Gary Murphy: Labour will have its work cut out in election

The party has not been forgiven for the austerity measures of its coalition with Fine Gael and will struggle to hold its seven seats.

Gary Murphy: Labour will have its work cut out in election

The party has not been forgiven for the austerity measures of its coalition with Fine Gael and will struggle to hold its seven seats.

It is flirting with irrelevancy, writes Gary Murphy.

John Maher
John Maher

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade is an aeon. In the frenzy of the first 10 days of the election campaign, Labour has become an irrelevance.

Ten years ago, it was all so different.

In June 2010, an Ipsos/MRBI opinion poll suggested that Labour was Ireland’s most popular party, with 32% saying they would vote ‘red’ in a general election.

Three months later, the same polling company had the party up 1% and ahead of both a stagnant Fine Gael and a plummeting Fianna Fáil.

With a general election looming, optimism swelled through Labour’s ranks and the phrase ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ was launched.

While the surge in Labour’s support tapered off into the 20s in polls, the party entered the February general election campaign of 2011 in buoyant mood.

Labour received 19.4% of the vote and won 37 seats. Both were historic highs.

But there was disappointment that it was significantly adrift of Fine Gael, which won 76 seats, on 36% of the vote.

Labour then took the fateful decision to enter government with Fine Gael.

Nine years later, the party is on life support and the prognosis is not good.

Entering government in 2011 was logical for Labour. It had been out of power since 1997.

Its leading lights, Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte, Rúairí Quinn, and Joan Burton were not getting any younger and were worried that this was their last shot at power.

And the country needed saving. That decision, while taken in the national interest, has doomed the party to electoral irrelevancy for a generation and more.

Unmercifully attacked on its left flank by the Socialist Party People Before Profit axis, for implementing austerity (including water charges),Labour was decimated in 2016, winning just seven seats, on a paltry 6.6% of the vote.

Its protestations that things would have been much worse without the party being in government fell on the deafest of ears.

The party has never been forgiven for its mantra of ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way’, when the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) came to town in 2010.

It was fascinating to hear party leader, Brendan Howlin, in an interview on Thursday’s Morning Ireland radio show, continually refer to the troika as the reason why Labour could do little in government, as he battled to explain why the party had changed its mind over the age for state pension entitlements.

If the people, or at least some of them, have forgiven Fianna Fáil for the economic crash, then they have not done the same for Labour for entering government with Fine Gael in 2011 to remedy the situation.

Two episodes this week sum up Labour’s woes.

At the macro level, it didn’t feature in complaints (led by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald) about the Virgin One television leadership debates being confined to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin.

In 2011, the main RTÉ leadership debate had featured Eamon Gilmore, Micheál Martin, and Enda Kenny.

And at the micro level, for the first time in the history of the State, there will be no Labour candidate in Kerry.

Just over 20 years ago, the party won seats in both Kerry constituencies.

There was some media excitement this week about candidates in Dun Laoghaire, when the journalist and activist, John Waters, announced he was running on the rather bizarre banner of Anti-Corruption Ireland, and the deselected Fine Gael TD, Maria Bailey, said she wasn’t running as an independent.

In all the punditry about who might win in Dun Laoghaire, there was no talk of Labour’s candidate, Councillor Juliet O’Connell.

This in the constituency where Eamon Gilmore won more than 20% of the vote in 2011 and was elected on the first count.

Last June, in the 2019 European elections, Labour received 5.3% of the vote and all three of its candidates were wiped out.

It received 5.7% in the local elections and made some gains in Dublin City, Cork City, Louth, Waterford, and Wicklow.

In theory, this should have put it in with a shout to regain seats in these areas at this election.

The picture is bleaker. Labour has no chance in Waterford and Wicklow and all other potential gains are, at best, a toss-up.

Among its newcomers, John Maher, in Cork North Central, has the best chance of being elected.

Maher, who performed reasonably well in November’s by-election, has put himself in with a good shot of retaking Kathleen Lynch’s old seat and Labour has a long and proud tradition on Cork’s northside.

Labour has good chances with former TDs Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, in Dublin Bay North, Kevin Humphreys, in Dublin Bay South, Emmet Stagg, in Kildare North, and Ged Nash, in Louth, but none are guaranteed. Nash and Ó Ríordáin, two of the party’s most impressive performers (while TDs, between 2011 and 2016; and senators, between 2016 and 2020), should win.

Humphreys and Stagg are up against it.

Then, there are the constituencies where the party is under pressure to hold its seats.

Former leader Joan Burton, who ousted Eamon Gilmore in a putsch to supposedly save the party, after the local and European elections in 2014, faces a huge challenge from the Greens’ Roderic O’Gorman, in Dublin West.

This is the Greens’ number-one target seat in the country and Burton seems likely to lose. Jan O’Sullivan, in Limerick City, equally faces a large task, but might just about hold on in a crowded field.

Of its other TDs, Brendan Howlin, who has been a TD since 1987, Alan Kelly, and Sean Sherlock will be safe.

Duncan Smith, who performed admirably in the recent by-election, should keep Brendan Ryan’s seat in Dublin Fingal, but Alan Mangan faces an almost impossible task to hold Willie Penrose’s seat, in Longford/Westmeath.

Penrose barely held on in 2016 and has always had a strong personal vote.

The party is irrelevant west of the Shannon and the loss of this seat would seal its fate in rural Ireland.

Howlin believes Labour can double its seats, but this would seem fanciful.

Based on this week’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll, which has the party mired at 4%, holding its seven seats will be a major achievement.

Could entry into a possible coalition, after the election, save Labour?

In Wednesday night’s Virgin One TV debate, Mr Varadkar, on two occasions, said he would like to coalesce with Labour.

Many pundits have speculated that Labour, the Greens, and the Social Democrats could go into a coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, if such a combination could reach 80, the magic number of seats needed to form a government.

Labour’s last experiment with coalition pushed the party perilously close to extinction and Howlin has already laid out his red lines for entering government.

Yet there seems little future for it in opposition, as its destiny there is to be constantly outflanked by the radical voices of Solidarity and People Before Profit.

Labour in coalition would ensure Brendan Howlin kept the leadership, but the party will not make any significant gains under his watch.

Staying in opposition, with, say, Alan Kelly as leader, runs the risk of the party being drowned out by angrier voices on the left, but his energy and no-holds-barred debating style might be what Labour needs to keep it relevant in Irish politics.

As of now, with two weeks to go, it is in a battle for its very survival.

Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University.

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