After 1987, Dick Spring dragged Labour up from its nadir of 6.5% of the vote. Brendan Howlin is now in a similar position but the party’s time in government remains a problem, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe
LOSSES can often be turned to advantages. In politics, losing is a painful game though, and disastrous electoral outcomes are desperately tough to overcome or even forget.
Labour’s nightmare results from last February’s general election was its worst in three decades.
Voters turned on the government party and not only threw them out of Merrion Street but landed an electoral punch that knocked party TDs from seats across the country.
Labour’s impressive 37-seat win from the 2011 elections collapsed and, after the counting finished, it was left with just seven TDs in opposition.
The electorate had spoken, definitively.
The party has not seen such a fall in support since its nadir in 1987 when it won just 6.5%.
It took then-leader Dick Spring five years to rejuvenate the party and double its number of TDs.
Brendan Howlin, the current leader, wants to achieve as much during the same period now and double Labour’s representation in the Dáil.
It is a big ask.
It is a battle with multiple fronts and fraught with surprises beyond the party and indeed Irish domestic politics.
So how does Labour and its new leadership intend to rebuild?
“The Labour Party has always been the party that fights for those who most depend on the State — for education, for healthcare, for housing and for taking on the injustices that hold people back,” Mr Howlin explained.
Fighting for these core issues, the party plans to return to its trade union roots and join forces with campaigning groups.
In the coming months, we can expect to see Labour return to its ‘bread and butter’ issues — such as housing or equality in the workplace,
Former communications minister Alex White is overhauling its policies, while former housing minister and Limerick TD Jan O’Sullivan is examining changes to Labour’s constitution.
These will be addressed at a conference in Wexford at the end of April.
Of course, critics will question whether Labour is relevant anymore and has it passed its sell-by-date after its time in government and given the numerous other left-wing factions now in the Dail?
Increasingly, other parties are more vocal and making traction with voters, including the newly-formed Social Democrats and Sinn Féin.
There is more competition on the left.
But Labour’s advisors point to the fact it still has seven TDs, as well as five senators and 50 councillors, as opposed to AAA-PBP, who have no senators and just 28 councillors.
In some areas, including Dun Laoghaire and Dublin Bay North, Labour candidates just lost out on the last seat.
Election planners are now looking at building on this base, greater vote management and, in some cases, bringing in fresh candidates.
Breaking new ground is not easy, though.
Labour only has one councillor in the Cork region — making a comeback there a real challenge.
Furthermore, some of its prominent figures including former minsters Ged Nash, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and Kevin Humphreys, all three of whom are now in the Seanad, will need to regain their seats after their election losses last year. No pressure there then.
For former tánaiste Mr Spring, the task of rebuilding Labour in the late 80s must have seemed insurmountable.
From a low of just 6.5% and coupled with their candidate Mary Robinson winning the presidency plus a strong attacking stance by the Kerryman, Labour grew with strength.
It will be up to Brendan Howlin now to prove his metal and carve out a new space for his beaten down party and make small wins to rise up and above the 6.6% it got in last year’s election. The Wexford man, while tainted from his more recent time in power, is confident this can be done.
“There is only one substantial party of the left that wants to fight within government to deliver a better Ireland — that is the Labour Party.
We are proud of what we have delivered for the Irish people over the last 104 years,” said Mr Howlin.
Party figures involved in its rebuilding concede that it must win back support in Dublin, in particular, and among younger voters if the party’s recovery is to be successful.
Sure, a new direction is inevitable, as well as some time in ‘the wilderness’ where voters might eventually learn to forgive a party many still accuse of reneging on election promises.
This is the crux of Labour’s rehabilitation but it is also a challenge in itself. How does the former government party distance itself from the last administration and those policies?
And how does it do this while still remaining relevant, involved in debate and in the spotlight?
Labour is stained by its time in government. Its involvement in water charges, welfare-related cuts and public wage reductions destroyed its core vote.
These measures played into its election losses.
Turning those around and facing into a new electoral strategy and future is optimistic.
But is it realistic? A break with the past is necessary but only once the next generation of Labour supporters are ready, election candidates are in place and a new team armed with fresh policies and goals to lead it.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved