Noel Whelan: Brendan Howlin is the right choice for Labour
Real test of party’s leadership will be the next election - whenever that comes
Brendan Howlin, above. “The new Labour party leader is also an effective parliamentary performer and a shrewd tactician.” File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
One of the most effective political posters in recent years was erected by the Labour Party along the canals in Dublin about ten days before the 2011 general election. At that point in the campaign it was clear that Fine Gael was going to lead the next government and it seemed it might even be able to form a government without Labour.
The poster featured a large rose and a single slogan: “Le Chéile.” This appeal to traditional Irish social solidarity was perfect in its timing. The Fianna Fáil- Green Party government were set to be unceremoniously turfed out. For many voters, however, there was an underlying concern that a Fine Gael-only government would be harsh or socially regressive in is implementation of austerity.
Reading accounts of the internal workings of the 2011 Labour campaign, including Eamon Gilmore’s own memoirs it is clear there was some disagreement among the party’s strategists and politicians about how to respond to the fear of a Fine Gael surge.
Instead of emphasising this generalised but effective “Le Chéile’ message, Labour opted instead, in the dying days of the campaign, for a cruder approach of promising specific outcomes from Labour’s inclusion in government. These were most colourfully depicted in the now infamous “Tesco-style” newspaper ads in which Labour promised, among other things, to fight against an increase in tax on wine.
The political pressures arising from the imposition of austerity policies, the fact that Labour stood over a sequence of socially regressive budgets and the perceived failure to implement some of these overblown election promises undermined Labour support well in advance of the 2016 election.
The scale of the loss suffered by the Labour Party last February is worth reiterating. They won 37 Dáil seats in 2011 but won just seven in 2016. They received almost 20 per cent of the vote in 2011 but just under 7 per cent last February.
In per capita terms Labour’s collapse in 2016 was much greater than that suffered by Fine Gael in 2002 and by Fianna Fáil in 2011.
The recovery made by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after those elections cautions against any early predictions of Labour’s complete demise. It is, however, worth noting again that no party is owed an existence and that just because an entity or organisation has been a prominent feature of public life for decades doesn’t means it will always survive.
Labour, however, has experienced dramatic setbacks on this scale previously. In fact, Labour has had one of the most volatile patterns of electoral performance of any party in western democracy.
Having regard to the vulnerable state of the party and the precarious state of the new Dáil, Labour made the right choice in selecting Brendan Howlin as its leader even if it was without letting the party membership vote on the matter.
It might seem strange that at a time which calls out for renewal, the party would turn to its longest-serving deputy for leadership, although the other three main political parties also have leaders who have been TDs of very long standing.
Howlin served with my late father on Wexford County Council more than 25 years ago. All in Wexford politics speak of Howlin’s decency and competence. They also attest to his pedigree as a champion for workers.
Howlin did an extended interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ radio on Sunday morning where, for the first time, listeners got a more comprehensive picture of his background and formation. He may not be as colourful a chatshow interviewee as Alan Kelly, but Howlin has an interesting personal and political story to tell.
The new Labour leader is also an effective parliamentary performer and a shrewd tactician. He was impressive at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil this week. The Labour Party also succeeded in inflicting the first substantial defeat on the Government by persuading the other Opposition parties and Independents to support a private members’ motion calling for enhanced rights for low-pay workers.
The real test of his leadership, of course, will be the next election, whenever that comes. Howlin himself says he expects an election within a year.
It is difficult to see what could give rise to a dramatic shift in public attitude to the Labour Party in the next year or two. Changing the leader from Joan Burton to Howlin is likely to have as little effect in that regard as changing the leader from Gilmore to Burton had.
Labour lost some of its seats in February by only a few hundred votes, but of course surviving deputies such as Burton, Jan O’Sullivan and Alan Kelly only held their seats by a few hundred votes while Willie Penrose only held his by a handful.
With significantly diminished personnel and funding and perhaps very little time the task facing Howlin and the Labour Party appears daunting.