At the RDS on the Saturday of the count, jubilation and dejection were everywhere. Among the fist-pumping Sinn Féin activists with tricolours and the white-knuckled Independents were the members of the press, scowling and rushing and joking and projecting. But everyone always wants the candidates; they’re the picture and they’re the story.
Everywhere they went, the media scrum followed, a murmuration of microphones and cameras, reporters with recording devices extended like their arms would never unflex again, the press photographers with elbows akimbo trying to snap something different while everyone is going for the same shot, TV cameras veering on the shoulders of their human pivots, the self-important political sidekicks pretending to be aloof while blatantly getting in frame, and the rubberneckers at the back, surveying the situation, corners of their mouths turned downwards as if staring over the rail at a particularly popular heifer at a mart.
When Joe Costello arrived, the frisson a candidate entering the RDS on count day creates was elevated again, and wordlessly and instinctively the murmuration gathered, floating towards its target, like starlings settling momentarily on a lake isle. Around the failed candidate were the old school Labour lads, grey-haired men with Costello stickers on their flat caps and rain jackets. Their man was conceding, and their winkled eyes turned as red as their ties, bleary with tears.
Costello managed to steel himself for the press, an old hand. Crowded by journalists and supporters, he spoke of disappointment, when you’d have to think it was devastation. And then, another flutter near the door. Who was there? Lucinda? The murmuration arose, went, and in a second it was gone. Costello was left with the Labour aul fellas, dignified and sad, teary at the gravity the end of an era brings. Everyone knew the media scrum was never coming back.
If the Labour old guard was dismantled with the departure of Ruairí Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, it was additionally torn down in this election. Another crisis for Labour, though, is how it also lost so many younger TDs.
If Labour is to regroup at all, it needs to look to a younger demographic and bring them into the fold. But how can it do that when the party feels more staid than ever? When you look at youngsters who gravitate to Fianna Fáil, it is history repeating itself. They're just versions of what we've seen for generations. And if anything, the younger members of Fine Gael are more right-wing than the party's establishment. But unlike Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Labour as a brand actually stands for something, even if the only stand our Labour Party in government took was one of a nodding partner to Fine Gael.
The AAA-PBP alliance is rooted in protest politics. But Labour abandoned its association with protest movements when the water charges crisis took hold. It put down the placard and took up the utility bill. Young people are more idealistic than their parents. They aren’t as caught up with the USC or pensions or mortgages or water charges. I previously wrote about Labour’s failure to capitalise on the marriage equality referendum, but their lack of resonance with young Irish people goes beyond identity politics. Labour needs to ask itself serious questions about why the leaders of tomorrow, the bright sparks this country produces, the smart students and the young activists, aren’t gravitating towards the party. Labour is no longer their natural home when it comes to party politics. Why?
A couple of days before the election, I was giving a talk to the LGBTQ society in UCD. I was genuinely shocked to hear some students talk about their party membership of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. These were lesbian and gay young people. For my generation of LGBT people in our 30s, you wouldn’t be caught dead near Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They were the enemy, the bastions of conservatism. But leaving aside Labour Youth, there is now a huge disconnect between the Labour Party and young people in Ireland.
Young people don’t know what Labour stands for, probably because Labour doesn’t say what that is any more, and certainly hasn’t shown it in recent years. There’s no doubt that any semblance of a future the party has needs to be rooted in reconnecting with the large cohort of younger voters who would naturally be more left-wing than right.
You’d imagine that Labour will regret selling its headquarters on Ely Place for the knockdown price of €800,000 last year in order to spend €212,625 a year renting a 4,725sq ft penthouse in Grand Canal Dock. How the party thought it was a sound decision is beyond me, but like the general state of the party, it smacks of a midlife crisis. Seán Sherlock and
now drag the average age of a Labour TD down to 56, but it is a party in the grips of a midlife crisis, an ineffective parent who cannot connect with the kids.
In this election, not one large party stood up and said: this is our vision for Ireland, this is what we stand for, this is our Big Idea. That space used to be occupied by Labour. Somewhere along the way they stopped saying it, so how are young people meant to hear it?