Labour facing crisis of relevance in new, younger Ireland


The age profile of Labour's TDs and Fianna Fáil's power in the commuter belt represent a serious problem for the party, writes Odran Flynn.

Where to now for the Labour Party? Is it relevant or redundant? This is the burning question for the party following the outcome of the general election.

At first sight a party with 20 TDs is entitled to wonder how such a question can possibly apply. However, a more considered analysis reveals that unless it can resolve problems that have accumulated over two decades its likelihood of playing an influential role in the future of Ireland is slim.

Ireland is a very different country now compared with 1989. It is an economically successful, multicultural society driven by a hard-working and intelligent younger generation. Since 1989 the population has increased by 20 per cent and the economically critical 25 to 44 age group has increased by 6 percentage points to 31.7 per cent of the population.

Yet last May, Labour got just 10.1 per cent of the vote - its worst performance since 1989. In five years' time no one under the age of 38 will have cast a vote that has elected Labour to government. Labour will face an electorate dominated by this younger generation with 20 TDs whose average age will be 61, by far the oldest of any party in the State. Nine of these 20 will be at least 65 and only the three newcomers, Seán Sherlock, Joanna Tuffy and Ciarán Lynch, will be younger than 56.

Sherlock, Tuffy and Lynch are the first new TDs elected for the party since Mary Upton won a byelection in 1999 and could suggest that Labour are starting to reach out to a younger generation. However, Sherlock's share of the vote fell since his father won the Cork East seat in 2002 and Lynch is still well short of Labour's vote in Cork South-Central in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Tuffy gained the extra seat in Dublin Mid-West primarily because she was a councillor based in the area, unlike Fine Gael's unsuccessful parachute candidate Frances Fitzgerald.

There is a potentially bleak outlook if a number of their older TDs retire at the end of the current Dáil. Michael D Higgins, Brian O'Shea, Emmet Stagg, Jack Wall, Ruairí Quinn, Joe Costello, Mary Upton, Liz McManus and Tommy Broughan will all be at least 65 by 2012. Labour lost three seats in May as a consequence of retiring or, in the case of Breeda Moynihan Cronin, perceived to be retiring TDs. There is evidence of a significant personal vote for each of the long-serving TDs and in many instances this will be the difference in Labour holding or losing seats in the event of their retirement.

The reliable base for Labour has always been in what are traditionally known as "working-class areas". These were the source of its core vote but this base is diminishing at an alarming rate. An analysis of the tallies for Dublin North-Central and Dublin South-East from last May demonstrates the extent of the problem.

Both constituencies have a mix of middle-class and working- class areas. Sinn Féin and the Green Party have made inroads into the traditional Labour vote.

But there is now a much greater threat to their capacity to sustain their role as a major player on the political landscape.

Fianna Fáil has now become the dominant force in the working-class areas of the cities. In Dublin North-Central the four Kilmore electoral divisions were rock-solid working-class Labour strongholds. Now they are the weakest area in the entire constituency for the party, averaging just 5 per cent of the vote.

Fianna Fáil on the other hand averages more than 50 per cent in this area and provided its biggest share of the vote in the constituency. This was despite Labour having Derek McDowell, a former TD and outgoing senator, as their candidate and not some hopeful newcomer.

In Dublin South-East the situation is not quite as bad as the working-class inner city areas garnered close to 20 per cent for Ruairí Quinn but yet again Fianna Fáil left him trailing in its wake. With an average of 35 per cent Fianna Fáil got its highest share of the vote in the constituency in the four electoral divisions with the highest concentration of working-class voters.

Dominic Hannigan was seen as the brightest prospect to make a breakthrough for Labour. Articulate, intelligent and of an age that relates to the majority in modern Ireland, he was regarded as a certainty to win a seat in Meath East.

This constituency epitomises the changes of the past decade. It is now largely a commuter belt of Dublin populated by young couples and families from the city, many from working-class areas. About 44 per cent of the houses have been built since 1996 with two-thirds of those constructed in the past five years.

It has all the problems associated with rapid development - shortage of school places and childcare, clogged roads and inadequate healthcare facilities - ideal Labour territory if ever there was one. Hannigan got a respectable 12 per cent of the vote but his performance was dwarfed by Fianna Fáil's 43 per cent and two seats. Thomas Byrne comfortably won the third seat. He has a profile similar to Hannigan but had never run for election at any level previously. Those who were regarded a decade ago as working class no longer see themselves as such. The Celtic Tiger has given them the opportunity to have a higher standard of living than their parents and they are grabbing it with both hands.

Crucially they can buy their own house. The oft-repeated claim by opposition parties that young people cannot afford a house is emphatically disproved by the facts. About 17 per cent of all houses in the country have been built in the past five years while the population has increased by 8 per cent in the same period.

Anyone with the remotest grasp of the new suburbia knows exactly who lives there. These are the people who voted Fianna Fáil in decisive numbers. They voted to retain their new standard of living and therein lies the danger for Labour.

In the UK Tony Blair rejuvenated a tired ideological dinosaur and begot New Labour. In Ireland many voters have also found New Labour - it is Fianna Fáil.

Last May Labour went into the election with 21 seats and a real prospect for seven others. They ended with one less and in half of those 28 target seats their share of the vote fell. The biggest drop in support came in the commuter constituencies, highlighted by the 13.3 per cent fall in Wicklow.

The future for Labour is not just about branding. It is about establishing a real empathy with the new Ireland. The age profile of its TDs is an obstacle to that crucial objective that may be insurmountable.

As I asked at the outset - relevant or redundant?

Odran Flynn is a political analyst and member of the Progressive Democrats.