Labour Special Report: The appetite for change is evident in grassroots of Ireland’s oldest party

The leadership issue has been put on the back burner before the general election but unless there is a positive result, the knives will be out for Brendan Howlin, writes Political Correspondent

Labour Special Report: The appetite for change is evident in grassroots of Ireland’s oldest party

The leadership issue has been put on the back burner before the general election but unless there is a positive result, the knives will be out for Brendan Howlin, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

As he sits in his cavernous office in Leinster House, Brendan Howlin is in a confident, in-control mood. Or at least he is trying his best to seem like it.

“No leader has any horizon other than winning the next election, and you’re in the hands of all sorts of forces after that,” he says.

“I’m looking at the next election, I’m looking at leading the party to a significant advance at the next election, because Labour is needed, our value system, our policy platform is needed.

“Of course we had a summer season last year where things were written and said. But that is over.”

In theory, his party had a positive local election, seeing seat numbers rise marginally from 2014. The mutiny he has been battling to quell for close on a year, while far from gone, seems to have taken a back seat.

The sun is beating down outside as Ireland basks in its traditional one week of summer. Even Howlin’s beloved Wexford has won its first Leinster hurling championship in a generation.

If you are to believe the public appearance, things are finally beginning to look up for the Labour leader.

However, as always in politics, appearances can be deceptive. While Labour increased its local election seat numbers in May from 51 to 57, the problems within the party are far from gone.

Among councillors and some TDs, rumblings of discontent continue over the lack of impetus in badly- needed generational change. Concerns are also apparent over whether the party’s traditional identity now no longer exists in a crowded left-wing field.

And, while no one is looking to kick Mr Howlin out of office now, not re-entering government after the next election will automatically trigger a leadership vote within six months, which is the perfect window for his rivals to make their push for power in the near future.

All of which means that while Mr Howlin has been given a short reprieve by the local election results, the outcome of the next general election is make or break for his time in power and potentially his party’s future.

Not that the Labour leader wants to give any hint of concern over the circumstances facing him.

Instead, he predicts the local elections show his party can increase its seven Dáil seats to “double digits” and potentially 15 after the next general election.

Senators Kevin Humphreys (Dublin Bay South), Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North), and Ged Nash (Louth); ex-minister Kathleen Lynch (Cork North Central); and councillors Denis Hynes (Carlow- Kilkenny), John Pratt (Waterford), and Rebecca Moynihan (Dublin South West) are all name-checked as potential seat gains.

And while there is an ongoing concern among party members over what Labour still means in a crowded left-wing field where younger parties do not have the baggage of having played a prominent role in an austerity government, Mr Howlin disagrees, saying “we all have our history” and that voters miss a sensible Labour voice.

“They miss us, we’re the doers on the ground,” he says. “We’re the people who solve the problems, not exploit the problems. People have said: ‘You know what, we miss you.’ ”

Given persistent claims that the party’s hierarchy is out of touch with its grassroots, it should be no surprise that the leadership message does not ring true for councillors who believe the problems have been kicked down the road rather than addressed.

Yes, they accept May’s local elections result was a relative success, for them as much as anyone else, and yes more young councillors are now representing Labour in local authorities.

However, that doesn’t mean they believe a wider Labour generational shift and significant changes among its top brass, including Howlin, is no longer needed if the party is going to avoid becoming a relic of the past.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner under condition of anonymity, a number of councillors who put their names to last summer’s public letter demanding leadership change (which led to a autumn meeting with Mr Howlin) said their concerns remain valid.

While acknowledging no heave will take place until after a general election, they believe after it occurs all bets are off, with Mr Ó Ríordáin, Mr Nash, and health spokesman Alan Kelly all mooted as successors.

“We don’t have an identity, and that and still having the legacy of being in government is the problem,” said a Leinster-based councillor.

“Voters left Sinn Féin, but we didn’t pick up those votes, the Greens did,” said another, pointing to the claim that too many of the old guard involved in the 2011-2016 government, including Mr Howlin, are still in place.

“They talk about people like Kathleen Lynch, Joe Costello, and Joan Burton running again, saying no one new is standing up, but no one is standing down to let them,” the councillor said. “It is in the back of people’s minds, to say ‘thank you for your time but we need new voices’, but it’s not happening.”

Joan Burton
Joan Burton

Among the few councillors to speak on the record was Dublin city councillor Alison Gilliland, who said that while progress is being made to address concerns the party should “put a vision forward to voters about what the party means over the next two decades”.

Labour getting back to basics and finding its own voice in a crowded field with fresh-faced new candidates, she said, is crucial to the party winning back public support, a view shared by now-Independent councillor Mick Duff, who left the party amid the revolt last autumn.

“I don’t believe it’s changed at all,” he says. “The need is still there for new voices, clarity on what Labour actually means, otherwise they’re going the way of the SDLP. Nowhere.”

For now, all of the main players in the party’s own version of Game of Thrones are staying on message, giving guarded support to Mr Howlin at least until the general election takes place.

Why however, is another issue entirely, with all aware a poor result or any decision not to enter government after the next election will automatically put the leadership question firmly back on the table.

Mr Kelly said the party’s local elections results were “stabilising” rather than a success and stressed the need to get back to prioritise a small number of traditional Labour commitments, going as far as to say a “contract on a billboard” with four key plans could win back voters.

Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly

Justice spokesman Sean Sherlock said the party is only halfway to a recovery he referred to as being as long as “the Ho Chi Minh trail”, saying the Labour recovery may take 10 years and repeating the view that an agreed platform with other left-wing parties could help to bring the party back to its roots.

And those close to Mr Nash and Mr Ó Ríordáin says there is an ongoing need to return to workers’ rights and public service issues if Labour is to return to prominence.

The issues are nothing Mr Howlin would disagree with, but the tone is subtly different, and gives all the impressions of leadership candidates marking out their patch for the potential post-election leadership race to come.

Asked if he would put his name forward if the contest occurs, Mr Kelly said that “Brendan will lead us into the general election” and that after that “if we go into government we don’t have to change the leader, if we don’t, we have to have a leadership contest”.

“That process will work its way through,” says Mr Kelly. “If in that scenario would I put my name forward? I’d have to be elected by the people of Tipperary first, but yes, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”

It is understood Mr Nash and Mr Ó Ríordáin will also consider contesting if elected to the Dáil, although it is expected both would be reluctant do so if Mr Howlin contests the race.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

It all means that, despite the relative success of May’s local elections, the message is clear for Labour and Mr Howlin. While the Labour leader has a positive outlook, claiming up to 15 seats could be won in the next general election, party grassroots believe a lack of identity and new voices means it still risks stagnating in the polls.

Mr Howlin is safe, for now, with no leadership heave coming before the general election. However, in the weeks after it, he will either face the prospect of Labour propping up a likely minority coalition government or seeing two or three rival candidates potentially seeking to depose their leader.

And if no real generational change still being sought by councillors, (for cynical personal career reasons and practical realities), takes place, whoever is in charge will still have a problem.

It might be sunny in Labour’s post-local election results’ haze but there are clouds on the horizon.

Unless deep-rooted problems are fully addressed, Ireland’s oldest political party still risks being washed away in the coming flood.

Labour Party Timeline

Where it all began

1912: The Labour Party was founded in 1912 in Clonmel, County Tipperary, by James Connolly, James Larkin and William O’Brien as the political wing of the Irish Trade Union Congress.

It is the oldest political party in Ireland and the only one which predates independence.

Coalition with Fine Gael

1970: A decision of the 1970 Annual Conference enabled the party to consider entering coalition. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Labour entered a number of coalition governments with Fine Gael.

Under Brendan Corish, Frank Cluskey and Dick Spring, the party entered government despite strong tensions within its own ranks about the merits of being tied to the bigger parties.

Dick Spring
Dick Spring

1982 - 1987: Between 1982 and 1987, disagreements on the public finances between Spring and his Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald meant the country economically was extremely challenged.

Spring Tide

1990 The Party Leader, Dick Spring TD, invited Mary Robinson, a former Labour Senator, Councillor and Dáil candidate and a leading civil rights lawyer, to seek the Labour nomination for the Presidency.

In a historic campaign, Mary Robinson was elected by the Irish people to become Ireland’s first woman President.

1992 In the General Election of 1992, the Party achieved its highest vote ever (19.3%) and the highest number of Deputies (33).

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson

The Labour Party formed a coalition with Fianna Fáil, taking office in January 1993 as the 23rd Government of Ireland.

Fianna Fáil leader Albert Reynolds remained as Taoiseach, and Labour Party leader Dick Spring became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Rainbow success

After just two years, the FF-Labour coaltion fell over the appointment of Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, as president of the High Court.

Amid losses in local elections, Spring withdrew his support for Reyolds as Taoiseach leading to the collapse of the government.

Keen to avoid a General Election, the party then went into talks with Fine Gael and formed the Rainbow Coaltion with Democrat Left.

By the time it left office, the Rainbow government left behind an economy on the up, in stark contrast to what it had done a decade before.

Stagnation in Oppositon

1999: Although the party merged with Democratic Left in 1999, with Ruairi Quinn as leader it fails to make an impact in 2002, leading to his resignation.

Ruairi Quinn
Ruairi Quinn

Succeeded by Pat Rabbitte, the party endorsed a mutual transfer pact with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny.

The strategy, named “the Mullingar Accord” was favoured by most TDs including Liz McManus, Eamon Gilmore.

But others opposed including current leader Brendan Howlin, Kathleen Lynch and Tommy Broughan.

2007: Despite the pact, in the 2007 general election the Labour Party failed to increase its seat total and had a net loss of 1 seat, returning with 20 seats. Rabbitte duly resigned a short time after.

Gilmore Gale

As the financial crash took hold, Gilmore became an effective voice in Opposition compared the wooden Enda Kenny.

Eamon Gilmore
Eamon Gilmore

He led to the removal of John O’Donoghoe as Ceann Comhairle over an expenses controversy and accused then Taoiseach Brian Cowen of engaging in “economic treason,” a charge Cowen sharply rejected.

The party soared in the opinion polls leading to hubris within the ranks which culminated in “Gilmore for Taoiseach’ posters and mugs being produced.

National Government

2011: Despite a mid-election panic, Labour won a record 37 seats and successfully stopped a Fine Gael overall majority in 2011 as Fianna Fail imploded.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore agreed to form a coalition with the largest Dail majority in history.

From the off, Labour at a time of severe austerity felt the strain of such policies.

2014: Resignations and unhappiness followed and by 2014 the party’s poll ratings had plummeted and Gilmore was gone as the leader. He resigned following a disastrous local and European elections.

2016 wipe-out

2016: A change of leader to Joan Burton did little to revive the party’s fortunes and in 2016, Labour was decimated at the General Election, losing 30 of the 37 seats it won in 2011.

Joan Burton
Joan Burton

Picking up the pieces

Dumped back into Opposition and severely chastened, it fell to Brendan Howlin to pick up the pieces as a reluctant leader.

Controversy arose as Alan Kelly was prevented from contesting as none of his TD colleagues would back his candidacy.

Slow progress has been made but the party remains stuck well below the 10% mark in terms of popular support and a mixed local elections where they gained just six seats gives muted hope for an increase in Dail seats at the next General Election.

Brendan Howlin
Brendan Howlin

Repeated Labor requests to form alliance with Social Democrats are rebuffed by Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy.

Social Democrats aim to turn base into more seats

The current conundrum facing the Social Democrats, which, four years after its establishment, is seeing a quiet grassroots growth despite still languishing far off the opinion polls pace.

Founded in July 2015 by TDs Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shortall, and Stephen Donnelly — the latter of whom subsequently left to join Fianna Fáil — the party had a positive recent local and European elections result in May.

Catherine Murphy, Stephen Donnelly and Róisín Shortall
Catherine Murphy, Stephen Donnelly and Róisín Shortall

Following on from the re-election of its TDs in 2016, the Social Democrats’ second foray into the white-hot heat of an election campaign this year saw it win 19 local council seats, 13 of whom were new councillors.

Election breakthroughs came in Galway, Limerick, Offaly, and Meath, as well as a nail-biting marathon recount win for first-time candidate Holly Cairns in West Cork, proving the party is not just about its greater Dublin area base.

And in the European elections more good news was apparent, with the Social Democrats MEP candidate Gary Gannon finishing a respectable fifth in a highly competitive Dublin constituency field, far above initial expectations.

The situation has given rise to a belief that the party could increase its Dáil seats to eight in the next general election by taking advantage of Sinn Féin’s election woes, Labour’s stagnation, and Solidarity-PBP’s hard-line approach seemingly spooking the new voters it needs to grow its influence.

However, despite the slow and steady progress, the positive impressions are not being repeated in the opinion polls, where the Social Democrats continue to be circling 2% and consistently struggling to make any ground on its opponents.

And this, ultimately, is the party’s current problem.

Although the Social Democrats are quietly growing support, they are still seen by the wider public as something of an outlier.

“Opinion polls are a snapshot in time, you wouldn’t get a true reflection from them of where smaller parties are because we are not covering every area,” Social Democrats TD and co-leader Catherine Murphy said when asked about the apparent contradiction between its public image and its slow but steady growth.

“It [the local elections] was our first election and we would think, notwithstanding by-elections, seven or eight Dáil seats would be a realistic target for us in the general election.”

According to Ms Murphy, the Social Democrats main base is in urban areas, with mainly younger 18-35 cohort voters attracted to its “progressive, no-baggage” platform who have become politicised due to the Eighth Amendment and marriage equality campaigns.

Among those in the current political grey area of having a strong social media and public presence while not yet holding office is party political director Anne Marie McNally, who narrowly lost out on a Dublin city council seat in May, having previously contested the Dublin Mid-West 2016 general election.

Asked about where the Social Democrats currently stand, Ms McNally stressed that the party is not concerned about opinion polls and that voter “apathy” towards larger parties is helping to create a steady below-radar Social Democrats growth.

Despite ruling out any prospect of a wide-reaching left wing parties platform, saying it is a Labour attempt steal back votes, Ms Murphy said she would be potentially open to a coalition with a larger party if the Social Democrats has enough Dáil “clout” by winning up to eight TD seats.

The suggestion— which is in contrast to her point blank refusal to consider such a move in 2016 — would only happen on the strict condition specific “progressive” policies are introduced and that Social Democrats members back such a move.

Labour Party has been central to Irish life for over 100 years

The Party Labour was fundamental to the maturing and advancement of Irish society and has a rich legacy writes Pat Rabbitte.

Labour, the oldest political party in the State, has over its more than 100 years enjoyed and endured more than its fair share of ups and downs.

Founded before the 1916 Rising, Labour found it had to bend the knee and subordinate its social and economic agenda to the struggle for national independence.

“Labour and nationality must march together” was John Redmond’s summary.

That social and economic agenda heavily influenced the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil. Its principal architect was the Labour leader Tom Johnson.

However, in the grim environment in which the Cumann na nGael government established the institutions of the state from 1922, the high-minded objectives of the Democratic Programme were largely set aside. The Irish revolution gave birth to a particularly conservative government.

In the view of many analysts, the major and lasting error of the young Labour Party was to assent to the supposed de Valera dictum that ‘Labour must wait’ when the party decided in 1918 to step aside from the general election that swept Sinn Féin to victory.

Other historians question whether a fledgling and under-resourced Labour Party could prosper against the tide of emotion surfaced by the heroism of the 1916 martyrs?

Whatever the answer, Labour had to settle for the ‘half-party’ status in the subsequent decades dominated by the two civil war parties and smothered by the all-pervasive Catholic Church.

A protectionist economy that exported its young people, the absence of a significant industrial class, and a dominant Church all conspired to maintain the status quo.

It was not until the 1960s that Ireland began to look outwards. The country largely missed out on the post-war boom although the rebuilding of Britain provided manual labour for tens of thousands of Irish workers.

Éamon de Valera had no interest in the economy and, having skilfully steered the new state through the Economic War, he refused to depart in 1948. This delayed the accession of Seán Lemass and so it was not until the 1960s that a new hope was born.

Labour responded by a sharp move to the left when leader Brendan Corish published The New Republic and announced at the 1967 Labour conference that “the seventies will be socialist”.

It was enough to earn the wrath of church and state as Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church went on a witch-hunt for reds under the bed. Finance minister Charles Haughey thought that “manifestos have a Marxist ring about them”, while Sean McEntee argued that Labour stood for Lenin, Stalin, and “the red flames of burning homesteads in Meath”.

Well, the 1970s weren’t socialist but Labour, though disappointed, garnered its best ever vote in the 1969 general election. The New Republic was really a programme for modernisation and change setting out modest social democratic ideals.

Labour’s presence in Dáil Éireann was strengthened by new heavyweight acquisitions such as Justin Keating, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and David Thornley. Issues began to be intruded into the public discourse that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have preferred left undisturbed.

The civil rights movement in the North, the eruption of the Troubles, and the arms crisis made a Fine Gael/ Labour coalition almost inevitable in 1973.

Notwithstanding the first oil crisis, Labour drove a progressive agenda for equality for women and workers rights inspired by our membership of the European Economic Community. Office holders in that government of “all the talents” made common cause with Fine Gael in ensuring that the violence in the North did not spill over “down here”.

The influence of Europe and of a nascent women’s movement at home drove Labour to take a lead in the liberal agenda in what was still a very conservative country. This was not always appreciated by “a revanchist group of rural TDs”.

This was not the only division in the party in the 1970s and 1980s, when participation in coalition government was vigorously disputed. The issue caused the resignation of party leader Michael O’Leary and the accession of Dick Spring. Initially, Spring got a torrid time from the left but he survived to see a landmark breakthrough when Labour Party-nominated candidate Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland in 1990.

Glory days. It was the beginning of a dramatic change in Labour fortunes, aided by Spring’s confrontations with Charles Haughey, whose style of politics was a turnoff for large tracts of urban Ireland.

The Spring tide of 1992 harvested 33 TDs which, up to then, was Labour’s largest representation in Dáil Éireann. It was a uniquely successful period in government for Labour, firstly with Fianna Fáil (1992-94) and then in the Rainbow government (1994-97) with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

Labour in those governments continued to progress the liberal agenda but also contributed to laying the foundations for the economic liftoff of the 1990s. Of the many reforms implemented I would emphasise in particular the introduction of the freedom of information legislation and the successful divorce referendum. Later, marriage equality and repeal of the Eighth Amendment were achievements long campaigned for.

If the Rainbow government earned plaudits as one of the most successful governments since the state was established, its lead members made a proper hames of calling an early general election. With all the economic metrics in its favour, it defied the nostrum that “it’s the economy, stupid”. And Labour lost half its seats.

Worse was in store for Labour after the financial crash of 2008, which threatened an existential crisis for the State. After winning an unprecedented 37 seats in 2011, Eamonn Gilmore opted to form a crisis government with Fine Gael with the overwhelming support of a special conference.

That Kenny/Gilmore government returned the country to solvency, growth, and employment expansion sooner than anyone had forecast; but some people suffered more than others under the IMF/Troika programme.

However, come the 2016 election, many people no longer distinguished between who caused the crash and who was driving the ambulance.

Pat Rabbitte is the chair of Tusla and a former leader of the Labour Party

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