AS LABOUR goes, so goes the country. No other decision compares to the knock-on effect for the country politically, as the verdict of voters on a handful of potentially viable but clearly threatened Labour seats. I am thinking of TDs like Kathleen Lynch in Cork North Central, Joe Costello in Dublin Central, Joanna Tuffy in Dublin Mid-West or Michael McCarthy in Cork South West. Of 37 TDs elected for the party in 2011, four defected and 33 remain. Of the 33, seven are retiring.
Of the 26 running again, some are beyond hope or help. Councillor Mark Wall in Kildare South might buck the trend and be a successful new candidate for the party.
It comes down by and large now to the old dog for the hard road. Can the party vote tip 10% and ensure that TDs who are entrenched locally are not swept away in an outgoing tide nationally? If not, the number of Labour TDs in the next Dáil will slip back from a potential high in the mid-teens, to half that number. All of the above named and many more besides will likely be gone. Assuming a floor for the Labour vote of about 8%, between 2% and 4% of additional voters who just might but not necessarily will vote Labour, determine the fate of a key handful of the party’s deputies. These are the swing voters who will be most influential on the ultimate outcome of the election and the make-up of the next government. This is not the UK, we have no first past the post system. Large numbers of seats do not topple because of small swings. In our multi-seat, proportional representation system small swings, bring small but critically important changes in ultimate outcomes.
The election is now imminent. This weekend in Mullingar the hometown of party stalwart and likely survivor Willie Penrose, Labour will be the last of the parties to hold their conference, set out its stall and hope for the best. Its success or failure in wooing back a small number of voters is not only critical for Labour, it will determine a viable return of the present government with or without independent support. Should such an arrangement be possible, the number of Labour TDs elected will bear influentially on the durability and type of policies that government pursues.
The notion of this election being between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin is upper middle class drawing room drama. It is spoken of with genuine fear only in an enunciation arrived at after years of inhaling claret and cigar smoke. I doubt there is real competition between those two parties for a single first preference vote.
The battleground for Fine Gael as stated in this column last week is between it and Fianna Fáil for a small percentage of voters that habitually supported the Soldiers of Destiny in their pomp. Culturally un-attuned to Fine Gael and having lent their votes once, they have little grá for the party. But they are in play and that is the key competitive ground for Fine Gael.
Labour is now less loved. Its previous tally of 37 seats will likely be halved, if all goes well.
Its share of the vote formerly at 19%, is already sliced in two. But if at 9% now and a point off its tally of 10% in 2007, 2002 and 1997, those percentages got the party 20 and 21 seats respectively in 2002 and 2007, albeit in a larger Dáil. Now in a new Dáil reduced by eight seats, on paper a similar tally should yield seat numbers in the mid-teens. The fly in the ointment, however, is that for the first time sitting Labour TDs will be competing with candidates to their left, including Sinn Féin, who may be above them when the votes are counted. In that scenario they are dependent on two political imperatives. Firstly they do have to move the dial on the party’s first preference vote. If you are too far back, you can’t catch up. Secondly they have to appeal both to transfers on their left who having voted first for their candidate of choice will give a second preference to Labour, to influence policy in the next government. This is a limited but not insignificant pool, in a handful of very tight races. Secondly Fine Gael, which means effectively Fine Gael voters, if they want their party to be in government again have to transfer to Labour in substantial numbers. In some constituencies Fine Gael voters may even want to consider voting tactically for Labour. That is the sort of trickiness and tautness involved in getting viable but at-risk Labour TDs back over the line.
Playing for everything on very tight margins means not making mistakes is imperative. The party’s candidates are already handicapped by the omnishambles of Alan Kelly plans to effectively create new ghettos by allowing again at the behest of builders, the shoebox-sized apartments of the past.
On Sunday his parliamentary colleague Ciarán Lynch TD said Kelly has “taken the wrong approach” on housing. Reducing living space for already modest dwellings was Lynch said a “mistake”. The extent of the mistake became apparent the following day when Institute of Architects said it was “not possible” to design an apartment within Alan Kelly’s new micro measurements. Minimum room sizes, can’t actually be shoehorned into the available shoebox.
The first thing you learn, first day on the buildings is “measure twice — cut once”. Now even an embarrassed property lobby says it advised the minister to develop proper working designs before proceeding.
The idea that a man without a measuring tape, who is also the deputy leader of the Labour party has made the most ill-advised intervention on housing standards in a generation, on the eve of an election, is not what colleagues fighting for their political life need. Issues like this need to be promptly defused, and taken off the table now. Brendan Howlin showed how to do it adroitly by gamely saying this week he had taken his eye off the ball when town councils were being abolished, and he would like to see them established again in the future. But there you are, it’s the old dog for the hard road.
The demise of Labour has been written and rewritten. Their default tone of sanctimony and condescension on arrival in government after 2011 did them few favours. Their change of leadership allows them a window to possibly reopen a conversation that had effectively been closed down with angry voters. Many remain angry, but voters are also strategic. They will vote for the least worst alternative. It is too late for Labour to be loved. It is not too late for them to still survive.
It requires discipline, a clear message and a small swing back to them.
In a word, measurement.