Assume Ivana Bacik is elected the next leader of the Labour Party (and it’s not a big assumption). Can she save the day?
Outgoing leader Alan Kelly bemoaned that in a choice between rescuing the Labour Party or saving the world, most people might consider the latter an easier option.
But in a way this worn-out joke of socialist struggle betrays an underlying truth – Labour, in its supreme determination to hold on to its “values”, would prefer that the electorate changed itself, rather than Labour adjust to the electorate. Indeed, the party’s most visible change in this Dáil – apart from the advent of Bacik – has been regression to the old Starry Plough as its symbol, rather than the soft-focus red rose of sister progressive parties in Europe.
Chances are, however, that the young voters to whom Labour desperately need to appeal have not the foggiest notion of what the symbol stands for.
Apart from that initiative, a weary Labour politician confessed in the Dáil bar at the wake for Mr Kelly’s leadership on Wednesday (when he wore the Starry Plough on his lapel) that the outgoing leader had “no ideas” on how to widen the party’s appeal.
But, at a stroke, Bacik’s elevation will do that.
It is progressive for Ireland’s oldest political party to select only its second female leader – the first was Joan Burton – in 110 years.
It will force the electorate to immediately sit up and take notice.
The expected move also sets up a battle royal with Sinn Féin, led by Mary Lou McDonald, with inevitable focus on how each of the pair performs against the other.
But the real short-term aim is to take back the political ground occupied by the Social Democrats, led by Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall.
It finished the last election count with the same number of seats as Labour – six.
Labour’s perennial problem has been that it is seen as an enabler of Fine Gael, with Mr Kelly’s dogged administration of water charges (Irish Water being dreamed up in the first place by Simon Coveney) being seen as a particular impediment in winning votes, because of the public’s long memory.
But it is also beset by perceptions that it is a comfortable, middle-class group – elderly and urban, and largely confined to garrison towns.
It is only relatively recently, after all, that Colm Keaveney, in the Gilmore Gale, won the party’s first seat west of the Shannon.
And then the political wind fatally changed direction.
Bacik is a polished, articulate media performer, a darling of recent referendums.
She could very well succeed in making the party hip among the urban elites of the east coast, as well as both Galway and Limerick, where the party has no TDs.
To many in rural and religious Ireland, however, she will remain anathema, being seen as the embodiment of pro-choice, uber-liberal Ireland.
But the equality agenda has long been her forte – and it is fruitful ground.
Newly elected for Dublin Bay South, she is clean hands for Labour in a different way to Mary Lou for Sinn Féin.
She can’t be painted as a cat’s paw of the conservative parties. At least not yet.
While Sinn Féin ponders lines of attack, the Social Democrats have a fight on their hands, with both co-leaders likely to turn 70 before the next general election.
But the Social Democrats regard Labour’s dream of taking its seats as delusional.
They believe it’s faulty thinking to imagine there can be a merger, as happened between Labour and Democratic Left, the latter containing some remnants of the old political wing of the Official IRA.
The Social Democrats, with their purple styling, have talented new performers, such as Jennifer Whitmore, Gary Gannon, Holly Cairns and Cian O’Callaghan. Labour would dearly love to have such talent.
Then there are Independent socialists and the likes of People Before Profit who are clamouring for a share of the leftwing vote.
It is also arguably the case that the Green Party occupies the crowded ground on the other side of the spectrum from the traditional big parties, now seemingly shrinking. Bacik will hope for a honeymoon with the new generation – without having to groan and labour for every last preference.