Since its unpopular coalition Government with Fine Gael, the rapid decline in support for the Irish Labour Party has rapidly expanded in recent years. Since the resignation of Eamon Gilmore in 2014, it has had three leaders in the space of 7 years, including its current leader Alan Kelly.
Labour’s rapid decline in support was first experienced in the 2014 local and European elections as it won 51 council seats, a decrease in 81 seats, from the 2009 local elections and did not win a single seat for elections to the European Parliament. This led to the resignation of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, as Labour leader.
He was subsequently replaced by Joan Burton, who became the Tánaiste and remained Minister for Social Protection, after defeating Alex White, overwhelmingly in a leadership contest.
At one stage, in 2010, Eamon Gilmore appeared to be the favourite to become the next Taoiseach in an election that would take place in 2011. This led to the famous slogan ‘Gilmore For Taoiseach’ as Labour centred their campaign around their leader.
However, this became short-lived and despite a leadership upheaval against Enda Kenny, which was led by Richard Bruton, Kenny subsequently survived this upheaval and became favourite to be the next Taoiseach.
Attention quickly turned to preventing Fine Gael winning an outright majority. Labour successfully campaigned, in the final two weeks, focusing on preventing a Fine Gael majority. Therefore, it was relieved with 37 seats, its best ever seat return from any Irish general election. Unsurprisingly, as expected, Labour went into coalition with Fine Gael and agreed a Programme for Government in March 2011, to carefully manage the economy and bring it back to normal.
This came with many unpopular decisions, such as the introduction of a local property tax, the introduction of domestic water charges, whilst there was a decrease in spending on child benefit and medical cards were taken away from cancer patients. Meanwhile, despite its historical opposition to third level fees, third level fees increased.
Anti-austerity protests grew in numbers, protests against the introduction of domestic water charges attracted thousands and the campaign of Right2Water was successful in preventing the long-term future of domestic water charges. Fine Gael and Labour suffered in the 2016 general election, but Labour to a much larger extent. Fine Gael lost 26 seats, bringing their total to 50 seats, whilst Labour lost 26 seats, bringing their total to 7 seats. In total, Labour secured 6.6% of the vote, which was 12.8% down on their vote from the 2011 general election.
This meant that Joan Burton’s short-lived time as Labour leader came to an end in 2016, and long-serving Wexford TD, Brendan Howlin, was elected unopposed as leader.
However, Labour continued to suffer a hangover from being in Government, as Sinn Féin led the opposition. Whilst the 2020 general election campaign was focused on issues such as housing and health, Labour struggled to defend its position of being in Government with Fine Gael from 2011-2016. While Brendan Howlin defended this policy of being in Government with Fine Gael, as they argued that they prioritised the country over politics, and outed the fire that was started before them, this did not resonate with voters.
Labour lost further ground on the main parties in the 2020 general election, as it lost one seat to return 6 TDs, and its vote share decreased to 4.4%. Meanwhile, former leader, Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, lost her seat in Dublin West. Despite this, it had minor successes with the re-elections of Aodhan O’Riordáin, Ged Nash and the election of Duncan Smith.
In the aftermath of the election, Brendan Howlin announced that he would be resigning as Labour leader and ruled out being part of a Government led by left-wing parties.
A leadership election was held between Alan Kelly and Aodhan O’Riordáin, with Alan Kelly coming out on top, to become the leader of the Labour Party, last year.
From his election as leader, it appeared that he would face huge challenges as leader to bring the party back as the main voice on the centre-left, which has been stolen in recent years, by the electoral successes of Sinn Féin and the increase in membership for the likes of the Social Democrats. As leader, many voters still cannot forgive the Labour Party and his role in Government of attempting to introduce domestic water charges and other austerity measures.
In the most recent RED C poll that was taken for the month of May, Labour’s support in first preference votes was at 3%, which is a 1.4% decrease on its disappointing 2020 election result. This raises the question, can Labour recover from their torrid time in Government with Fine Gael?
The short answer is, it will likely to be a challenge for decades and years to come. It is highly unlikely that Alan Kelly will be able to bring the party back to its glory days of 1992 and 2011, any time soon. Should it consider a merger with the Social Democrats?
That is another question for another day, but the Social Democrats have had steady success since its formation as a party in 2015. In the most recent RED C poll, it was on 5% for first preference votes, which would make it, the joint 4th largest party for party voting intentions. Its 6 TDs have performed solidly, particularly their new TDs of Holly Cairns, Gary Gannon, Cian O’Callaghan and Jennifer Whitmore. However, the Social Democrats have consistently ruled out a merger with Labour.
It appears to be a desperate attempt from Labour to recover their lost support for the decisions that they made in Government with Fine Gael, that impacted on ordinary people. If anything, there is a possibility that we are experiencing the slow death of the Labour Party.
If the Irish Labour Party want to be part of the future of Irish politics, with the likelihood of a left – right cleavage emerging between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, it must place itself on the left of that spectrum. The Labour Party must begin to recover lost ground in recent years and their leader’s first test, is the Dublin Bay South by-election, where its candidate, Ivana Bacik is in with a strong chance of a solid result.