The Irish Times view on the Labour Party: fighting to define its role

The party needs to be able to demonstrate what makes Labour different from the rest of the opposition

Labour Party members meet in Cork this weekend for their annual conference at a time of deep uncertainty for Ireland’s oldest political party. The parliamentary party dispatched its then leader Alan Kelly last year in a Leinster House coup driven by unhappiness with Kelly’s leadership style and concern about the party’s anaemic poll ratings. The move’s instigators drew a link between these two reasonable concerns. However, a year later, it turns out that it was not Kelly’s performance that was suppressing the party’s numbers; or at least, if it was, his successor Ivana Bacik is having a similar effect.

More likely, Labour’s low poll ratings are a result of Sinn Féin’s dominance of the opposition, the party’s failure to find a distinctive voice, and residual resentment among some voters about the perceived mistakes the party made during its last period in government. Labour has withered in some of its rural strongholds and faces fierce competition for the urban liberal votes that it formerly attracted. Now, with Sinn Féin in the ascendant, and competition from a revitalised Social Democrats, the party faces a real threat to its future as a serious player in Irish politics.

Labour has often punched above its weight and has been one of the principal agents for change -– often desperately needed change – in Irish politics in the last half century. To the present leadership falls the task of securing Labour’s place in the politics of 21st century Ireland. That place will have to be earned; nobody has a right to it.

Where to start? The road to salvation for Labour is simple, yet difficult. It needs strong candidates on the ground – both for local elections next year and the general election which will follow – and a distinctive, appealing brand at a national level. This requires organisation, grit, clear-eyed decision-making and an unwavering strategic focus. It requires distinctive political messages. What is it that makes Labour different from the rest of the opposition? Unless Labour TDs, councillors and candidates are able to answer this question in sharp and memorable ways, it is unlikely that voters will pay attention.