Sunday 18 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Labour chooses to wait as it struggles for relevance in a crowded battlefield'

The party still seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress after its downfall at the 2016 general election, writes Liam Weeks

Labour leader Brendan Howlin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Labour leader Brendan Howlin. Photo: Frank McGrath

Academics engaged in the study of political parties use the term ''relevance'' to measure parties' impact and significance. For a party to qualify as relevant, it needs to demonstrate either coalition or blackmail potential. The first criterion concerns whether a party is needed, or has been used, to form a government, while the second describes the capacity of a party to affect the tactics and direction of political competition.

The latter criterion shows that to achieve relevance, a party need not necessarily be in power. Nigel Farage's UKIP in Britain was a classic example of this. Lacking the MPs to contribute to the formation of government, UKIP never had any coalition potential.

However, the party wielded tremendous blackmail potential because of the influence it had on the direction of Conservative party policy, exacerbating the Conservatives' internal divisions, and forcing it to drift to the right to tackle the threat of UKIP. In this context, the party was extremely relevant.

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Can the same be said for the Labour Party on this side of the Irish Sea? The party has been struggling to make an impression following its downfall at the last general election, and, increasingly, questions are being asked about its continuing relevance.

Labour suffered significant electoral defeats before, notably in 1987 and 1997, but neither of these had the equivalent effect on party morale as 2016. Labour lost more than 75pc of its parliamentary party, comparable to the 2011 wipeout of Fianna Fail. But, while the soldiers of destiny recovered to become the largest party in local government three years later, Labour has made little to no impact in the Dail or amongst the electorate since its own collapse.

The party is now struggling to fulfil the criteria for relevance. While Labour wielded some coalition potential in the past, since the Spring tide of 1992 it has entered government after only one election, following the Gilmore Gale of 2011. Even then, Enda Kenny could probably have formed a minority Fine Gael cabinet without Labour's assistance.

In 2016, the party had more seats than the Independent Alliance that ultimately put Fine Gael back into power, but there was little appetite within Labour's decimated ranks to return to government.

The party still seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the events of three years ago, with the consequence that few are discussing a return to power for Labour. The consequence of this is to deny the party relevance in terms of coalition potential.

This is a serious strategic error by Labour because it retains little to no blackmail potential, the other form of relevance. While in the past the threat of Labour may have encouraged Fine Gael to move to the left with its Just Society programme in the 1960s, or Garret FitzGerald's embrace of social democracy in the 1980s, the party no longer wields this potential.

It can only watch with envy at the capacity of the Greens to alter political competition, as the other parties reposition themselves towards environmentalism in the weeks since the Greens' success at last month's elections.

This rise of the Greens and other parties has been interpreted in some quarters as the final nail in the coffin of the traditional two-and-a-half party system. While most have focused on the waning power of the core two of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as a symptom of this realignment, the decline of the half that is Labour should not be ignored.

It is true that the civil war parties' support has fallen considerably in recent decades, but they still remain at the heart of the Irish party system. Their strategic positioning at the centre of Irish politics, able to move from left to right as it suits them, has cleverly allowed Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to maintain a dominant position in spite of their losing significant numbers of voters.

The same is not so true for Labour. The election of 1992 should have been the moment when the party realised its keystone position in the Irish party system, when neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael could have formed a government without its support. That position could have made Labour a permanent fixture in power, but the party failed to convince its supporters of the value of being a core half, and was punished by those waiting in the long grass in 1997.

It is difficult to see Labour ever holding this position again.

The party is now not just lacking relevance in terms of coalition and blackmail potential; it is also struggling to remain relevant with the media. The level of coverage Labour received at the recent local and European elections was embarrassingly low for the party.

Although Labour's vote was down 20pc on 2014, this was in part due to a tighter candidate strategy, which helped it win an additional six seats.

In fact, for all the talk of a Green wave, Labour actually won more votes and seats than its environmental rivals.

With Sinn Fein and Solidarity losing considerable numbers of seats, this could have been interpreted as a good day for Labour. It closed the gap to Sinn Fein ahead of it from 108 to 24 seats, and doubled its lead over Solidarity behind it.

Overall, this could have been a result for Labour that had the potential to sow the seeds of future electoral gain, just as the local elections of 1991 proved the basis of the Spring Tide in 1992.

But I wouldn't bet any of your money, let alone my own, on a Howlin Hurricane for the next general election.

This is because while Labour has always faced stiff competition from the hard left, the party now has to contend with the Greens and the Social Democrats on the soft left.

And in this battle, Labour is in danger of being squeezed out. There has been talk of the Social Democrats and Greens working with Labour in an electoral alliance, but perhaps the question is not so much as to how they need Labour, but how Labour needs these parties to make itself relevant.

Labour finds itself in a major dilemma. If it moves significantly left to counter the threat of Sinn Fein and Solidarity, the party will lose its core middle-class, Irish Times reader. If it remains centre-left to compete with the Greens and Social Democrats, it will be in an increasingly packed battleground, where the party will also face some opposition from Fianna Fail. More competition will mean fewer electoral gains, so, from a rational point of view, the only direction might be to drift towards the right, as Tony Blair did for the British Labour party in the UK.

That tactic reaped significant electoral dividends for Blair's New Labour, but is not a path favoured by many within the Irish Labour movement.

And so the party that chose to wait and sit out the critical 1918 election that shaped Irish political history - a decision that cost it dearly - is choosing to wait again, struggling for relevance. All Labour can hope for is that the numbers will fall its way after the next election, and that their votes in the Dail will be needed to form a government.

Returning to power might be the fillip that restores Labour's fortunes. Or not. It is its times in Cabinet that have always cost Labour dearly. This is the quandary that faces the Labour leadership, and one that cannot be treated lightly. The party's relevance is at stake.

Dr Liam Weeks is a political scientist at the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

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