Wednesday 11 December 2019

Adrian Kavanagh: Ace of Bases - Who should be the next Labour Party leader?

Minister of State Alex White one of the contenders for the leadership.
Minister of State Alex White one of the contenders for the leadership.

WHEN Labour comes to pick its next party leader, it will need to pick one who appeals to its electoral support base.

But which one? While often viewed as a party that is predominantly supported by the urban working class - and Labour was indeed the most popular party by some distance for urban working class voters at the 2009 and 2011 elections - Labour has in the past been reliant on its other main support bases - a rural support base and a middle class urban support base - to ensure its maintained some degree of Dáil representation even in times when the party support levels nationally were especially low.

For instance, while Labour struggled to make an impact in constituencies such as Dublin Central, Dublin North West and Dublin West in the 1980s, it could still rely on constituencies such as Carlow-Kilkenny, Kerry North and Wexford or constituencies such as Dún Laoghaire and Dublin South-East (now Dublin Bay South) to help maintain its presence at Dáil Éireann.

While Labour support surged in constituencies such as Dublin North-West and Dublin South-Central in recent elections, the results of Friday's local elections has shown that the party support in such communities is in serious decline.

In fact, at this weekend's local elections, the party fared better in the more middle class constituencies. Labour won an average of 12% of the vote in the more working class Dublin constituencies, in stark contrast to the average of 30% support for Sinn Féin and 31% for the Independents and Others (including People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance), and even fared worse than Fianna Fáil (with an average support level of 14%) in these different constituencies.

By contrast Labour won an average of 13% support in the more middle class Dublin constituencies; albeit representing an only slightly higher level of support than in the more working class areas but marking a less dramatic decline in support since the 2011 contest.

Outside of the Capital, Labour fortunes were admittedly quite mixed, but there were enough glimmers of hope, such as Maurice Shortall's performance in Castlecomer and the seat gain in Portlaoise, to suggest that the less volatile Labour support base in rural Ireland might offer some respite for the party at the next general election, even on a very bad day for it.

So in choosing a party leader, which support base should Labour gamble on appealing to? Should it reckon on the extremely volatile nature of the Dublin electorate and choose a rural leader who might copperfasten the party support in the party's stronger constituencies? In this case, they might opt for someone like Brendan Howlin or Willie Penrose, or alternatively someone like Sean Sherlock or Alan Kelly if the party opts for a leader from the next generation who can lead the party rebuilding effort after the next general election?

Does the party instead opt for a leader who might lead the fight in terms of clawing back support from Sinn Féin and the other left wing parties/groupings in the urban working class areas?

In this case, the more likely candidate would be Joan Burton. Some potential future leaders who would have appealed strongly to this base, such as Róisín Shortall, Tommy Broughan or Dermot Looney (who is not currently a Dáil deputy of course), may have been alternatives for the future, but these have all left the party. In deciding that a Dublin leader is a necessity, the party may instead decide to focus instead on someone who can help the party hold a sufficient degree of support in the more middle class constituencies in order to ensure some seats are held in Dublin.

Alex White would be the main contender in this regard, especially if the party again decides to opt for someone from the next generation of party members.

The Labour Party will be playing a high stakes card game over the next few days. They will be forced to pick a hand of cards containing one ace - an ace that will appeal especially to one of their main support bases. But will this hand of cards produce a royal flush at the next general election, or else lead to the party effectively handing in all of its chips?     

* Adrian Kavanagh in lecturer in Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News