Labour has a new leader, but now it needs to get a new strategy

The Labour party needs to be the “go-to” party for people who are committed to greater equality, writes Fergus Finlay
Labour has a new leader, but now it needs to get a new strategy

DID you ever watch Tommy Tiernan’s routine about when Ireland had money and we tried stuff? We ignored the advice of the economists not to spend our money in the good times, because if we didn’t spend it, they wouldn’t be the good times. Instead we turned up on the ski slopes of the Alps — the Irish going skiing! — covered from head to toe in the skiing gear we bought in Aldi.

Watch it — you’ll easily find it on YouTube.

If you’re breathing at all, you’ll fall around laughing. You mightn’t react quite the way I did, which was to wonder how I could make every member of the Labour Party watch it, and figure out the underlying message.

I suppose I have to declare an interest. I’ve been a life-long member of the Labour Party, and like many other members I was devastated by the terrible defeat inflicted on the Party in the last general election. I’m heartened now by the decision of the party to choose Brendan Howlin as its leader.

I’ve known Brendan Howlin all his political life. I’ve watched him grow from a feisty young Senator into a knowledgeable, expert politician. He’s thoughtful, deep, honest, compassionate, and able. He’s not without his faults, of course — his love of big words can make him sound pompous occasionally. But he’s the best possible choice the party could make right now.

And I have to say I’m puzzled by the controversy over how he was elected. Great leaders of the Party — Frank Cluskey, Dick Spring, and Brendan Corish — were chosen by the Parliamentary Party alone (sometimes in bitter contests that left their own legacies). Eamon Gilmore was elected leader unopposed by anyone. As it happens I was one of the people who drafted the rule change in the Party constitution that led initially to the wider franchise, and I’ve always believed that it makes sense for any leader to be able to say that he or she has a mandate from the entire membership. It’s always been a matter of pride to me that Labour is that democratic — unlike other parties that describe themselves as left-wing.

But the very evident sour grapes over the fact that only one candidate was able to secure support for his nomination are entirely misplaced. If I was running for office and found that I couldn’t get anyone to second my nomination, I’d like to think that that would cause me to reflect on myself, rather than give out about others. The idea that Brendan Howlin bullied anyone into supporting him is entirely preposterous to anyone who remotely knows him. It’s just nonsense.

Of course it may well be the case — I’m guessing here — that he wouldn’t have relished a contest. Not because he was afraid of losing — I’ve never known him to be afraid. But because, even though he topped the poll in Wexford (the only Labour TD to top the poll anywhere), I’d suspect he might well have thought privately that that was his last election.

He’s done a long stint, he has an outstandingly able and attractive successor in George Lawlor, and it’s hard to top the five years of hard work he had just completed. Given the instability of the Dáil, however, he had probably already come to the conclusion that another election was likely to happen sooner rather than later, so thoughts of retirement had probably already been banished by the time the leadership contest came along.

Anyway, that’s all speculation. What I know for sure is that Brendan Howlin needs a strategy. It’s a complicated business, developing a strategy, but all the best ones depend on honest answers to three simple questions. Where are we now (and how did we get here)? Where do we want to go? And how do we get there?

The key word is honest. There’s no point in the Labour Party feeling it has been hard done by. It adopted a single priority as its mission for five years — the recovery of the economy. And although history may give the party credit for playing a major role in pursuing that one priority, Labour (at least in public) ignored other priorities throughout that period.

Like the need to pursue economic equality — or at least to prevent inequalities. The period of austerity hit hardest at those least able to bear it, and Labour’s eye was off the ball (at best) when that happened. There were other mistakes, errors of political judgement and management. But Labour has to start its rebuilding process by acknowledging that it owes reparation, in particular to those thousands of people and families who depended on essential social services.

Where does the party want to go? I suppose there are different honest answers to this. My own view is that what the party shouldn’t be aiming at is getting back to government — at least not until it’s in a position of real strength. The aim must be to build its resonance with the people it wants to support it, and its influence in the wider political sphere. Labour needs to be the “go-to” party for people who are committed to greater equality – and, to coin a phrase, they’re not there yet.

So how to get there? There are three big jobs to be done — political, organisational, and reputational. The political job, though arduous, is simple enough — Labour has to be the best, most creative, most sustained and determined opposition it can be. Acknowledge the mistakes of the past, stop defending decisions made in a different time and context, and move on to challenge the government of the day. Fine Gael are not colleagues any more — they’re the government and Labour is in opposition.

The organisational job is just as simple and just as demanding. The party is on its knees and will want to lick its wounds. At the same time there are defeated TDs all over the country who are hungry to give it another go. Howlin will need to communicate openly with the entire organisation — and there’s no substitute for face-to-face communication — that he shares that hunger.

The most difficult of the three jobs, in some ways, is the reputational one. Labour neds a new programme. To be more precise, it needs a new way to articulate the old programme. Labour is a party of solidarity and community. It’s a party that believes in efficient — but accountable and responsive — public services. It believes above all in equality.

The talent and experience the party has must be harnessed now to produce a programme that positions Labour at the centre of the debate. Labour has to prove, by word and deed, that social democracy has real relevance in an Ireland that has enjoyed the hollow (but sweet) taste of individualism and consumerism, and has been badly burned when these things blew up in our faces.

As Tommy Tiernan said, we had money, and then we had no money. Now we’re trying to figure out what we really value. It’s not Aldi ski-wear, it’s something a lot deeper. Labour has to find that something deeper, and campaign to be at the heart of it. No better man than Brendan Howlin to figure that out.

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