How do you solve a problem like the Labour party?
Despite historically sticking at around the 10% mark in polls, the last time they had that amount of support was May 2015 according to Red C Research. Instead, they seem to have stagnated at 4-7% since the general election took place in February.
If the problem was that it’s hard to be popular in Government when you have to make a lot of difficult decisions, you would assume that being in opposition would help Labour’s numbers rebound. But the problem runs far deeper.
At the party’s think-in last month, Brendan Howlin said the main challenge would be to rebuild Labour.
If there is any hope of making the Labour Party relevant again, they’re going to have to do three things.
Regain their identity
If you ask the average person on the street what the Labour party stands for now, they probably couldn’t give you a straight answer. Or chances are they would answer negatively.
This is not surprising. Labour is a party that prided itself on being the catalyst for social change in Ireland; from the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to the introduction of legal contraception, the ability to get a divorce, passing equality legislation outlawing discrimination, and more recently initiating and helping to pass the marriage equality referendum and the Gender Recognition Act.
Yet, in Howlin’s speech at the Labour think-in last month, guess how many times he used the term equality? Zero.
In fact, he didn’t once bring up the marriage equality referendum, the Gender Recognition Act or any of the other achievements listed above.
Instead, the speech focussed almost solely on the economy. He listed the party’s achievements as “halving of the unemployment rate, the first improvements to reading and maths levels in a generation, and two increases to the minimum wage.”
While these are not unimportant, they are probably not inspiring enough to change anyone’s vote, especially since most people would argue that Fine Gael should share some, if not most, of the credit for those facts given they were the bigger party in Government.
Instead of trying to be the party of stability, the party of good economic judgement, and in the process sounding exactly like Fine Gael, they should embrace their role as a “left, progressive, social democratic party”, which is what Howlin describes them as.
Their initiation of a bill to clamp down on rogue crisis pregnancy agencies is a start, but they need to go much further.
Find a vision for the future
It is probably now universally agreed that the Government’s election platform, which could be summarised as ‘a safe pair of hands’, failed miserably. Why?
For two reasons: first, not everyone felt the recovery even if there objectively was one. Second, nobody cares what you have done, or if they do they’ll probably vote for you anyway. What they want to hear is your vision of the future.
When Labour became popular during the 2011 election, it was partly down to serendipity. The election became ‘anyone but Fianna Fáil’ and Labour picked up some of the gains in the process.
But Labour also doubled its level of support because they had a well-articulated vision of Ireland that was positive and spoke to a lot of people.
The best example of where they put this vision forward was their party political broadcast for the 2011 election. It said “Together we can get hospitals and schools that leave nobody behind. Together we can reform the way Government runs so it serves us… One Ireland.” And their slogan was “Growth. Jobs. Reform. Fairness. A better future for everyone.”
When you look at Labour’s 2016 manifesto, it’s hard to see what their vision was. The slogan was ‘Strong economy, decent society’. But when you looked closer they had 48 different aims, including, ‘A Social Europe’, ‘Doing Ourselves Justice’ and ‘Better for Sport’.
Electorates don’t just vote for a set of policies, they vote for the party they believe in. A large part of that belief stems from that party’s aims for the future and their principles.
Right now, it’s hard to tell what, if anything, Labour stands for.
Learn from their mistakes and move on
Labour have a habit of being fixated on their time in Government. This would be helpful if this ultimately leads to them taking a long introspective look to find out what worked and what did not.
For example, while in Government, the party was very bad at promoting their accomplishments or getting credit for their achievements. And where the party had to make tough choices, they never articulated well why they had made that choice.
They made decisions that negatively affected people when it later became clear that they didn’t need to. For example, Labour stood by while people became homeless rather than increasing rent supplement limits. Of course, the moment Leo Varadkar took over the social welfare brief, the limits on rent supplement and HAP were increased. The controversial JobBridge scheme was also abolished.
There was also significant discordance between ministers in Government and the rest of the party. At local branches throughout the country, there was an increasing feeling that those who took over ministries became increasingly isolated. As members warned that Labour would be destroyed at the elections, which they knew from knocking on doors, the parliamentary party continued to stay the course, convinced that the Irish people would be grateful once things turned around. They never did.
However, it doesn’t appear that anything has meaningfully changed in the party.
Howlin, when talking about what went wrong for the party during the election, said that the failure to live up to pledge not to increase third-level fees had diminished their standing.
But he then went on the blame the fact that governing in a crisis “is messy and distracting, and stopped us from being clear about some of the things we were achieving.” He also blamed the modern news media for only reporting “one crisis to the next.”
This doesn’t sound much like a party facing up to its own faults, but a party that is instead blaming outside forces. Unfortunately for Howlin, governing will always be a messy business and the media will always focus on the newest thing.
More than that, constantly talking about their time in Government is not going to win the electorate over. If that had worked they would have done better in the election. In the end, they just sound like the bitter guy who believes no-one really understands him.
Now is a critical time for the Labour party. They need to turn around their standing fast or risk becoming politically irrelevant for the next decade or more.
The party is saying the right things about the need to rebuild. But will they actually take the steps that are necessary to save the party?