The Labour Party has a problem, and her name is Holly Cairns.
Party figures have been heard in Leinster House loudly decrying what they see as overly favourable media coverage of Cairns’ ascent to the leadership of the Social Democrats.
It’s not just in the Dáil bar that such grievances are being aired. Locally and nationally, there is a growing fear in Labour that a Social Democrats’ success story could be another nail in the coffin of the party founded by James Connolly more than 110 years ago.
One poll showed Social Democrats’ support doubling in the days after Cairns’s election. Such “bounces” often happen for new leaders, and they can fade just as quickly, but it has completely evaded Ivana Bacik, who became Labour Party leader a year ago next week.
Inside Labour, strategists scoffed at this poll and the coverage of it, labelling it over-the-top and bizarre: “Holly for Taoiseach? That is mad,” one said.
But the real, underlying issue is not media coverage, or polls. Instead, it is that the Social Democrats now undercut Labour’s entire strategy to win back support from voters who abandoned the party after the economic crash.
Bacik’s big pitch was that there was another choice beyond the “conservative forces” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand, and populist Sinn Féin on the other. There was, she said, a “hunger” for a positive change somewhere on the centre-left. That was the space for Labour – but that space looks pretty crowded now.
One well-known Labour figure said the Social Democrats could leave Labour candidates marooned if it edges ahead and captures 6 to 7 per cent of the vote, while another privately warns that Labour would have just two TDs if an election was held now.
Yet Holly Cairns is very far from Labour’s biggest problem, and a long-term Soc Dems surge is by no means certain. The fact is, Labour has much bigger issues closer to home.
The party will gather next weekend in Cork for the party’s annual conference. Most will put a brave face on it but multiple sources have told The Irish Times that under the surface, the mood in the camp right now is dire. More than 15 people – from parliamentarians to party officials – contributed to this article.
“There is a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of motivation. It is all a bit deadpan. There is no angst, no anger, many party members are just not expecting too much out of Ivana’s leadership, out of the next local elections, or the next general election,” said one source.
Members who spoke off the record were far more frank in their criticisms, while others are clearly still smarting from previous media coverage of their woes. There have been personality clashes, too, among TDs, although the ones in question are loath to admit it publicly
“We have never really recovered from the last time we were in Government. We have a major branding issue. The party brand is pretty dreadful. And people who might bend towards the Labour Party might see those polls and think, no thanks. The Labour Party is now in existential territory,” they said.
No doubt such words will make for unwelcome reading for Ivana Bacik, and will be rejected by her staunch defenders. Every TD interviewed on the record for this piece insists that the mood in the party is good, although they readily admit the polls are woeful.
[ Dublin Bay South byelection: Labour's Ivana Bacik elected on ninth count ]
[ Can Labour ever be relevant again? Ivana Bacik says yes ]
However, members who spoke off the record were far more frank in their criticisms, while others are clearly still smarting from previous media coverage of their woes. There have been personality clashes, too, among TDs, although the ones in question are loath to admit it publicly.
The ousting of Alan Kelly as leader last year has left scars, or “trauma”, as two party figures put it when his term was brutally ended by a handful of his colleagues unhappy with polling and, allegedly, the circumstances around a backroom appointment.
For his part, Kelly has receded into the background and there has been speculation that he might not run in the next general election.
There has also been speculation that Wexford TD Brendan Howlin will not run, either. Howlin, a fixture in the Oireachtas for 40 years, says he is still considering the matter and is awaiting details of constituency boundary changes due this summer.
“We will know in July what the shape of the new constituencies are. Wexford, for the first time in my life, has to change. I am contemplating [it], talking to my own people, working out the strategies, what is best. Our determination is that we will hold a seat here,” he says.
The former minister for public expenditure says he has never been more optimistic about Labour than now. Howlin is also interesting in that he is a staunch believer in solidarity among parties of the left. Speaking to The Irish Times, he doubles down on this.
“Anything that grows the left is a good thing. I am an advocate of unity on the left. It is really important we have a critical mass of sensible left policies.”
To be coming for us… It’s like going to a terminally ill person in the hospital and wanting to smother them— Labour official, on Holly Cairns attacking Labour
Asked about whether this would be the policy of the Soc Dems, who recently said Labour had broken its trust with the people of Ireland, he says: “I want to talk about the Labour Party, not the Soc Dems, to be honest. We have seen many alternatives come and go, but the Labour Party is the stalwart. ”
There are many people in Labour who want to see an unofficial voting pact with the Soc Dems.
A source said: “I am quite enthused by the election of Holly Cairns as leader. It’s that idea of Holly Cairns and Ivana Bacik as two modern, 21st century women leading two parties which have largely the same political ideology and approach. If Ivana and Holly compete with each other for the existing share of the vote, it will get them nowhere. You have to send a signal that you belong to the same family.”
Not everyone else in Labour is as thrilled, though. Cairns was “unwise” to attack Labour so strongly in her first press conference as leader, say some. Another official is positively scathing: “To be coming for us … It’s like going to a terminally ill person in the hospital and wanting to smother them,” they half-joked.
Fascinating as it is to speculate about how the Soc Dems might impact Labour, the top strategists in Labour see a darker cloud on the horizon.
“Sinn Féin are our biggest problem. We don’t get the same oxygen as them, we don’t get the same airtime and we don’t have the same resources,” the strategist says.
Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates in 2020. Now, it is eyeing up a three-candidate strategy in many constituencies. An analysis shows how dangerous a second or third Sinn Féin candidate could be for Labour’s existing TDs, and other parties of the left.
Ged Nash holds a place in five-seat Louth. In 2020, Sinn Féin ran two candidates there, with Imelda Munster elected with 17,203 votes and Ruairí Ó Murchú with 12,491 votes. A third Sinn Féin TD here, on a good day, looks tantalisingly close.
In Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s constituency of Dublin Bay North, SF’s Denise Mitchell secured the highest number of first-preference votes of any Dáil candidate in 2020, bagging 21,344 votes. Sinn Féin could easily take another seat here, if fortune favours the next time.
In Seán Sherlock’s Cork East four-seater, Sinn Féin TD Pat Buckley commanded 23.08 per cent of the vote. In Dublin Bay South, where Ivana Bacik took a seat in the last byelection, Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews received 16.07 per cent.
In Wexford, where Brendan Howlin sits, Sinn Féin’s Johnny Mythen – who lost his seat on the council just nine months previously – was elected with 18,717 first preferences, 1½ times the quota.
In Duncan Smith’s Dublin Fingal constituency, Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly was elected with a massive 24.89 per cent of the vote.
‘Things I can’t control’
“These are the kinds of things I can’t control,” says Smith, “I feel I’ve done a good job working on the ground in Fingal. I would hope that I myself have added voters since the last election when I was an unknown quantity. I do eight advice clinics a week and they are absolutely out the door.”
In Tipperary, the Sinn Féin surge was not quite as pronounced but Martin Browne still took more than 12 per cent of the first-preference vote. If Alan Kelly does not stand again, there is danger here for Labour without his strong personal vote and national profile.
Despite all of this, Willie Penrose, a TD from 1992 until 2020, is unconcerned.
“The Labour Party did a lot of good in Government but people have forgotten about that. You can’t be blaming the Labour Party for events of the last seven years. And the best hurlers were always on the ditch. The Labour Party should be out there as a proud party.”
So does he think the people of Ireland have forgiven Labour?
“Sure they have to. Things have changed,” Penrose says.
The idea that people have forgiven Labour and are ready to embrace them appears optimistic, though.
The most recent Irish Times Ipsos poll at the end of February had Labour on 4 per cent, up one point on the previous outing.
Can Labour ever be relevant again? Ivana Bacik says yes
“The opinion polls are not showing us because we are dark in a lot of constituencies,” Brendan Howlin says, “We need to re-establish a presence in as many constituencies and local areas as possible, and that is happening. There is both a dormant Labour vote, and a vote that needs to be won back.”
Duncan Smith says outright: “The polls are dreadful. I’ve run for the party for nine years and the polls have always been dreadful. I don’t let it bother me. I just try to focus on the work. Like any party, you’d like it to be higher. If I let bad polls bother me, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”
Party strategists give an upbeat assessment of Labour’s position for next year’s local elections, where it will run up to 100 candidates. Labour currently has 56 councillors, significantly less than its heyday when it had anywhere over 150.
Alan Kelly wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip. In Dublin, Ivana is strong. There is a concern that we are talking to people who would be voting with us anyway on those social issues— Labour source
And yet, amid all this apparent buoyancy, one local organiser gives an exceptionally downbeat analysis:
“Cork is in a shocking position, really… shocking. I don’t see any gains, beyond holding at rock bottom. Kerry is shocking as well, to be honest with you. In Limerick, there are three council seats, with those candidates trying to hold on, and they probably will. But I don’t see any major gains at all beyond the 56 seats that we have. I don’t see any Dáil candidate emerging from the Kerry area, either.”
The party’s decision to go to Cork is deliberate, as Labour knows how weak it is there. There is, however, evidence of potentially strong Dáil candidates. Senator Annie Hoey, who has impressed, will likely run in Dublin North West. Other potential candidates include Ciaran Ahern in Dublin South West, councillor Elaine McGinty in Meath East and councillor John Maher in Cork North Central.
For all the work on the ground, though, much will come down to Bacik’s national performance. The parliamentary party is backing her, but outside Dublin some are voicing concerns.
One says: “There hasn’t been any improvement since she took over. Alan Kelly wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip. In Dublin, Ivana is strong. There is a concern that we are talking to people who would be voting with us anyway on those social issues.”
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin defends Bacik: “It has been a huge undertaking for Ivana. Sometimes someone takes over and you don’t have the bump of having won an actual contest, but she was by far the best candidate for the job. People are much more at ease with how she leads. There was a lot of hurt around what happened. But now, honestly, talking to people on the doors, there is a much better reception.”
One might think, in that case, that Labour would have sworn off re-entering government, given that it could be argued that they put national interest ahead of party interest in 2011, when Eamon Gilmore could have led Labour into opposition.
Burnt they may be, but there has been an interesting shift in attitudes towards government. A year ago, The Irish Times sought Labour views about going into government. All but one then said no. Something has changed since.
“The Labour Party should position itself as a party willing to go into Government,” Duncan Smith says. “I don’t want to sit on the sidelines forever. We can’t fear going into Government. We need a mandate and we need to talk to whoever else has a mandate. That’s the only way I can really help people in my constituency of Dublin Fingal.”
Howlin goes further, opening the door to a coalition with Sinn Féin while defending Labour.
“I never disbelieve consistent polling, and consistent polling says they will be the largest party in the next Dáil. I think that is the most likely outcome. The building of an alternative programme will be a challenge, however. We have to set out our own stall and talk to whoever. We are not commentators on the sidelines. We have always participated in good times and, more usually, in the most difficult times.”
After a bruising 2022, as it is squeezed on all sides, it seems nothing is a given for the Labour Party.