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Labour dances at the crossroads

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Winds of change are blowing on the Left post-election, with Labour in both Ireland and the UK in the midst of leadership contests. Although the circumstances differ wildly, the outcome of the respective contests will be crucial to the future of the party on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Here, it’s a two-man contest between Alan ‘Power’ Kelly (also known as AK47, though in the current environment it’s likely he’ll play that one down) and Aodhán ‘Crayon’ O’Riordáin. Given their poor election showing, it could be argued that very few people give a toss about a minor party’s internal wrangling, especially in the west of Ireland. Nevertheless, given the contrasting nature of the two candidates, it has the makings of a fascinating contest, and might provide a distraction from the ‘Lanigan’s Ball’ shenanigans of the larger parties.
Kelly has a reputation for being no-nonsense and a bit brash, and has suggested that for the troubled party to rebuild, it needs to start from the bottom up and revert to campaigning and working with trade unions and communities. He says he is firmly committed to advancing the rights of workers.
O’Riordáin, meanwhile, favours a different approach, one of change (where else have we heard that recently?) focusing instead on public services and how the party can work with other Left parties to restore the people’s faith in their politics.
In a previous life, pre-2016, I had cause to delve deeply into the sentiment around the Labour party, both among members of the public and the party itself. It was by no means a surprise that the assessment revealed a colossal difference in how Labour saw themselves (a saviour, or buffer between the public and Fine Gael’s appetite for severe austerity) and how the public saw them (weak, traitorous, privileged, and worst of all, lacking empathy). What was incredible was that the party in its next election campaign failed to take these insights on board. We all know how that worked out.
To this day, many Labour supporters will insist that they were unfairly treated in 2016, and  that things would have been far worse had they not been there to prevent Fine Gael imposing even more savage levels of hardship on those least able to absorb the hits. This, to be fair, is likely to be accurate, but their obstinate refusal, or perhaps inability to empathise with the vast swathes of the public who trusted them, but were negatively and sometimes catastrophically affected by austerity is what really turned the tide against them; viciously so.
It is interesting that one of Labour’s most prolific political advisors before the 2016 election, Ed Brophy, afterwards jumped ship to Fine Gael, and that they now find themselves in a rather similar situation, expressing very similar rhetoric. The lack of self-awareness and a sense of unchecked privilege surrounded both parties following their disappointing elections, though of course, it would be wrong to blame just one person. It’s quite likely too that Fine Gael were not punished to the same extent, because people didn’t expect as much of them as they did Labour. So are left-wing parties held to higher standards than their more centrist counterparts, as is often suggested?
As someone whose views lie firmly on the left of the political spectrum, I find myself swinging between pity and frustration when it comes to Labour. I want them to be better; to listen more. Their PR is terrible, too, but is borne out of an inability to empathise. The past decade has seen an astonishing amount of social change in Ireland; which would never have come about had it been left to the civil war parties. Labour for decades fought for the rights of women, workers, the LGBT community and minorities; they allowed this to be forgotten and failed to benefit from it. They only have themselves to blame. Meanwhile, they are in danger of losing ground to the Social Democrats, who appear proactive, focused, and forward thinking, as well as being good communicators.
Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Kelly’s no-nonsense methods or the softer approach of O’Riordain will win out, and in turn, in what direction the Labour party goes. And indeed, whether it will even matter by the time the next election comes around.