With burgeoning left-wing representation in the Dáil, Labour faces an uphill battle to win back voters
If it was somewhat difficult to identify a definitive ‘winner’ in February’s general election, it was much easier to pick out the clear ‘loser’.
The Labour Party went from its best ever electoral performance in the 2011 election to its worst since 1932. They were relegated from being the second largest party in the Dáil to the fourth. They narrowly scraped the seven seats they needed to secure full speaking rights - Willie Penrose winning his seat only at the end of a marathon count in Longford Westmeath.
The result for Labour was little surprise after not only ominous opinion polls, but a long history of smaller coalition parties feeling the full scale of a dissatisfied electorate’s wrath. Labour themselves have been ‘punished’ before, as have the likes of the Greens and Progressive Democrats.
This time around, there was no escaping the fact that Labour were perceived to have abandoned their working and middle class voter base to assist Fine Gael in implementing crippling austerity measures. For many traditional Labour voters, the pain of years of cuts was still raw - that’s assuming they had experienced any ‘recovery’ at all.
Water charges became, in many ways, the symbolic issue of the election campaign, and Labour was very much on the losing side of that debate. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP, Independents and others seized on Labour’s struggling public perception to win over plenty of new supporters.
Internally, the party also had a somewhat turbulent time while in government. Eamon Gilmore resigned as Tánaiste and leader of Labour in 2014 following the party’s poor performance in local & European elections. A number of other veteran party members - such as Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn - announced they would not be seeking re-election. The Labour that entered government in 2011 was not the same as the one that left government in 2016.
How successful Labour’s time in government proved is a matter for (heated) debate. Joan Burton suggested they helped bring an end to the “the long winter of economic crisis”, and the party has claimed much responsibility for the likes of increased employment, the raising of the minimum wage and moves towards free GP care. They also lived up to their 2011 promise to hold a referendum on marriage equality.
Many voters, though, primarily associate the previous coalition with the likes of water charges, USC and countless other austerity measures. How much influence Labour had over limiting Fine Gael’s austerity agenda we might never know, but clearly a majority of voters felt the answer was ‘not nearly enough’.
Life in Opposition
Labour is now back in Opposition, having decided against entering government with Fine Gael again. There were some high-profile seat losses, including former ministers of state Kathleen Lynch, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Ged Nash. Inevitably, Joan Burton stepped down as party leader, and has been replaced by Brendan Howlin after Alan Kelly failed to trigger a leadership contest.
Brendan Howlin is a veteran politician, having been a TD since 1987. Ideologically and politically, it does not mark the sort of major change that we have seen in the UK with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of their Labour party - also a veteran, but a radical compared to the 'New Labour' he inherited. Here, the Labour leadership, unfortunately for a determined Alan Kelly, has remained in 'safe' hands. For the plethora of voters Labour lost between 2011 and 2016, Brendan Howlin could well be seen as ‘more of the same’. On the other hand, it may help avoid some of the internal party conflict Labour has faced under Mr Corbyn.
Yet, even before Deputy Howlin was put in charge, there has been a noticeable shift in the way Labour has acted since returning to the Opposition benches.
Despite being the main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil’s language has been somewhat tempered due to their arrangement with Fine Gael. They aren’t in government, but they have not been as vocally opposed to Fine Gael as they were in the 31st Dáil and the recent election campaign (and, indeed, much of the State’s political history).
Sinn Féin and the smaller parties, unsurprisingly, have been as vocal as ever, but they’ve been joined by Labour. Labour TDs have had no qualms calling out the new Government. A quick glance at the party’s recent news releases makes that abundantly clear. They have criticised the failure to appoint a dedicated Arts Minister. They have relished the opportunity to comment on the controversies surrounding new Independent Coalition partners John Halligan and Finian McGrath. “This government has abandoned low paid workers,” another statement reads.
Perhaps most significantly, Labour opted to vote against Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, with Joan Burton highlighting “Fine Gael’s disappointing cave-in to Fianna Fail’s reckless demands”.
The party’s approach to water charges has been particularly interesting so far. Former Environment Minister Alan Kelly made headlines with his strongly worded speech about the abolition of water charges, describing the proposal as "political, economic and environmental sabotage". At the same time, the party has introduced legislation calling for a referendum to keep Irish Water (and other utility services) in public ownership. Separately, their Water Fairness Bill looks to guarantee a refund to people who have paid their water charges so far.
There’s no question Labour is attempting to seriously fight back in Opposition. Their stance against the abolition of water charges is likely to win them few new friends, but at the same time their proposed changes address some of the key concerns. Similarly, they have been determined in opposing the new Government on several matters - and while some of their language betrays a lingering moderation when it comes to criticising their recent government allies, they’ve been frank in other respects. These are very much the actions of a party keen to regain lost ground.
Which way is Left?
Of course, Labour has also suffered as a result of the success enjoyed by other left-leaning parties. AAA-PBP has six seats in the 32nd Dáil, only one fewer than Labour. The rise and rise of Sinn Féin continues, having jumped from 14 to 23 seats. Even in Labour’s own ‘centre-left’ category, the field has gotten more competitive, with newcomers the Social Democrats and the return of the Green Party to Leinster House. And none of that accounts for the numerous left-leaning independent TDs. Much of the recent success enjoyed by these groupings relied on directly contesting policies introduced under Fine Gael & Labour.
However, Labour already seems somewhat in their element back in Opposition. It’s not out of the question that Labour can win back popularity - Fianna Fáil’s gains in this election after their collapse in the previous one illustrate that potential very clearly. But with a crowded political field and some very vocal Labour opponents out there, it’s not going to be an easy fight for the embattled party.
Speaking to Pat Kenny today, Brendan Howlin suggested: “The current [Government] arrangement may not survive months, and certainly not much more than a year in my judgement. It is intrinsically unstable [...] It doesn’t have the capacity to command either the support of the country, or the support of the Dáil”.
Whether Labour itself has the capacity to command the support of the country again is a question we’ll have to wait until the next election to find out for sure. Can they re-establish themselves as the mainstream left-wing choice with so much competition? Do they need a more radical change of leadership like Labour in the UK has experienced? The only thing for sure is that Brendan Howlin and the six other Labour TDs sure have their work cut out for them.