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Lise Hand: A leadership race in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak? Labour can't catch a break

Lise Hand says Labour members hoping the leadership race would revive the party must be wondering if they accidentally ran over a family of black cats.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

THE LABOUR PARTY members must wonder which of them is to blame: who amongst their ranks accidentally ran over and flattened a whole family of black cats, or shattered a gigantic mirror or left all their shoes atop a table.

For the Labour lads – and lads they all are now in the 33rd Dáil – just can’t seem to catch a lucky break at all. Having plummeted from 37 seats to a mere seven in the electoral massacre of 2016, the survivors had harboured modest hopes that the party might be permitted by a less vengeful electorate to exit the dog-house and climb back into double digits in last month’s plebiscite.

But it was not to be. The Shinner Surge engulfed Labour as well as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and the party eventually scrambled home with half a dozen seats. And to add to the members’ chagrin, an organisation which has assiduously campaigned on gender and equality issues returned with six male TDs, having lost stalwarts Joan Burton and Jan O’Sullivan to the Sinn Féin flood.

Leadership contest heats up

Leader Brendan Howlin bowed gracefully to the inevitable and fell on his bodkin days after the result, sparking a leadership contest between Alan Kelly and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Surely now, the party must’ve reasoned, this contest would give Labour a much-needed spell in the spotlight after it had spent most of the previous Dáil languishing in the wings. After all, political journalists love a good auld leadership rumble. And god knows there was little enough news afoot during February, given that the government formation talks were proceeding with all the brisk efficiency of a spliff-smoking sloth.

Once again, it rained soup upon the party armed with forks. Whatever admittedly slim chance its two leadership contenders had of hogging headlines during this parliamentary lacuna, it promptly dropped to zero when the coronavirus came knocking.

So the battle for the Labour leadership is underway, but the media’s – and the public’s – collective gaze is riveted elsewhere, locked onto the fog of the escalating coronavirus war.

But the show must go on. And it’s a long-drawn-out process which began last Monday in Cork with the first of a series of five countrywide hustings and which will culminate with a count of postal ballots on 3 April.

8861 Labour Hustings The two candidates who are contesting the election for a new Labour Party Leader - Alan Kelly TD(L) and Aodhan Ó Riordáan TD. at the Clayton Airport Hotelfor a Labour Party Hustings Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Thursday’s hustings

Last night, the two candidates made their pitches to around 100 party members in a conference room in Clayton Hotel, close to Dublin Airport.

It made a stark contrast to the recent triumphant rallies hosted by a celebratory Sinn Féin which have been packed to the chandeliers with starry-eyed new recruits wooed by the party’s pledges to fix the broken housing and health systems.

At the Labour gathering; most of the attendees knew each other – die-hard veterans who have stuck with the party through all its travails. Nor was there any triumphalism from either Kelly or Ó’Ríordáin. The would-be leaders know all-too-well that this could be Labour’s Last Stand, a final push to prevent the once-proud party of Connolly from sliding irrevocably into irrelevance.

Both men made their opening statements, laying out their different visions on how to rebuild the party – but both underlined the uphill task awaiting the new leader. “People have fallen out of love with us,” said Ó’Ríordáin. ”Labour must bring back a sense of solidarity and compassion to the Irish public,” he added, pledging a “fit-for-purpose organisation with a ‘win-back’ strategy for every constituency.”

Kelly was equally frank. “We lost our way considerably,” he said. “We haven’t been relevant to the national conversation, we haven’t connected with people outside our own circle and we assumed that opposition alone would give us a natural bounce after government.” The Tipperary TD also called for a root-and-branch reform of the party. “Printing off a few leaflets isn’t going to cut it anymore”.

Style over substance?

In many ways, the Labour contest is a battle of style over substance – a straight choice between two substantial candidates with very different styles. The Tipperary TD prides himself on his ‘AK-47’ image of a plain-speaking brawler from rural Ireland, while Ó Ríordáin, a former school principal of an inner-city school, is less a combative, more polished urbanite.

There were many questions from the floor. One member wondered if the party should re-examine its recent decision to opt-out of the current government formation talks. “Nobody wants to talk to Labour because of the position we’ve taken,” he reminded the two candidates.

“if there is a dance we should be dancing, but it would want to be a hell of a deal for us to enter government,” said Ó Riordáin. Kelly was of a similar view. “We were probably too quick to move ourselves out of certain negotiations,” he said. But both men reckoned the party would be better served supporting specific policies from the opposition benches rather than joining whatever class of coalition is eventually cobbled together.

There were a couple of digs thrown by the candidates – but not at each other. When the subject of taxation was raised, the Dublin TD stuck a boot into Limerick-born businessman JP McManus. “Who should pay tax? I have a difficulty with a tax exile flying into the country on a jet, throwing money at every GAA club in the country, fluting off again and everyone thinking this guy is a hero. I have a difficulty with that,” O Riordáin said to applause.

Kelly told the crowd he was “passionate” about housing. “We need very simply to build more houses on public land – CPO [compulsory purchase orders] ‘em across the country if needs be,” he said. “As long as you have a right-wing party owning the housing portfolio, you are never going to get the scale you require.”

But his rival was a warier man, more mindful perhaps of just how Labour had landed itself in the mire in the first place. “We cannot pretend that we can fix housing, fix health, fix disability, fix all the words that we’ve spoken about if at the same time we are proposing a tax cut agenda that other parties are proposing,” said Ó Riordáin. “I don’t feel it’s an honest message for the Labour Party.”

After a couple of hours, the meeting ended. It had been a thoughtful debate about the future path for the party, for everyone in the room knew there can be no more missteps if the party is to crawl back from the cliff-edge.

They and the Social Democrats – a party born from Left splits – are both the fourth-placed parties in the Dáil with six seats each. The Greens are on the rise with 12 TDs, and the chamber is now awash with vociferous technical groups clamouring for their place on the political centre-stage.

Many people took a dab of hand sanitiser on the way out the door. Cleaning one’s hands is easy. Persuading disillusioned Labour voters that the slate is now clean will be a harder task altogether for the new leader.

See more of Lise Hand’s columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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