Labour Party: No quick fix

The dilemma facing Labour in Ireland, caught between the populist rhetoric of the hard left and the pragmatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, poses a real challenge

Labour TD Alan Kelly sought to contest the party leadership after the February 2016 election but did not have sufficient support. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Labour TD Alan Kelly sought to contest the party leadership after the February 2016 election but did not have sufficient support. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

There is no escaping the fact that the Labour Party is struggling for its very existence after a catastrophic collapse in support at the last general election. Since then under a new leader, Brendan Howlin, the party has continued to languish in the polls and there is no evidence that it will be able to recover ground at the next election.

The party’s Tipperary TD, Alan Kelly, who sought to contest the leadership after the February 2016 election but did not have sufficient support, has a point when he says that something dramatic is needed to restore the party’s fortunes.

Some party members are coming around to the view that Kelly’s rumbustious style might be more appropriate to the Opposition role that Labour now finds itself in than the more considered approach of Howlin. That said, Kelly’s hint that he will mount a leadership challenge if there is no improvement in six months could well do more harm than good.

If voters could forgive Fianna Fáil its economic mismanagement surely Labour, in time, will be forgiven for doing the right thing in government

There was never going to be a quick solution to Labour’s predicament and Howlin certainly deserves more time in his efforts to rebuild. As a small party with just seven seats, Labour has limited speaking time in the Dáil and there is limited media interest in its views. It took Micheál Martin a full five years after the Fianna Fáil meltdown of 2011 to show serious signs of recovery. If voters could forgive that party its economic mismanagement surely Labour, in time, will be forgiven for doing the right thing in government.

Centre-left parties across the democratic world are struggling for relevance, as recent elections in western Europe show. The dilemma facing Labour in Ireland, caught between the populist rhetoric of the hard left and the pragmatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, poses a real challenge.

In order to break out it needs to come up with policies and ideas relevant to working people. The party devoted a lot of its energy over the past decade to social issues such as gay rights and abortion but failed to get any political dividend for its concern. A hard, unrelenting focus on bread and butter issues could be the key to recovery.

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