A year after the ‘worst election we’ve ever had’, Labour leader Brendan Howlin insists that his party can return to power, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.
He really shouldn’t be this bubbly. A year after a deeply damaging general election collapse tat he admits was “the worst we’ve ever had”, and with his party under real risk of being squeezed out by the rise of Sinn Féin and the hard left, Labour leader Brendan Howlin should be inconsolable.
With phrases such as ‘lame duck this’ and ‘irrelevant that’ burning his ears due to not-so-whispered words from rivals, and with — yet again — the party of Connolly shoved to the sidelines after a controversial coalition dalliance with power, on the surface there is little evidence to explain the cheery disposition.
However, speaking to the Irish Examiner before Labour’s annual conference in his hometown of Wexford this weekend, the former public expenditure minister is insistent that, like the famed American novelist Mark Twain, reports of Labour’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
With a “do-nothing” Dáil, a “frightening” international political landscape, and “snake oil” parties in vogue at home and abroad, Mr Howlin believes voters are slowly returning to the realisation that a “sensible” middle-ground approach is needed.
He admits mistakes were made during the 2011-2016 Fine Gael-Labour government and that Labour is understandably still shunned by a section of traditional voters who believe they were let down.
However, the Labour leader is convinced that the increasingly stormy waters of national and international politics will, given time, result in people eventually clambering back on board his battered ship — saving both themselves and his party in the process.
“I’m very optimistic about our future,” he says. “It’s going to be a slow progress, but we have deep roots, we’re not going to go away. We’re not the PDs, we’re not Renua or some outfit that comes out of the morning mist and disappears again.
“We’re the oldest party in the State, and I have absolute confidence we can rebuild again.
“We don’t rant like some who have no solutions. I actually do believe there is a market and support that is strong enough for a party that’s left of centre, socially more equal and is willing to enter into government to deliver. And that’s us.”
All this may sound like music to supporters’ ears, but then again most catchy, barn-storming statements to rally the bruised and battered troops before a conference — some have claimed risks being a damp squib — normally do.
Detailed, realistic rebuilding plans are always more difficult, particularly when the party is facing a real battle for survival in an increasingly crowded left and centre-left field.
Seven TDs struggling to have their voice heard in an increasingly chaotic Dáil and Sinn Féin and Solidarity-PBP rivals on the march both on the streets and in the polls doesn’t bode well for the mooted Labour recovery, but Mr Howlin believes his party can “double” the number of TDs, councillors and grassroots members by the 2019 local elections.
Key to that, says Mr Howlin, will be a “groundbreaking” ballot this weekend to ensure conference votes are open to all grassroots members and not just delegates — a clear attempt to win back working-class voters by diverting party control away from a parliamentary elite, and which mirrors Fianna Fáil’s move in the wake of their own 2011 general election disaster.
Coupled with emphasising the party’s “track record” compared to “snake oil” rivals and running two people in some constituencies to sweep up extra votes for the main candidate, Mr Howlin believes the “pendulum will swing back” to Labour come the next election — if the right momentum is gained.
“That’s the target,” he says. “I think we can double the number of TDs to 14, double the number of councillors to 100, and double membership.
“Membership is growing, obviously I’m greedy for more, and our groundbreaking proposal this weekend is that every member can come and vote at congress, that’s crucial because it will be one member one vote.
“We’re also setting out very big policy platforms at conference which are really important, the most important being future of work which will look at worrying casualisation because we are the party of work, the greening of Ireland, and a very good document on Brexit.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that the conference vote reforms and increased focus on traditional Labour policies in a bid to regrow the party are the political equivalent of closing the gate after the horse has bolted into the waiting arms of other leftist parties.
Sinn Féin now have on 23 seats and 17% (down 2 percentage points) in the latest Red C/Sunday Business Post poll, Solidarity-PBP on six seats and 4% (down 2 points), and Labour on seven seats and 6% (up 2 points). However, while it might sound like a Pravda-esque denial, the Labour leader insists no such march exists, or at least won’t for long once people “grow tired” of the “snake oil salesmen” he claims they are.
“There’s no movement on AAA [now Solidarity-PBP] at all, they’re at the same level as they were, like us more or less, and Sinn Féin rise and fall,” says Mr Howlin.
“Labour will [still fit in] because we’ve a social democratic, pro-union, pro-worker track record nobody else has. There’s only so many times you can buy the snake oil of other parties who don’t deliver, such as re-packaging Solidarity from AAA, from Socialist Workers, from anti-water charges, whatever the name of the day is.
“You will always get 4-5% by doing that, but street protest is about stoking up and feeding on anger, and I think people will grow weary of that very quickly.”
The litmus test for the argument will, of course, not come on the stage of an internal party conference where the crowd will cheer every syllable regardless of what is uttered this weekend, but at voters’ doors whenever the next general election comes.
In recent weeks, Mr Howlin has stressed he and colleagues are on an “election footing”, with four general election candidates already selected — Ged Nash in Louth, Andrew Montague in Dublin North West, Deirdre Kingston in Dun Laoghaire, and Rebecca Moynihan in Dublin South Central — and a handful more imminent.
While the party leader accepts the current minority Government arrangement means “nobody knows” when this might be, he says Labour will be ready to make its case when the election is called.
The current Dáil “doesn’t function” and is perennially “teetering on the brink of collapse”, he says, with the situation meaning it makes perfect sense for Labour to prepare for the imminent return to the door-knocks and kissing babies marathon.
However, while the plan may be universally agreed within the party, what it does after the votes are tallied is a different story entirely.
While some have championed the strategy of Labour staying out of power for a number of elections so it has a chance of being the majority party in any future coalition instead of risking becoming a minority party mudguard, Mr Howlin insists this is unthinkable.
He says Labour will, unlike other left-wing rivals, run to implement its policies in Government instead of shouting from the outside. Controversially, no party will be ruled out as a potential partner.
“In 2011, of course it would have been politically expedient to stay out of government,” he says. “We would probably have been the largest party in the next election. But to what purpose? I’m certainly not going to be leading Labour gushingly to anybody who rings my door after the next election, but if we’re in that position [potential coalition] we’ll discuss with everybody.
“I couldn’t be a member of Fianna Fáil because it’s a party whose underlying issue is power, and whatever is needed to be in power, Fianna Fáil seems to accommodate. They’re chameleons, but that makes it easier to negotiate a programme of government with them.
“I’ve always tried never to comment on the leadership of other parties. Sinn Féin is a unique entity because clearly it has, or had, a military dimension. I think it’s struggling to change itself and there’s no doubt there are good people in Sinn Féin who are genuine progressives, but there’s a lot of baggage there now.
“We haven’t talked [within Labour] about that phase of negotiations yet, who knows who will be leading any parties by the time those decisions are made, but as I say, we’d be happy to talk to anybody if we’re in a position to do that, but first we have to reconnect with our own base.”
This weekend, Mr Howlin has made it clear he wants to frame Labour’s conference as a “page turner” for the party, a chance to begin afresh after the 2016 disaster.
However, with hints of hoped-for coalitions with Fianna Fáil economic “arsonists” and Sinn Féin “snake oil” salesmen also at play, memories of the 2011 deal with Fine Gael may be difficult to banish completely.
Labour believes it can begin the journey back to relevance this weekend, but as ever, the balance between power and principles is central to what it hopes to become.
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