Howlin plans left-leaning alliance to enter coalition talks after an election
Labour leader asks supporters to give second preference vote to Green Party or Social Democrats, writes Philip Ryan
Brendan Howlin has a plan to get the Labour Party out of the political doldrums and back to the top table.
After the devastation of the 2016 General Election and the wilderness years of the current Dail term, the political veteran is reverting to a tried-and-tested strategy of the left - form an alliance.
So ahead of the next election, which Howlin believes will be in the first six months of next year, he has proposed a vote-transfer pact of sorts with other like-minded parties and individuals.
In his keynote address at the Labour Party's 70th annual conference in Dublin last night, Howlin asked supporters to give their second preference votes to candidates from the Green Party, the Social Democrats or progressive Independent candidates.
He said Labour often voted with TDs from these parties and they shared similar political outlooks. He noted that RTE's exit poll after the presidential election showed one in seven people voted for candidates from what he called "progressive parties". This increased to one in five in Dublin and among younger voters.
Under the plan, which is similar to a discussion held after the last election, the left-leaning group of TDs would enter into government negotiations with a shared set of principles.
Whether he could get buy-in from Social Democrat figureheads Catherine Murphy or Roisin Shortall remains to be seen. And, as is traditional with most left-wing alliances, would it last more than a few months before it was disbanded due to ideological in-fighting and ego-fuelled political power-plays?
Howlin filleted the three main political parties - Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein - in his conference speech. However, Labour will not be ruling in or out coalition with any party before the next vote.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar certainly batted his eyes with the ''smaller parties'' after he saw Fine Gael's lead on Fianna in the RTE exit poll.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has said several times he is open to working with Labour. Sinn Fein is unlikely to have the seats after the election to make such an offer.
Michael D Higgins's emphatic vote in last weekend's presidential election reinvigorated Labour and Howlin wants his members to capitalise on the public support for his former party colleague.
Howlin said the President's "socialism" saw him win 700,000 votes in 2011 and 820,000 in last week's contest.
"If the whole Labour Party could command that level of support, we would have Ireland's first Labour-led government," Howlin said, adding: "Now that's a dream worth striving for."
In reality, a dream is all that it is for now and will probably remain so for a while yet. A significant shift to the left while the country's finances remain in a stable position and Fine Gael continue their drip feed of tax cuts is highly unlikely. Equating the President's mandate to a massive block of socialist votes is also probably a bit of a stretch (it would be interesting to see how many voters associate Higgins with Labour).
However, forming a block of left-of-centre politicians who could influence government policy could be the solution to Labour's ills. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan generally prefers being inside the tent than outside. The Social Democrats are another question.
Either way, Labour needs solutions and this could be the strategy that cements Howlin's legacy.