The fall-out from its disastrous election performance was reflected in a stormy six-hour meeting this week, but the Labour party faces an enormous task to revive its fortunes and regain the trust and support of the electorate, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe
A bruised and battered Labour party is now at a crossroads where its very existence is in question. ‘Every little hurts’ was what the traditionally left-wing group once trumpeted as a warning against Fine Gael’s post-election plans before the 2011 election. But it was every little mean cash-saving measure that Labour supported in government that returned to hurt the party after its joint tenure with Fine Gael over the last five years.
As a result, voters punished Labour. Just seven TDs were returned, compared to the 37 in the previous election.
An autopsy on the election took place at the City West Hotel in Dublin this week, where defeated candidates voiced their frustration vented their fury at the party’s tactics and blunders during the campaign. It was a stormy affair which saw walkouts, shouting matches, and scathing criticism thrown at embattled leader Joan Burton.
The Dublin West TD emerged from the six-hour pow-wow trying to put on a brave face. Nonetheless, the Tánaiste looked shattered and emotional after a torrent of complaints.
The crux of the problem, say Labour figures privately, is that the party must decide about its leadership following its drubbing in the polls. Secondly, fundamental root-and-branch reform is needed in order to rebuild Labour. But the problem is that the latter cannot be acted upon until the former is decided, say sources.
In the meantime, demoralised and defeated candidates are pondering their futures.
One former rural TD set the tone during a break at the think-in on Wednesday night, confiding: “They’re all just giving out in there, having their sandwiches like it’s a normal party meeting. But nothing is going to change and they’ll all just go home. I’m thinking about what I should do next since losing my seat.”
Another veteran figure put it more bluntly: “It was a clusterfuck. It was vicious. Joan looked in a sorry state, on her own up there. Everything was brought up to [Eamon] Gilmore being taken down, to the Vatican embassy, to our clothes being stolen [by Fine Gael] on the marriage referendum.”
Deputy leader Alan Kelly was also hung out to dry, particularly as he was director of elections.
At one stage in the meeting, junior minister Sean Sherlock became annoyed and walked out over what observers say was Ms Burton’s failure to address the elephant in the room, the embarrassing matter of stepping down. The Cork East TD even made a discreet bid for the leadership by suggesting he would march through Munster and rejuvenate the party.
But his chances, and those of Mr Kelly, were undercut by a surprise backing by several former parliamentarians for public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin. Former TDs and outgoing senators openly said he would make a good leader.
Under Labour’s constitution, a leadership election must take place within six months of an election. Ms Burton says she will do what is “best” for the party, but that the issue will not be resolved until after the formation of the next government is decided. Her supporters privately say she would like to step down with dignity when the time comes, and the choice of her successor depends on what the next government will look like and what role Labour might play in opposition.
Nonetheless, coming back from the bitter attack she endured at the closed- door get-together will be difficult, if not impossible. Those present noted how the Tánaiste was castigated for her “dismal performance” during the televised leader debates.
The dilemma, say those who are undecided about leaving politics, is whether Mr Kelly or Mr Sherlock now seek a seconder for the leadership and therefor trigger an internal election earlier than Ms Burton wants. On the other hand, if Mr Howlin takes up the mantle, his supporters say he wants no contest and favours a coronation. But, despite the initial open support from the likes of former TDs Ciarán Lynch and Michael McCarthy, and several senators, there are questions as to whether the Wexford man has the enthusiasm for a national tour to reinvigorate the party and whether he would appeal to the grassroots.
Former communications minister Pat Rabbitte put it well at the hotel meeting when he suggested that the seven remaining TDs should agree between them on who should be the next leader. Furthermore, whoever it is, he mused, they should be willing to take the lead for at least a decade. Some Labour figures suggest that Mr Kelly might have more passion or vigour for such a task.
In the meantime, defeated candidates are openly discussing walking away from politics; parliamentarians with the once-influential government coalition partner now face a lonely period in opposition; Labour, with its diminished numbers, will have little say about policies or spending in the country and the party’s brand has been destroyed.
So where to next for the party of James Connolly as its remaining supporters and parliamentarians face arguably the biggest uphill battle for Labour in its century-old existence?
Newly elected party chairman Willie Penrose told the Irish Examiner this week that Labour should return to protecting and advocating ‘bread and roses’ issues — its traditional values. Issues such as housing and support for rural communities should be progressed, he said, even if this means supporting the next government on matters from opposition benches.
“We need to get away from this negativity that pervades politics in this country,” said Mr Penrose, whose election in the Longford-Westmeath after an epic recount secured the party’s seventh seat and Dáil speaking rights. “Generally opposition in Ireland is opposition, I think that’s pathetic.”
A lot more clashing of the heads, though, will probably happen before Labour maps out its future. Alex White aptly noted that Labour had “underestimated” the extent to which the economic crash had hit voters’ pockets.
The party is split on its future. Some want a quick change in leadership, others won’t rush Joan Burton from the stage. Politics is tough. But time is ticking. Labour needs direction, soon.
Equally, those with a passion to lead Labour to a better future must not underestimate how close to extinction it currently lies, but nonetheless still has a chance to appeal to the hearts and minds of voters.
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