Saturday 22 October 2016

Choice of Kelly or Howlin is a major call for Labour

Published 16/05/2016 | 02:30

'The centre left is locked out of power in parliamentary systems across the western world.'
'The centre left is locked out of power in parliamentary systems across the western world.'

Whether Labour chooses the bolshie Alan Kelly, or opts for the more courtly Brendan Howlin, is only part of the big issues which lie ahead of the party.

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Either way, this is a big week for Labour - and by extension for Irish politics generally. Battered in the February general election, Labour is very far down - and only time will tell if the situation is terminal.

It will be cold comfort for the party - but it is in the best of company in this parlous situation. The centre left is locked out of power in parliamentary systems across the western world.

It is in battered opposition in Australia, New Zealand and, since 2010, in Britain. On mainland Europe, the experience is the same for the centre left in the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Hungary and Denmark.

In France, the socialists are clinging to power but presidential and parliamentary elections due this time next year will very likely change that. In Germany, the socialist SPD is engaged in a grand coalition with Angela Merkel's CDU and faces an uncertain future at the next elections.

The British left often looked to Nordic countries for inspiration and guidance. The now almost forgotten British Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was a big fan of emulating Finland. But in April 2015, Finland's voters sent its centre-left coalition packing.

Three of the four Nordic countries now face being run by governments of the right. Only in Sweden is the centre left in power via a Social Democrat-Green Party government which is rated one of the weakest minority coalitions in the country's history.

When Ed Miliband was elected as Labour leader in 2010, he reasonably believed that the world trend would see voters veering to the left after the horrors of the 2008 financial crisis. His entire leadership was based on this ill-judged premise, which proved to be completely wrong.

In Britain, as elsewhere, voters are certainly disturbed by the widening inequality. But many also want to see prudent management of national finances, balanced budgets and tighter controls on immigration. In 2015, the British people adjudged David Cameron's Conservative Party was the better bet. Labour's subsequent choice of an unelectable leader, Jeremy Corbyn, risks consigning the party to the wilderness for a much longer period.

Doubtless, Labour will be using its connections with European colleagues to review its situations and posit likely remedies. But, more immediately, it has to do its own thinking and planning, and even more immediately again, members must choose a new leader.

It falls to the party's seven remaining TDs to work that one out. Should they opt for the combative Alan Kelly or the more reflective Brendan Howlin?

They each have their points but Kelly has a definite edge when the question is viewed from the outside. True, Kelly is risk-prone and given to at times exercising his mouth before engaging his brain. But right now his belligerence is seen as an asset - he could make space and get a hearing for the party in what will be crowded and noisy opposition benches.

Kelly also projects the more energetic and youthful image. He lacks Howlin's vast political experience going back 30 years - but the comments of Siptu leader Jack O'Connor yesterday were extremely interesting. Unsurprisingly, he avoided naming his preferred candidate. He struck an upbeat tone for the nation based on the assumption that the economy will continue to thrive.

That would bring opportunities to rebuild public services, make big progress on ending homelessness, poverty, and the creation of a national health service that is free at the point of use, and decent employment for all.

Speaking specifically about Labour's role in the nation's politics, he recommended the party work for the development of a consensus among parties and groupings on the left.

He specifically named the Social Democrats, with just three TDs who either have been in Labour or could be seen to fit in easily in Labour. O'Connor suggested that the two could merge into a new party - or at very least build working alliances ahead of the next election.

That is just common sense. Labour has in the past profited from reconciling like-minded politicians such as the late Jim Kemmy, and indeed the entire Workers' Party. It is a great idea well worth considering.

On the leadership issue, O'Connor said he would prefer "a consensus candidate". Quite simply, the party does not have the time to waste on a cumbersome election process which last time took two months to complete.

The union leader was on less certain ground when he advocated Labour try to correct the public perception of its period in government. One fears that history lessons, following on from perceptions of betrayal by the party in power, are not going to be conducive to rebuilding Labour's fortunes. But that is for another day.

The overall point is that, whoever Labour chooses to lead the party, everyone must work on a new message for a very difference set of challenges.

Irish Independent

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