The Irish Times view on leadership of the Labour Party: Kelly’s big battle

Labour candidate Alan Kelly is hoisted into the air as he celebrates being elected in the 2016 general election. File photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Labour candidate Alan Kelly is hoisted into the air as he celebrates being elected in the 2016 general election. File photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

Alan Kelly and Keir Starmer, comfortably elected leaders of the Irish and British Labour parties, both face monumental tasks. The Irish party emerged from the February general election with its worst vote ever, while British Labour, on the back of four successive defeats, scored less than any election since the second World War.

Like European social democracy as a whole, the two parties face an uncertain future, eclipsed by populism in its various, very different manifestations. Today, inhibited by the coronavirus crisis, they must relaunch while constrained by the imperative to demonstrate constructive support for their respective governments.

The UK’s first-past-the-post voting system, which strongly inhibits breakaway parties, has ensured that Labour’s dissidents on the left and right have remained within the party. Starmer’s immediate challenge will be to build a broadly-based leadership front bench which can unite the party’s warring factions.

Kelly faces a difficult and different task outside the party to make a social democratic challenge once again credible in the face of Sinn Féin success in seizing the centre-left mantle. To unite the labour movement, whose divisions and splits are if anything facilitated by STV, he must begin to reach beyond his largely united party to the wider left gene pool – much of it ex-Labour – to bridge the bitter personal and ideological differences that led to the creation of the Social Democrats and saw multiple socialist-leaning independents elected outside the Labour family. There is a natural kinship even with the Greens.

Kelly has rightly spoken of the need to return his party to its campaigning roots, prioritising issues such as the health service and social justice. An open, democratic, radical party that enthusiastically embraces a broad range political currents – through mergers not takeovers – can allow the State’s oldest party to thrive again. To create a new type of political alternative to the conservative politics that Labour must define itself against.

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