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Stephen Collins: Bacik win points to place for Labour in politics

Instead of chasing SF populism, Labour needs to articulate vision for Republic

Ivana Bacik’s arrival in the Dáil chamber this week has finally given the Labour Party something to cheer about.

After five years of misery since the great election disaster of 2016, the byelection victory in Dublin Bay South came in the nick of time and provides at least a glimmer of hope for the future.

The big question is whether the win is a once-off, attributable to the quality of the candidate, or whether the party can take some vital lessons from the achievement and build on them to plot a new course back to political relevance in the years ahead.

The most obvious lesson of the win was that in Irish elections candidates count. Bacik has an established reputation going back for more than two decades as an effective campaigner on a range of liberal issues and has been comfortably elected to the Seanad for Trinity College since 2007.


While she failed to make it to the Dáil in two attempts, mainly because she didn’t get the opportunity to run in her home constituency, she proved herself a formidable campaigner as she had done in a run for the European Parliament in 2004. Dublin Bay South was the right opportunity at the right time and she took it. She should have a safe seat there at the next election.

Candidates with Back’s experience and ability don’t come along every day but Labour just has to find them. Her director of elections, Duncan Smith, the party’s only new TD in 2020, is an example that a good candidate can come through with hard work at local level even without her national profile.

Labour needs more good candidates, particularly women, in every winnable constituency well before the next election as a first step towards a real recovery. However, all the good candidates in the world won’t make a difference unless the party can make itself more relevant to peoples’ lives.

While it was understandable that Labour took a set against going back into office after the meltdown of 2016 it was the wrong move. By opting out of government formation Labour marginalised itself. By refusing to engage in the complex talks that led to the emergence of the three-party coalition last year it gave the impression of a fearful party with nothing to offer.

Instead of taking the opportunity to try and shape the economic recovery it had done so much to create in the first place, by the policies it had the courage to implement in office from 2011 to 2016, Labour attempted to compete with Sinn Féin and the hard left in the politics of perpetual outrage. It was a doomed quest because the party will never be able to match populist forces in fomenting anger at every government decision great or small.

Labour needs to come to terms with the fact that there is no point chasing such voters. The party needs to forget about pandering to the outraged and instead focus on attracting the support of people who want to see the State do a better job of looking after its citizens at every level, with fairness at the centre of policy.

Easy solutions

The majority of voters know there are no easy solutions to complex problems like housing and health but they do want to see politicians make a better job of dealing with them.

One of the reasons voters have been so disillusioned with Labour in the past is that the party gave the impression in opposition that there were simple solutions to the problems of society.

Then, when it went into government and had to take tough decisions, disillusionment spread among its members and supporters so its support see-sawed wildly over the decades

In fact Labour has a very honourable record in government going all the way back to the late 1940s. It was behind serious welfare reform, public housing programmes and industrial development as well as socially liberal reform on contraception, divorce, abortion and equal rights.

Labour has made a real difference in government but one of the reasons the public doesn’t appreciate it is that the party has too often been ashamed to boast of its achievements and instead has indulged in endless self-criticism over the difficult decisions that government inevitably involves.

If it has the courage and the commitment to seize it the party could have a future as a small- to medium-sized party committed to being in government to implement social democratic policies. That would involve articulating a clear vision of what needs to be done and a readiness to go into government with parties of the centre to push them in a progressive direction.

Instead of chasing Sinn Féin populism, Labour needs to differentiate itself from that party’s strident rhetoric and articulate a positive, tolerant vision of the country’s future.

In the past courageous TDs like Frank Cluskey, Barry Desmond and Dick Spring made no bones about standing up to the nationalist zealots of the republican movement and working in government to improve the lives of real people. A bit of their passion in support of democratic values might do wonders for the party’s revival.