THE RESULT OF the Meath East by-election has led to much anguish in the Labour party and even more comment in the media as to the very future of the party. The fact that Labour’s candidate, Eoin Holmes, came home in fifth place, polling a miserable 1,112 first preference votes, just 4.57 per cent, has set off a frenzy of speculation about what, if anything, can be done to stave off the party’s seemingly inevitable demise.
While no one really expected Labour to do well in the by-election, the fact they were outpolled by Ben Gilroy, the Direct Democracy Ireland candidate, has called into question the very survival of Ireland’s oldest political party.
Labour has been here before. In the 1992 general election Dick Spring took the party to its highest point by gaining 33 seats on 19 per cent of the vote. Spring was coruscating in his criticisms of Charles Haughey and Fianna Fáil during the 1989-1992 Dáil and was widely seen as the leader of opposition outshining both Fine Gael’s Alan Dukes and John Bruton. He was rewarded by the electorate at the 1992 election but many of them felt betrayed when he led Labour into a coalition with a Fianna Fáil party and he was accused of not being fit for office. They were never to forgive Spring.
In a by-election in Cork North Central in November 1994, caused by the death of the popular Labour TD Gerry O’Sullivan, his daughter Lisa O’Sullivan came in fourth losing to current Minister of State Kathleen Lynch who was standing for Democratic Left. Labour lost 10 per cent of its vote falling from 22 per cent to 12 per cent.
Even worse was to happen the party in the Dublin West by election in 1996, caused by the death of Brian Lenihan, when its candidate Michael O’Donovan polled a truly dismal 1,058 first preference votes – only 3.72 per cent – and came in a barely believable ninth place behind candidates from the Socialists, the Workers’ Party, the Greens, the PDs, Sinn Féin, and an independent. This presaged the party’s poor performance in the 1997 general election when the 33 seats of 1992 was reduced to 17 on just over 10 per cent of the vote.
The future for the party?
So is the Labour now doomed after the Meath East by election, and does the performance of Ben Gilroy herald the beginning of a new political force in Irish politics? The short answers are no and no.
The Irish electorate is both a strange beast and an angry and vengeful one at the moment. Growing instability and partisan de-alignment have opened up all Irish elections, and the volatility on show at the 2011 general election raises very serious questions about the future of party politics. Yet the traditional conservative parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil fought out the Meath East by-election with Labour and the protest parties and independents fighting for electoral scraps. A vast swathe of the electorate remained indifferent to all politics and stayed at home.
In many ways it is hard to blame them. Political parties in Ireland now compete on an increasingly narrow issue base. The ingrained nature of social partnership which dominated macro-economic thinking in the state for much of the past 30 years has removed much of the economic debate from the political sphere – and what is left is reduced to who can best manage the economy. This reductionism in economic policy making has dwindled even further as the parameters of independent government action are constrained by the paymasters of the EU/ECB/IMF.
‘Selling a pup’ to the electorate
Labour is bearing the brunt of the electorate’s discontent. And it is really difficult to say what it can do to bring the electorate back. The beat up Fianna Fáil stick has been worn out and the electorate are looking for answers which Labour simply does not have. Neither it should be said does anyone else. Or if they do, as Sinn Féin insists it does, then the electorate is not listening. It might not be a very complex or sophisticated analysis but all really Labour can do is hope the economy picks up and they can reduce the losses. The Irish electorate has never shown much interest in voting on anything but economic issues so any alternative appeals on social issues appears likely to be rather pointless as the party has no doubt learned from Meath East.
But even at this early stage it appears the electorate has its mind made up that Labour sold it a pup in the 2011 election, much as in 1992, and they are going to wait in the long grass to punish them. History would suggest that Labour should be able to sustain the losses somewhat but it is clearly looking at a halving of its 2011 vote come the next general election.
Where the voters who were persuaded to vote for them will now go is anyone’s guess. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will look greedily at them. But might the electorate be tempted to vote for a new party – Direct Democracy Ireland perhaps? Is there room for a niche party promoting value for public money and acting as an advocate for private enterprise, or for a party offering an anti-austerity statist agenda, or for a party offering a distinct social vision? I would suggest that the answer is no.
The history of parties such as Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta, Democratic Left, and the Progressive Democrats would suggest that any gains to be made by such a party would dissipate sooner rather later, but dissipate they will. The Irish electorate, while occasionally happy to vote promiscuously, no more so than 2011 in their crushing rejection of Fianna Fáil, seems always to ultimate reject the newcomer, forcing them to either disband or join with one of the larger parties.
A lot has changed in Irish politics since the 2011 general election but all the evidence suggests that the conservative Irish voter is not interested in a new force. That voter is not very keen on Labour either but at least is likely to give it a chance beyond the next election.
Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University . You can follow Gary on Twitter @garymurphydcu. For more articles written by Gary for TheJournal.ie click here.