Una Mullally: Labour Party needs serious shot in arm

Howlin keeps Labour paralysed but Alan Kelly’s power-hungry ego is too much

Alan Kelly TD: If it’s ego Labour is after, then he is the man. Photograph:  Lorraine O’Sullivan

Alan Kelly TD: If it’s ego Labour is after, then he is the man. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan

 

Self-awareness is a rare quality in politics, but in January 2016, Alan “AK47’” Kelly took his lack of it to championship levels in an interview with the Sunday Independent: “Anybody who says that power isn’t attractive is telling you a lie. Of course it is. It’s obviously a drug. It’s attractive. It’s something you thrive on. It suits some people. It doesn’t suit others. I think it suits me.” Besides this being the kind of indulgent bluster that would make you back out of the room at a party, it’s also one of the many deafening alarm bells sounding around the Game of Thrones energy Kelly brings to his desire to lead the Labour Party. 

In my Top Five Vibes We Definitely Don’t Want Leaders Of Any Kind To Have list, referring to power as a drug, conceptualising the pursuit and attainment of power as a purpose in and of itself, and believing one thrives on said drug of power, are all in there. If it’s ego Labour is after, then Kelly’s the man. 

Brendan Howlin. Joan Burton said it would be ‘unfair’ if his leadership was discussed before he outlines how Labour will increase its popularity, and win more local authority seats, next spring. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
[Alan] Kelly is right about one thing, though. [Brendan] Howlin (above) has to go. Labour obviously has multiple issues, but leadership is a critical one. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Last month, a few Labour councillors including Martina Genockey, Dermot Lacey and Rebecca Moynihan, gathered on radio to discuss Brendan Howlin’s leadership, after some councillors wrote to Howlin saying they wanted a deep and meaningful chat about his leadership, and the party’s issues. Lacey – who like James Connolly himself spends plenty of quality time on Twitter – will tell anyone who listens and plenty of people who don’t, that he’d vote for Kelly all the way. Genockey too called for a leadership contest, saying it would be a good way for contenders to refocus the party’s vision. But Moynihan offered a rare reality check for the party, saying that people don’t want to hear Labour talking about themselves, but about the issues the country is facing. 

People don’t want to hear Labour talking about themselves. They want to hear about the issues the country is facing

Labour’s talent for introspection is second only to its defensiveness, and the party as a collective has been talking about rebuilding and renewing and reconnecting and having an updated mandate since the Great Disaster of 2016. But in communicating this to the broader public, the party seems incapable of going beyond the first line in that process. Labour loves to trumpet the change it has been part of effecting in Irish society, yet seems incapable of instigating change within itself. But is a Kelly-shaped hole in the wall as he rushes to seize the crown really something the party needs?

Ambitious nature

Kelly trumpets his ambitious nature, and he certainly is a guy in a hurry. There is something to be said for not faffing around or standing on ceremony, but when it comes to leadership, there is a negative side to a no nonsense, cut to the chase, like it or lump it approach. Leadership is not just about sticking it to people, it’s about bringing them with you. Nowhere is this skill more required than in politics, a land of paranoia, fragile egos, and, of course, a Civil Service for whom bullish ministers tend to be, as Billy Connolly once said, as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.

Leadership is not just about sticking it to people, it’s about bringing them with you

Kelly is right about one thing, though. Howlin has to go. Labour obviously has multiple issues, but leadership is a critical one. Howlin’s tenure has become a sort of purgatory, keeping the party in a state of paralysis that constantly evokes Labour’s most recent traumas. Creativity and energy and enthusiasm are not synonymous with youth, but as long as Howlin is at the top, the perception of the old guard – that axis of Rabbitte-Gilmore-Burton-Quinn, which the electorate lost interest in a long time ago – remains. What also remains is an air of pomposity that Labour could do without, but often can’t help gravitating towards. Howlin may have been busy fixing the party’s interiors, but there’s no point in doing up the gaff if nobody’s coming to visit.

Personality politics

Howlin’s supporters may deride personality politics, but that’s something that tends to be criticised when there isn’t actually a key personality to laud. When a good party leader exists, supporters are all about personality politics then.

Brendan Howlin is being pressed by colleagues to step forward for the leadership while Alan Kelly is keen to succeed to the position. Photograph: Barbara Lindberg
"Creativity and energy and enthusiasm are not synonymous with youth, but as long as Howlin is at the top, the perception of the old guard – that axis of Rabbitte-Gilmore-Burton-Quinn, which the electorate lost interest in a long time ago – remains." File photograph: Barbara Lindberg

Labour needs to do something. Kelly may promise energy, but there’s a difference between a shot in the arm and a box in the jaw. Like an audience watching a Michael Haneke film, we’re all just waiting for something to happen. The longer the party dawdles, the more potential voters are passing through its fingers like grains of sand. The party is still hurting, but although Labour’s base has massively depleted, and the trauma 2016 caused is fierce, the storm has to be allowed to pass at some stage. The damage is not irreparable, and it will be up to voters whether they can place their trust in Labour again – and many, fairly, won’t be able to. 

Whatever your political persuasion, Irish politics would benefit from a stronger Labour Party, especially with Fine Gael’s jazz hands attempts at distracting the public from the horrific housing crisis. We need more opposition of every colour and creed and from every direction to the dysfunctional neoliberalism branded “recovery”. 

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