29/11/2013. Labour Party conference. Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore pictured at the party's annual conference at the INEC, Killarney. Photo: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

After disappointing election results for Labour, Stephen Heffernan questions whether the loss of the Democratic Left may be of benefit to the party in the long-term.

[br]

The Labour Party certainly took a drubbing in the general election at the end of February, but nevertheless they just about managed to avoid the low, in percentage terms, of 6.5 per cent in 1987, when party leader Dick Spring came within just a few votes of losing his seat.

It could even be argued that a small, lean Labour party pared back to the well-known faces and the veterans, with some ‘young old hands’ like Seán Sherlock and Alan Kelly thrown into the mix, could actually be the best thing to happen to the party in a long time. The majority of their TDs now represent constituencies outside the M50, and this may lead to a considerable change in tack when it comes to how the party sells itself. Viewing the six TDs so far returned in factional terms, the retirement of Gilmore and Rabbitte has meant that those who joined Labour via the Democratic Left are no longer dominant in the upper echelons of the party; Seán Sherlock is the only one who could be considered as such, and even then only through his father Joe. Burton, Kelly, Ryan and Howlin all hail from Old Labour backgrounds. Jan O’Sullivan was originally a member of Jim Kemmy’s Democratic Socialist Party, itself a splinter movement of Labour which rejoined the main party in 1990. So why is this important?

Speaking to David McCullagh on RTÉ, Tipperary’s self-described maverick independent Mattie McGrath made the point that the liberal agenda pushed by Labour while in government did not put food on the table. In the same constituency, a senior canvasser of Alan Kelly remarked to The Irish Times that the Labour-DL merger had been a bad move for the party. An interview in the same paper with Ruairí Quinn a couple of days before the election descended into an extended sigh at the electorate, the highpoint of which was his despair at the shift in support of left-leaning working-class voters towards Sinn Féin.

Two leaders from DL in a row, namely Rabbitte and Gilmore, cannot have been good for the long-established party faithful. Brendan Howlin would surely have become party leader in 2002 were it not for the spread of malicious rumours about his sexuality, and one can only speculate as whether he would have handled the Mullingar Accord differently. Stripping the party of its champagne socialists may prove to be useful to the party in the long term, as it will give them the opportunity to articulate their niche on the centre-left of Irish politics more clearly. History has shown that the hard left of Irish politics likes nothing more than internal strife: it may well be the case that the AAA-PBP will no longer exist as a unified force by the time of the next election, and if this proves to be so then many angry Labour voters who abandoned them this time out may end up returning.

Some would argue that Labour well and truly lost their way during the Gilmore years. ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ may now be a distant memory, as are poll ratings of 36 per cent, but combined, they led to a degree of hubris. Some have forgotten Labour’s underperformance in some constituencies in 2011 – Wicklow and Tipperary South being two cases in point, where a mixture of poor vote management and more than a slight degree of apathy cost them at least two seats.

The passing of the same-sex marriage referendum may have gone down well in most quarters, but it was further evidence of a Labour Party whose allegiance lay more to a social agenda that would save their seats in leafy suburban areas than one which would offer a meaningful change in the standard of living of the poorest in society. The Social Democrats appear to have stolen some of Labour’s clothes among the chattering classes – Stephen Donnelly having performed particularly well in the seven-way debate chaired by Claire Byrne in Limerick. But Gary Gannon’s failure to win a seat in Dublin Central proved that they have a long way to go before becoming a force worth talking about in Irish politics, and in the long term they may well end up merging with Labour as the Democratic Left did after only seven years in existence.

This is not to suggest that a parliamentary party of six or seven TDs is an entirely good thing. A huge amount of soul-searching and reform at grassroots level will have to be done before the local and European elections in 2019, though as things stand we may end up having another general election or two before that particular date. Party stalwart Fergus Finlay bemoaned the stability of Irish politics of the Bertie Ahern years while speaking to Mary Wilson on Drivetime after the election, but it is highly unlikely that Labour would be willing to go before the people again soon before they have put their own house in order.

One is reminded of Labour’s election slogan of 1969 – ‘The Seventies Will Be Socialist’. With many of the would-be socialists approaching 70, it is worth remembering that many party stalwarts – including three former leaders of the party – had decided against running this time out. Joan Burton will now find herself with the task of getting as many young TDs who lost their seats into the Seanad, Ciara Conway and John Lyons being two of the more prominent examples, as well as making overtures to the ‘Labour gene pool’ independent deputies such as Tommy Broughan and Katherine Zappone to join the parliamentary party. Burton herself, Brendan Ryan and Brendan Howlin are all likely to retire at the next general election, so their main job now is to start grooming protégés, particularly in places like Cork city where the party has been wiped out at all levels.

It would be unwise to start writing Labour’s political obituary just yet. They may no longer be the main voice of the Irish left thanks to the rise of Sinn Féin, but their core vote outside of Dublin, and particularly in east Munster, has remained loyal. Few would argue that Burton has been left with the dregs of the parliamentary party; nothing could be further from the truth. Enda Kenny proved between 2002 and 2007 that it is possible to do well with a smaller-than-expected team of deputies; it is the quality of those deputies that is the most important factor.