Opinion poll results can become the equivalent of a bullet in the post. It doesn’t matter what political party or leader is involved, the prospect of losing seats agitates elected members and encourages challengers. Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin is now in that position. A group of councillors has demanded his resignation because of the party’s failure “to make progress in the opinion polls”. The man in the shadows, awaiting his opportunity, is Tipperary TD Alan Kelly.
An Irish Times opinion poll of last July found Labour Party support had fallen to 3 per cent. It became the trigger for the current unrest. If that showing is replicated in next May's local elections, many sitting councillors will lose their seats. In the local elections of 2014, the Labour vote halved, from 14 to 7 per cent. In the general election of 2016, with 6.6 per cent of the vote, its Dáil representation fell from 37 to seven seats. Since then, it has failed to reconnect with the electorate, being overshadowed and outmuscled by the major parties.
Before and during the economic crash, the Labour Party over-promised and under-delivered. It diluted its brand image; moved to the political centre and allowed Sinn Féin to cultivate its working class base. It attempted to protect basic payments and services but was regarded as an agent of austerity and paid the price in approval ratings.
During this period of rapid decline, Joan Burton replaced Eamon Gilmore as party leader and was followed by Brendan Howlin. Howlin, moderate and experienced, was elected unopposed while Kelly, because of his brash manner and undisguised ambition, could not find a seconder among Dáil members.
The party will consider its uncertain future next month in Drogheda. A “progressive alliance” involving the Social Democrats and the Green Party is likely to be proposed, along with policy developments and a recruitment strategy. Howlin wants to lead on. But Kelly and his supporters have other ideas.