Ivana Bacik's uncontested election as Labour Party leader, after the swift removal of Alan Kelly from the role, at least spares the party a long and fratricidal internal battle at a time when its future as a serious force in Irish politics is on the line.
Bacik, a popular and well-known figure with a substantial record as an activist and legislator, could lift her party's electoral prospects in some places, especially in middle-class constituencies in her native Dublin. Labour's strongest performances of recent times, in 1992 and 2011, owed a lot to the personal popularity of Dick Spring and Eamon Gilmore, respectively, and Bacik proved in last year's Dublin Bay South byelection that she can far exceed the party's core support. But she is a relatively new TD and untested as a leader. Her challenge is to reassemble the coalition of urban liberals, public sector workers and blue-collar workers that delivered Labour its most important victories. High on the agenda must be the identification of some key constituency targets for the next election and some form of rapprochement with the Social Democrats.
List of achievements
Labour has to stop apologising for its past. The party made mistakes in office but it also has a long list of achievements to its name – achievements it seldom speaks about. It was ahead of most other parties on the major social changes of the past four decades. And most of its left-wing rivals have achieved relatively little for working people by comparison – either because they have been too unpopular to hold power or because they have lacked the courage to go into government and take decisions.
Labour’s best chance of re-establishing itself as a medium-sized force in national politics may come not at the next election but at the following one, particularly if Sinn Féin goes into office at the next election and loses its sheen as a result. Focusing on that target could give Bacik the space to rebuild from the ground up, and to find a place for the party in a political battlefield that is increasingly fought on Labour’s traditional centre-left terrain.