The Irish Times view on the Labour Party conference: hard graft ahead

It has a long way to go to be in a position to play a significant role in a future government

The Labour Party has been struggling for survival as a serious political force since the general election disaster of 2016. It managed to cling on to six seats in last year’s general election but has had difficulty making its voice heard in the noisy confrontation between the Government parties and Sinn Féin which dominates the political discourse.

In his keynote speech to the party’s annual conference in Dublin at the weekend, leader Alan Kelly made a determined effort to articulate a distinctive image for Labour as a social democratic alternative to the governing Coalition on the one hand and the nationalist ideology of Sinn Féin on the other. Kelly castigated opponents who peddle the myth that voters can enjoy tax cuts at the same time as increased public spending and he made the case for entering government after the next election but only with parties with a “moral compass” Labour could trust.

The pledge to enter government on strict conditions was a welcome move from the party which can point to a proud history of achievement in office. Labour’s most recent experience of being in power involved it in cleaning up the mess created by the financial crisis. The courageous decisions taken at that time put the country on the road to economic recovery but led to a collapse in support in the 2016 election. The party has shied away from office since then but the conference shows that it has now put that traumatic experience behind it. It says it is ready to offer itself to voters at the next election as a party willing to enter government to ensure that fairness is the hallmark of the next phase of Ireland’s development.

It has a long way to go to be in a position to play a major role in a future government but the victory of Ivana Bacik in the Dublin Bay South byelection in June shows what a strong candidate and a good campaign can achieve. Repeating that performance in several constituencies in a general election will not be easy but Bacik’s achievement has pointed the way to a potential revival in the party’s fortunes if its members are willing to put in the necessary hard graft.