Ivana Bacik will likely be the next Labour Party leader post-Alan Kelly, so at least the quest for reorganising the upper echelons of the party will be mercifully short-lived. There will be no arguments between Labour politicians on the radio, no public navel-gazing and no tedious counter-heaves. For this, the public can be grateful. But while it’s much easier for the party to find a new leader than it is for them to identify a new purpose, the answers to both may be quite obvious.
First up, there’s the plain question of whether Bacik as leader is a good idea. There is a risk to elevating the academic and intellectual core to the top of party. To put it bluntly, and probably a little unfairly, Labour isn’t electing a provost, or a chair of the National Women’s Council, it’s electing a party leader.
Everyone knows how smart, capable and expert Bacik is. We need more people of an intellectual standard in Irish politics. People are crying out for competence and calibre. And yet, in an age of anti-elitism among the electorate, is it a good move to choose someone perceived (rightly or wrongly) as elite? At a time where the issues of the day are very (and in terms of housing, literally) concrete, is it a good move to choose an academic? At a time when working-class people are dictating which direction the political winds blow, is Labour now saying its moving away from its former base entirely?
The selection of Kelly didn’t work out. The media analysis – my own included – focussed on how his adversarial approach became muted in the public arena, but given the diffuse rumblings about the “culture” in the party under his leadership, that was clearly not the experience internally. Bacik and Kelly are worlds apart. But is the Labour Party about to make another error in elevating someone whose media profile is disproportionate to their voter reach?
There will be concerns about whether Planet Bacik really does extend beyond a section of the Dublin Bay South constituency. The byelection she won there wasn’t necessarily evidence of a Labour revival. That election was very specific and very contextual. Despite Fine Gael spending the campaign fighting a proxy war with Sinn Féin, it was obvious to anyone with knowledge of the constituency and the sentiments of the electorate there that Bacik was always going to win. She was the best candidate in the race, and there was a sense that her time had finally come.
Leadership is a thematic thing. The leader of a party has to embody not just that party’s direction, but speak to the themes of the day. Labour knows that the vanguard of political influence in Ireland is concentrated among younger women. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil appear utterly blind to this fact, but mind you, they had to scramble to get maternity leave for the Minister for Justice. Not a good look, lads! Every woman in Fine Gael knows this, which is why they didn’t come out in numbers to counter the narrative around male entitlement their 2021 byelection campaign was steeped in, because they know it’s correct. And Kate O’Connell was waving from the wings to remind everyone of that.
If and when Bacik gets the gig, the solution for leader, party purpose and vote-getting is obvious. The party needs to rediscover how its power is most potent when it’s a party of issues. Therefore, the Labour Party needs to become the party of childcare. Linking party, leader and purpose could actually happen under Bacik, but only if the party begins to own the issue that’s right under its nose. Bacik knows more than anyone how often that issue came up on the doorsteps in Dublin Bay South, and she made it a central issue during both the byelection and her stint as a TD to date.
If I was in Labour, I would be talking about childcare night, noon and morning, on every radio appearance, to every journalist, at every door, to every passerby, to every television camera, to the wall if it would listen. Every day the Dáil sits, Labour TDs should be making speeches about childcare and demanding the issue is treated as the emergency it is. They should hold a press conference every week with parents detailing their situations and struggles. They should work with other opposition TDs to create a large and detailed childcare policy that is undeniable. Call it PáisteCare or LeanbhCare or whatever you want, but beyond sloganeering, it should be extensive, detailed and implementable in the morning. Hammer the Government over not understanding that the issue is about the demand for and shortage of places as much as it is about funding. It’s not about a budget, it’s about a system. The Green Party has completely fluffed the issue, with a Minister in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs who has seemingly used that post as some sort of silent retreat.
Right now, we have a “please hold” government, with a nation waiting on the line to be put through to someone who will actually solve their problems. Find your issue, and you’ve found your votes. Luckily for Labour, it’s an issue Bacik is already on top of.