Photo credit: Houses of the Oireachtas

The Labour Party’s growing irrelevance

The odd thing about the Irish Labour Party, for a group of people on 3% support in the most recent opinion poll, is the extent to which it still commands the ability to set the political agenda, at least in the media. Nobody who has tuned into an Irish current affairs programme this week could have missed its latest crusade: a campaign to abolish single-sex education, and ensure that within 10-15 years, all Irish children are attending mixed-sex schools. Some Labour politicians are virtually household names: Ivana Bacik, impressive victor of the Dublin Bay South by-election last year, is one of the most well-known figures in the land. Aodhán O’Riordáin, the deputy leader, is a regular in the media. The party has a long and proud history of notable accomplishments – free third level education, for example, and being at the vanguard of recent campaigns for change on issues like gay marriage, and abortion.

And despite all of that, it languishes on 3% in the opinion polls, just about matching Peadar Tóibín’s Aontú, which is almost a century younger, and has only one TD.

None of this, objectively, makes sense: Labour has always been the “half” in Ireland’s historic “two and a half party system” – meaning that it was always, historically, the third political party in Ireland behind Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. With both of those parties struggling, Labour should have been in a position to emerge as the natural alternative Government. Instead, it finds itself facing a much bigger crisis than either of its two traditional bigger brothers.

The circumstances of modern Ireland make this calamity even harder to understand: Ireland has, objectively, moved sharply in the traditional political direction of Labour. We are a social democratic society, with (as the most recent Eurobarometer poll demonstrated) a strong emphasis on traditional Labour values: social solidarity, public spending, internationalism, liberalism, and all the rest. With greater education levels, Ireland today looks a lot more like the Irish Labour Party than at any time in its history. And yet, the party itself cannot get traction. Why?

Part of the problem, of course, is a disastrous term in Government from 2011 to 2016, when the party dramatically over-promised, and under-delivered. Positioning itself as a bulwark against austerity, it instead implemented that austerity, and focused instead on delivering political victories on social issues that mattered greatly to the membership of the party, but less to the voting public in a general election. In particular, it alienated the working class left wing voters who had usually supported the party over issues like water charges, and handed those voters on a plate to Sinn Fein. All of that explains the collapse in 2016 – but the lack of any recovery since then, in the greater part of a decade, is what should be giving the party fits.

The issue, mainly, is Aodhán O’Riordáin. Not, necessarily, that getting rid of him would improve things, but rather that the ideology he embodies is so entrenched in the party, and so out of touch with the priorities of voters. Consider this week alone that O’Riordáin has been campaigning on two issues: Abolishing single sex schools, and decriminalising many recreational drugs. He also focuses a lot of attention on things like sex worker’s rights, transgender equality, and housing for migrants. These are all issues which excite committed liberal left wingers – but not issues which gain a lot of traction with the general public.

Sinn Fein, by contrast, has similar positions on most of those issues, but rarely speaks about them. Hear a Sinn Fein representative on television or radio, and it is usually to talk about health, housing, and the cost of living. Those are the three issues which – per the polls – matter most to voters upset with the Government, and they are, therefore, the three issues Sinn Fein talks almost exclusively about. Labour pays them lip service, because, in truth, Labour is not that interested in them.

The problem for Labour is that it has become the party of the comfortably superior. Its membership is – with some exceptions, but generally – wealthier than the average voter. Barristers at Law are well represented in the membership rolls, as are university professors, and people who buy the Irish Times every day. It is a party full of people who do not, in general, worry about where their children will find a house, but do worry about climate change. It is a party made up of the upper-middle classes, with upper-middle class, well to do, priorities.

The party also suffers from an identity crisis: It has identified itself as the party of social change in Ireland, at a time when – in truth – there is not much demand for social change. Ireland has, in the past decade, made monumental shifts on two great social issues, in gay rights, and abortion. Labour now has the feel of a party casting around for another great “cause”, without realising that in so doing, it is marginalising itself in the short term. Trans rights and drug legalisation and same-sex schools are extreme minority concerns, and even then, the people who share those views do not generally rank them at the top of their list of issues when deciding how to vote.

When Labour was at its greatest height of success, under Dick Spring, it was a party which talked about, and cared about, things that might actually make life better for the median voter: It cared about tax cuts for working people, access to education, improving the health service, and whittling out corruption in public life. It will protest today that it still cares about those things. The problem is that anybody who listens to Aodhán, or Ivana, will quickly realise that its true passions lie elsewhere. While those two set the agenda, Labour is going nowhere, fast.

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