2018: a year of liberalising?

By Barry Colfer
16 February 2018
The death of social democracy in Ireland has been greatly exaggerated
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The next election

Given Ireland’s highly proportional electoral system, where coalition governments are the norm, small parties often hold the balance of power. Today, this is all the more relevant, as each of the ‘big three’ parties – the ruling centre-right Fine Gael, the sort-of-ruling centre to centre-right Fianna Fáil (who support the current minority government) and the radical left (sometimes populist) Sinn Féin have ruled out working together. Only time will tell if this aversion will hold true come the next election but, at least in the near term, any coalition between these parties seems unlikely. Since 2016, Fine Gael have held a fragile government together in coalition with an eclectic mix of independents, and with the support of their arch rival Fianna Fáil from the opposition benches. With a general election expected any time from late 2018, there may soon be a role of responsibility for the Labour party, or the smaller Greens or Social Democrats, to help form a government once again.

How we got here

The 2011 general election was atypical, coming as it did at the peak of the Irish economic and social crisis, and just weeks after Ireland’s ignominious financial rescue by the Troika of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in November 2010. The once dominant Fianna Fáil party were swept from power and, finishing second with almost 20% of the vote and 37 seats in the then 166-seat lower chamber of parliament (Dáil Éireann), the Irish Labour party achieved its best result in its 105 year history. Since then, Labour has been in a state of continual, gradual decline. The party experienced a crushing defeat in the 2016 general election, where it was punished for overseeing years of austerity and cuts to public services. Labour had a near death experience, winning 7 seats and less than 7% of the vote, coming only a handful of votes away from losing automatic speaking rights in parliament. Since then, opinion polls show Labour to be stuck stubbornly at a fairly miserable 4 %.

Historically, Labour’s willingness to govern has been the party’s greatest handicap, at least in an electoral sense. For the past quarter century, much like the Irish economy, Labour has been locked in a cycle of boom and bust. As is the case in many European countries, after a period in government, Labour – or any smaller party that takes the plunge into government – can expect to suffer electorally, a fate Labour has suffered five times since 1973.

Opportunities for Labour in 2018

Currently, the biggest political issues in Ireland are the increasing unaffordability of housing (especially in Dublin), pressures on the health system, an upcoming referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the constitution – a change that would liberalise the country’s restrictive abortion regime, and a potential presidential election this autumn. As regards Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU entertains politicians and commentators in Dublin more than in any capital outside London, but discussions remain fairly abstract and superficial (with a few notable exceptions, see Fintan O’Toole’s regular column in the Irish Times). Brexit talk focuses on the generally accepted threats posed to Irish trade and social cohesion, particularly the well-documented sensitivities around the Irish border, and discussions often relate back to the perceived performances of Irish politicians at the negotiations and in the media. What is clear in all this though, is that Irish support for EU membership remains unwavering, and has possibly even been strengthened by the UK’s Brexit debacle.

Will Irish Labour survive 2018?

The anticipated referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, slated for spring 2018, and the potential of a presidential election in the autumn may present opportunities for Labour.

Regarding the 8th, of the traditional mainstream parties, Labour is the only one to be unambiguously in favour of liberalising Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, which is in keeping with a clear shift in public opinion. Following a successful campaign to secure marriage equality, another longstanding priority for Labour that was finally delivered in 2015 via a referendum championed by the party while in government, the abortion rights vote presents an opportunity to advance a key party priority, and to shore up the flagging base.

Whether a presidential election takes place will depend largely on the future of the highly popular incumbent, former Labour Party minister Michael D. Higgins, who will be 77 in April. While presidents cannot maintain membership of any political party while in office, Michael D is regarded as a Labour man and a party stalwart. Should there be an election and should the president seek to be returned (possibly running unopposed), the party could benefit from some positive Michael D exposure.

The future of Irish Labour

The greatest surprise for Labour in 2018 is that the party is not doing better. Support for independents and smaller parties who ate Labour’s dinner in 2016 (electorally speaking) seems to have peaked, but it is the ‘big three’ of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin who are benefiting most from their collapse. Labour leader Brendan Howlin, whilst widely regarded as a competent minister and public representative, languishes in the polls, with an approval rating of 18% in January 2018. Howlin may face a challenge from his parliamentary colleague and former MEP, Alan Kelly. Kelly is seen by some as a maverick, and in November 2017 gave his leader ‘less than six months’ to improve Labour’s standing, or to expect a heave. Kelly has received national attention in recent months by helping to expose details of malpractice in the Garda Síochána (national police force), ultimately leading to the resignation of Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Frances Fitzgerald in December to avoid an election.

While impact and effectiveness should not only be measured by scalps and scandal, Labour may do well to assert itself publicly like this more often, to hold government and officers of state to account, and to remind the electorate that there is a leftwing party that is not afraid to stand up for its values and, most importantly, is prepared to take responsibility in government (and suffer the consequences). That said, in 2018, a core Labour policy remains a commitment to double arts funding. While noble, this will not cut much mustard with disaffected Labour supporters, and the party must be seen to tackle the big economic and social issues of the day to remain relevant.

The likes of Jack O’Connor, the high-profile and well-respected leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union, SIPTU, has expressed a willingness to win back a seat for the party in Wicklow, and a clutch of popular candidates that narrowly lost out on seats in the Dáil Éireann (lower house) in the last election and are currently serving in the Seanad (upper house) have committed to running whenever a general election is called. Labour can realistically target at least a dozen seats in the next election which, given Ireland’s political and electoral traditions, would put them firmly in contention to govern once more. While Labour has experienced a rough couple of years, their decline is far from terminal, and a liberal year for Ireland could see a rise in the party’s fortunes.

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