Irish Times view on the Labour Party conference: a relevance question

Party has a proud history but needs to stake out a distinctive position on the political spectrum

The Labour Party conference on Saturday will be an important moment in its history. It should set the tone for the party's approach to the general election which is expected to take place in six months or so. Labour suffered a massive setback in the last general election, when it was reduced from 37 seats to seven, so it needs to make a significant recovery if it is to be a relevant force in Irish politics in the coming decade.

Making that recovery will not be easy. In the past when Labour was the third-biggest party in the State it suffered reversals at regular intervals, usually as a result of participating in government, but was able to recover ground in opposition. In 2016 it dropped to fourth place behind Sinn Féin and not far ahead of hard left small parties.

As if trying to rebuild from that low base was not difficult enough, it now has to contend with a resurgent Green Party, surfing the wave of public concern about climate change. If the results of the local elections are anything to go by Labour will have a fight on its hands to win more Dáil seats than the Greens next time around.

One of the problems the party faces is that five of its seven TDs, including leader Brendan Howlin, are over 60. It needs an infusion of new blood to provide the energy and ideas required to survive in an increasingly competitive political world. On a more fundamental level the party needs to stake out a distinctive position for itself on the political spectrum. It has a proud history as a social democratic party which has had the courage to participate in government. By doing so it has had an enormous influence on reshaping Irish society. For instance the marriage equality referendum would not have happened if Labour had not been in government.


After the traumatic losses of 2016 Labour understandably declined to go back into government. That decision was understandable at the time but, in hindsight, was probably a mistake. Next time around it needs to be clear with the electorate not just about what it stands for in an ideal world but what its bottom-line conditions will be for participation in coalition.