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Winning formula

'The millennial vote is key' - Can Corbynmania be harnessed by Ireland's Labour party?

The systems may be different but does the message translate?
POLITICS HAS CHANGED. It is not going back in its box where it has gone before. People have had quite enough.

Those were the words of Jeremy Corbyn at 3am on the morning after the UK general election.

The UK Labour leader had just been re-elected in London’s Islington North and it had already become clear that his party taken enough seats from the Tories to take away their parliamentary majority.

For an election that was predicted to finish off his leadership, the result showed that the jolt he gave Labour’s grassroots extended beyond his party to the wider electorate.

Back in September 2015 following Corbyn’s insurgent leadership victory, his then Irish counterpart Joan Burton said that was his central challenge.

Upon congratulating him in a short, four-sentence statement, Burton said that Corbyn had “energised large sections of the party’s membership” and that his challenge was to

transfer that energy into upcoming election campaigns.

If that was Burton’s test of Corbyn’s success as leader, he’s delivered on his first attempt and it perhaps begs the question whether someone could similarly energise the Irish Labour party.

The political realities are of course different for both parties but they share goals and ideologies and have claimed a sistership with one another. Does that mean Corbyn’s message would translate here?

Not necessarily, argues Ireland Thinks pollster and former UK Labour strategist Dr Kevin Cunningham.

“Some people try to look at elections abroad and then just verbatim copy and paste.”

It would be wrong to say okay now we’re going to have a message that says ‘For the many, not the few’. That would not be the right thing to do. Jeremy was playing to his own strengths in that regard.

“One of the failings of the previous general election for the Labour party was they wouldn’t let Ed Miliband be Ed Miliband. He started adopting policies that people could see he didn’t quite agree with.”

Tuition fees

Two days after the UK general election campaign, Burton’s replacement as Labour leader Brendan Howlin delivered a speech to the Tom Johnson Summer School in Montenotte. In the speech he called for third-level fees to be scrapped.

Scrapping tuition fees was a major plank of the Labour’s manifesto in the UK general election, and one which many have speculated sparked such enthusiasm amongst younger voters and those in university towns.

Third-level feels is an issue that’s always been closely associated with Labour in Ireland.

In his speech, Howlin made reference to that history, noting how Labour’s Education Minister Niamh Breathnach scrapped them in 1992.

He also noted how fees never really went away but became the infamous ever-increasing registration fee. Howlin even acknowledged this happened partly when Labour were in power

“Would we have done so if Labour held a majority in Government? No,” Howlin said.

Whether the timing of Labour’s push on third-level fees is a coincidence or not, the priority is there and it’s clearly a pitch that appeals to younger voters.

But the question remains how credible promises can be from parties that aren’t likely to be in a majority position in government.

“I’d say there’s more to it than that,” Cunningham says.

“There’s a significant value on authenticity and trust and to some extent it applies to the Labour party’s policy on tuition fees, probably because the party was not really in a position control that issue.”

Appealing to younger voters is about far more than developing policies based around tuition fees and worker’s rights, however.

Another part of the appeal of the Corbyn movement has been in recognising challenges faced by educated young professionals.

Issues like affordability, wages, housing and childcare have frequently been secondary to to policies crafted to suit older voters.

Labour’s Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Rebecca Moynihan agrees with this analysis and says it clearly drove voters in the recent election

“I think the millennial vote is key and what Corbyn and the party has been saying has really resonated,” she says.

“And I think our generation is very, very insecure. We’re insecure about our pensions, we’ve been told that we have to have them but we don’t have jobs that are paying enough in order to get us through it. So we’re insecure in our jobs, we’re insecure in our pensions, we’re insecure about our housing.

There’s a generation of politicians who maybe are from the baby boomer generation that don’t quite realise how deeply that insecurity has permeated.

Moynihan adds that many of these priorities are ones that had been considered basic standards for decades but have now creeped beyond many people’s reach again.

“The basic things that we were fighting for at the foundation of the Labour movement, which is a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and decent secure employment. Those things that are now aspirational again and they weren’t for a long time and I think there is a generation who don’t realise just how aspiration they are for our generation.”

Tower block fire in London Jeremy Corbyn meeting volunteers and locals after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London. David Mirzoeff / PA Wire David Mirzoeff / PA Wire / PA Wire

One of the most decisive results of the recent election was the return of two-party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour winning 83% of the votes across the UK.

This was down to the obliteration of the Ukip vote and both parties eating into the SNP’s dominance in Scotland.

While in Ireland the dominance of the two largest parties is not quite as stark, and has been declining election after election, it remains the dominant narrative in government formation and is a reminder for Labour here that their fight is very different.

Not least because the PR-STV system is much easier on smaller parties and independents, and in Ireland that means a fragmentation of the left vote.

“I always think it’s difficult to compare the two of them,” Moynihan says of Labour here and across the water.

I know obviously people tend to look at British politics and then back to Irish politics. I mean how close are we to them now? The policies are different because the campaigns are different, because the context is different and because the systems are different.

“You’re not comparing like with like so I’m always very reluctant to do it. But in terms of the manifesto that the Labour party but forward, I think it was very good, I think it was very progressive and I think for the first time in a long time they were making an argument for a just society again.”

Read: ‘I was clearly wrong’: How Jeremy Corbyn confounded expectations in the UK’s election >

Read: With support from grime artists and actors, young voters turned out in droves for Corbyn >

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