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'Back in the game': How did Labour defy national opinion polls and get 30% of first preference votes?

The Labour leader says it has been a “difficult” few years electorally, but today is a good day.

Image: Sam Boal

HOW DID A candidate increase their party’s national polling rate tenfold in a by-election? By running a “positive campaign”, according to Labour’s Ivana Bacik. 

Bacik has topped the poll in Dublin Bay South, with a 30% share of first preferences. In contrast, Labour has recently been hovering at around 3% in national opinion polls. 

Leader Alan Kelly said today that it has been a “difficult” few years for Labour electorally, but that today’s by-election result means it is a good day for the party.

His comments were echoed by Bacik, who speculated about how voters had been drawn to Labour as it campaigned in Dublin over the past few weeks. 

“Labour values of equality and solidarity have clearly resonated and we’ve heard that back on the doorsteps across the constituency throughout the campaign,” Bacik told reporters. 

She also suggested that areas such as housing, investment in public services, the need for state investment in the building of homes on public land, and the provision of childcare provision may have played a part in her success.

Labour has performed poorly in the last two general elections and struggled to climb out of the shadow of its days in government with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016.

In 2016, the party went from having 33 seats in the Dáil to just seven – the worst result in its history. Last year, it lost yet another seat, returning only six TDs.

So how did they pull off Bacik’s victory this time around?

The party canvassed each morning and evening, with a strategy to deliver a vote in the inner city areas again. While campaigners believed this could deliver transfers, instead it delivered first-preference votes.

Director of Elections for the Labour Party Duncan Smyth also told The Journal that Bacik’s campaign was helped by a huge amount of expertise from counsellors within the constituency.

He paid tribute to those who sought to help the party and Bacik, referencing Labour’s big volunteer base.

“There was just a huge outpouring of people who wanted to help give over their time,” he said.

“When you campaign with authenticity and you have a candidate as authentic as Ivana, and as inspiring, it shows that we can go and win elections again in greater numbers and we feel we will do that.”

Smyth also hit out at the recent narrative that Irish politics is a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, saying this had been “soundly rejected in this by-election”.

“They did not get their own way… that’s the big takeaway from this election is that the divisive, nasty type of politics is not something that people want to see. They want to see solution-based, positive politics, and Labour can deliver that,” Smyth added.

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Party members now feel that Labour is “back in the game” across all Dáil consistencies following today’s result, which is being seen as a “big morale boost for the party”.

Those within the party believe there is a path forward for the next general election, with some sources saying Labour is in contention to take up to 20 seats next time around.

However, one party source said that although today’s result is to be welcomed as a stage on Labour’s “road to recovery”, there is still “an awful lot of work to be done to build trust”.

But Kelly did not speculate on the future too much today, saying instead that he was “very proud” of the way Bacik had performed in Thursday’s by-election.

“Ivana is somebody who we have admired for many years, she has been a member with us all her adult life,” he said outside the RDS.

“Hopefully today will be her day and she will be elected to Dáil Éireann. She put in an incredible performance. She was literally out morning, noon and night with a fantastic campaign team. It was a positive campaign. We are very proud of her.

“It’s a good day for our party.”

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