Coming shortly after Saint Valentine’s Day, this year’s general election didn’t bring much love to the Labour Party. Their deep throated embrace of Fine Gael – their partners in coalition government since 2011 – could well prove to be the kiss of death for a political organisation founded on left wing principles. These principles were – and continue to be – largely ignored by the party’s Dail contingent and it’s hard to see what sort of future Labour now has as a political force.
Could Alan Kelly – assuming he succeeds Joan Burton (not certain as I write) – be the last leader of Ireland’s Labour Party? Mr Kelly is known to be one of the chief advocates of the water charges that have caused so much controversy. The charge is an anathema to many on the left of Irish politics and the party’s support for this, in addition to stubbornly backing up Fine Gael in government on other issues, has alienated many Labour voters.
Before Polling Day Labour boasted 37 TD’s in Dail Eireann. Now their numbers barely reach seven deputies. This electoral disaster didn’t occur by accident. Similar to the Labour Party in Britain, the Irish Labour Party has abandoned its original principles. This became clear over the course of the last five years as they worked closely on economic regeneration, in partnership with Fine Gael, a party which has little sympathy for those on the thin end of the wedge. By allying themselves to the architects of austerity, Labour have been left dangerously exposed.
Only two of Labour’s seven TD’s represent Dublin constituencies. This compares with 18 Dublin TD’s before February’s election. It is hard to see them reaching this figure again. Labour hemorrhaged votes all over the place. Outside of Dublin the chief beneficiaries were the Independents, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail. In the capital these parties took votes from Labour in addition to the Anti Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit and other smaller left wing groups who have benefited from huge disaffection among Labour voters.
Despite the Labour Party being in an extremely vulnerable position, it still remains strong as a national organisation. But that may not be for long. The future for the party will depend on whether or not the membership, rather than the leadership, can define Labour’s political identity and take it back to its left wing roots, where the party’s true support lies. Unless this happens Ireland’s Labour Party could well be extinct in a few short years. They are heading for political oblivion.
Mr Kelly’s stout defence of the water charges flies in the face of many on the left of Irish politics. This has done much damage to Labour’s reputation among the voters. By failing to assert themselves in government they have allowed themselves to be portrayed as no longer being a friend to the disadvantaged in Irish society. Much will have to be done to repair the damage and it is unclear at this stage what, if anything, can be done to stem the tide. The lesson to all political parties must be: if you ignore your voters, they will ignore you. This is precisely what has happened to the Irish Labour Party. James Connolly must be turning in his grave.