democrats benefited from a poll bounce in the immediate aftermath of Cairns’s elevation, the party has since drifted back to 4 per cent or so. With Labour on roughly the same share of the vote the two parties risk being wiped out by Sinn Féin if they can’t find some way of co-operating at the next election.

Despite its current woes Labour may actually be the more resilient of the two. It has a history going back more than a century and a party organisation which has continued to function in most constituencies despite its paltry representation in Dáil Éireann.

Labour’s brand of left-wing politics is very different from that of Sinn Féin which actually has more in common with the right-wing, ultranationalist parties of continental Europe than it does with social democracy. Sinn Féin’s opposition to property tax, carbon taxes and water charges show up the hollowness of its left-wing posturing.

The only way Labour will be able to regain the confidence of the public is to articulate a clear set of achievable policies that distinguish it from the wild rhetoric and unachievable promises being made by Sinn Féin

Part of Labour’s problem is that it appears to be ashamed of its record rather than proud of what it has achieved over the past century in helping to create the modern and relatively fair society we have today. In all the State’s centenary commemorations it seems to have been forgotten that Labour played a crucial role in the creation of our democracy by becoming the official opposition in the Dáil when republicans refused to take their seats in an effort to strangle the State at birth.

In subsequent decades Labour participated in coalition governments and helped to deliver a raft of progressive policies from the creation of a modern social welfare system in the 1940s, a massive increase in house building in the 1970s and the pursuit of more liberal social legislation in every decade.

Yet at every turn the party on losing office appeared more concerned with apologising for what it had failed to do rather than claiming credit for what it had achieved. That tendency reached its apogee after its most recent experience in office from 2011 to 2016.

That coalition with Fine Gael rescued the country from financial bankruptcy, transformed it from one beset with one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union to one with full employment and set it back on course to become one of wealthiest and fairest societies on the globe.

That required tough decisions but in government Labour ensured that welfare rates were not cut, as they were in other bailout countries. There is also no doubt that the marriage equality referendum would not have happened if the party had not been in government with Fine Gael.

Instead of attempting to convince voters that its record demonstrates an ability to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems, Labour gives the impression that it regrets ever going into office. Leo Varadkar hit a sore point when he said during this week’s confidence debate: “I know that Labour does not have confidence in the Government. But it seems to me that it has long lost confidence in itself.”

The only way Labour will be able to regain the confidence of the public is to articulate a clear set of achievable policies that distinguish it from the wild rhetoric and unachievable promises being made by Sinn Féin. Despite the sloganising and abuse that dominate today’s politics there is surely room for a coherent left wing alternative to both the current government and the populist grandstanding of Sinn Féin.