Labour struggles for relevance

Party needs a message and a political space in which to deliver it

 

The Labour Party meets for its conference in Wexford this weekend facing profound questions about its future. The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in March registered party support at four per cent, a drop of three percentage points since last year’s general election. In polling terms, Labour has entered the territory of marginal political groupings whose support is so small that national polls find it hard to gauge. Half its TDs are approaching the age most people think about retirement. Labour is struggling to elbow its way into political debate, with occasional but hardly sustained success. The blunt truth is that it is hanging onto political relevance by its fingernails.

The demise of the State’s oldest political party is not a foregone conclusion. There are lots of examples of parties rising from the dead or at least from near-terminal conditions. Labour needs only to look across the floor of the Dáil to the bulging Fianna Fáil benches for an example of a party that dragged itself back from the abyss. But equally, just because Labour has been around for 100 or so years does not mean its survival as a political force is assured. Political parties fade and disappear all the time. Successful species are those which adapt to changes in their environment. If it is to survive, Labour must adapt.

For much of its existence Labour had a reasonable expectation of at least semi-regular participation in government because of the structure of Irish politics. Either Fianna Fáil was in Government or Labour and Fine Gael were. Labour even demonstrated that it was willing to form a coalition with Fianna Fáil if the circumstances were right. The party’s status as the half-party in a two-and-a-half party system might have rankled with members who dreamed of greater things. But it was a significant role, regularly bestowed power, and enabled Labour to have a particular modernising influence on Irish society in the areas of social issues and personal rights, equality and open government.

But a changed society and an economic earthquake have altered politics. Labour’s place in the political landscape is no longer certain; and it is certainly not as substantial. The only response to this is to build alliances on the left – with independents, with the Greens, with the Social Democrats and, perhaps, with Sinn Féin.

This weekend will likely offer some evidence that the Labour organisation is beginning to pick itself up after the trauma of last year’s election massacre. Recent weeks have also seen the party beginning selection conventions for the next elections, while grassroots activity in some constituencies has also shown some signs of life in recent months. Visible local activism is necessary in Irish politics. But it is not sufficient. Labour needs a message and a political space in which to deliver it. At the moment, it has neither.

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