THE IRISH LABOUR party just had the worst general election in its history, five years after its best ever.
The party saw its representation in our national parliament fall from 37 to 7 – an 81% collapse.
Since its foundation in 1912, the lowest number of TDs Labour has had was also seven, at the 1932 election.
However, in a 153-member Dáil, that represented 4.53% of the seats. In the new 158-member house, Labour has just 4.43% of all deputies.
The party also got its lowest number of first preference votes (140,898) and lowest share of votes (6.6%) since 1987. However, that year it managed to take 12 seats, or 7.3% of those on offer.
There have been notable implosions throughout Irish political history, of course.
In 2011, Fianna Fáil fell from 78 to 20 seats. The same year, the Green Party lost all six of their TDs, and in 2007, the Progressive Democrats took a drubbing, losing six of their eight TDs.
But never before has a major political party gone from having its best ever showing to its worst ever, in the space of one election.
This graph illustrates the historic extent to which the party’s seat number fell off a cliff this year.
Of the 37 Labour TDs elected in 2011: four left the party in the interim (Colm Keaveney, Tommy Broughan, Róisín Shortall and Eamonn Maloney); seven decided not to run; and 18 failed to be re-elected.
This photo, taken on 1 March 2011, shows the new, 37-strong Labour parliamentary party:
And this is who’s left for Labour in the next Dáil:
While Labour suffered pretty much across the board over the weekend, the scale of the crash has been especially catastrophic in some constituencies, and among women.
In 2011, Labour had 10 poll-toppers. Four of them lost their seats this weekend (Joanna Tuffy, Eric Byrne, Derek Nolan, and Dominic Hannigan).
A further two retired (Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore), and one has joined another party (Róisín Shortall). Only three of the party’s strongest performers in 2011 (Joan Burton, Seán Sherlock and Willie Penrose) will be a part of the next Dáil.
In 2011, there were six constituencies in which Labour got two TDs elected (Dublin Mid-West, Dublin North-East, Dublin North-West, Dublin South-Central, Dublin South-East, and Dublin South-West).
All six of them now have no Labour representation.
Furthermore, Labour has lost six of the eight women it elected in 2011, with only party leader Joan Burton and outgoing Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan remaining.
This could limit the party in presenting itself to the younger, diverse demographic which would be essential to its renaissance, and is a particularly cruel irony for a party that has always prided itself on being ahead of the curve on equality issues.
Given the scale of the collapse, it’s inevitable that Labour’s geographic spread has also greatly diminished.
It now has no deputies in the West or the Border area (although it didn’t in 2011 either), and only two in Leinster (outside Dublin).
In the circumstances, it has managed to retain a reasonably good distribution of Dáil representation, and has narrowly avoided being entirely confined to Dublin.
This could be crucial in providing Labour some regional bases from which to rally support and rebuild as a significant national party.
Notably, Labour no longer has any TDs on the south side of the capital. Where in 2011 it had representation in every Dublin constituency, now both its deputies come from north of the Liffey.
Beyond the sheer seat numbers, the political impact of this weekend’s defeat could be particularly significant.
- For the first time since 1997 (and the second time since 1973), Labour’s seat share (4.43%) is lower than its share of first preference votes (6.6%).
In 1997, the gap was marginal. 43 years ago, Labour got 13.7% of votes and 11.8% of seats.
This is an imprecise measure, and will require more detailed analysis, but it suggests that Labour candidates were less transfer-friendly in 2016 than they have been for 43 years.
This would be worrying if it developed into a trend in future elections.
- The party’s three most recent leaders – Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn – announced their retirement before this election, immediately leaving the next parliamentary party devoid of their considerable experience.
They also lost long-serving and senior deputies this weekend, including Joe Costello and Emmet Stagg.
- Labour lost a government Minister and five of their six Ministers of State this weekend.
Communications Minister Alex White was eliminated in Dublin Rathdown, and Ann Phelan, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Kevin Humphreys, Kathleen Lynch and Ged Nash also failed to get re-elected.
- Finally, Labour failed to sustain the massive infusion of new blood they received at the last election.
In all, of the 20 TDs elected for the first time in 2011: 14 failed to be re-elected, two have left the party, and two did not contest.
From the Class of 2011, only Brendan Ryan and Alan Kelly have made it into the next Dáil.
Rays of hope
Perhaps the only relief for Labour from this election is that – believe it or not – it could have been worse.
- By reaching the magic number of seven deputies, the party narrowly avoided being forced to join or create a new technical group in the Dáil.
As a group numbering less than seven, under Standing Order 120 (2) they would have had less opportunity to contribute to Dáil debates on a daily basis – crucial to gaining publicity and traction for their policies.
Avoiding that fate could prove essential to the party’s recovery.
- The party’s leader and deputy leader retained their seats.
However, it remains to be seen how long they will stay in those positions, and it’s doubtful Alan Kelly would be a popular leader among voters.
Their most senior cabinet ministers – including Brendan Howlin and Jan O’Sullivan – will also still be available to play a central role in the party’s renaissance, such as it might be.
Howlin performed particularly well, topping the poll in Wexford.
- They may also take heart from this weekend’s significant comeback by the Green Party.
After being left destitute in 2011, losing all their TDs, including some government ministers, many observers wrote the Greens out of Ireland’s political future.
However, despite severe funding and organisational difficulties, having to fight for media coverage, and losing a court battle to take part in the first RTE Leaders’ Debate, the Greens managed to win two seats this weekend.
This was – in the circumstances – a stunning achievement, and may well provide encouragement for Labour as they look to pick up the pieces and plan their recovery strategy, starting with local elections in two years’ time.
However, the biggest danger now for the future of the party, is that their membership and candidate base might continue to be consumed by other parties on the Left.
In particular, the Social Democrats, who over-performed in this election and are not tainted by any involvement in a deeply unpopular government, could pose a serious threat to a Labour party now on the ropes, after a beating of unprecedented proportions.