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'We were blindsided by the surge of votes for Sinn Féin': Is there a future for the Labour Party after yet another dismal election?

Left-leaning parties including Sinn Féin, the Green Party and Social Democrats grew their support – so why not the Labour Party?

Image: RollingNews.ie

OVER THE PAST three weeks parties on the left urged voters to “vote left” and “transfer left” when casting their votes in the general election, and as the results continue to flow in, it is clear that is what has transpired. 

The main beneficiary of this left surge is Sinn Féin, which saw more than 20 of its candidates elected within hours of the first counts emerging.

Sinn Féin has managed to see 88% of its candidates elected, while a mere 35% of the 84 Fianna Fáil candidates have taken seats so far and Fine Gael has seen just under 40% of its 82 candidates elected.

Whether it was a protest vote against the established Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael duopoly that has held the reins of power for the past century or an honest desire among the electorate for a move towards a liberal agenda, the fact remains that not all left-leaning parties reaped the rewards – and the biggest loser in that regard was the Labour Party.

The Green Party managed to quadruple the number of seats it holds to 10, while the Social Democrats trebled its seats from two to six.

The Labour Party, which styles itself as a centre-left party, did not have the election it had hoped for and lost some of its most prominent figures – former tánaiste Joan Burton and TD Jan O’Sullivan – in the process. 

eamon-gilmore-resigns-leadership Joan Burton and Jan O'Sullivan, who lost their seats, pictured with Labour leader Brendan Howlin. Source: Niall Carson

Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin returned to the Dáil for the Dublin Bay North constituency thanks to transfers.

His party colleague in Dublin Fingal, Duncan Smith, also won the fourth and final seat in that constituency, bringing some good news to the party faithful.

A decade ago, in 2011, the Labour Party secured 37 seats and went into a coalition with Fine Gael. Four years later that support plummeted and the party was resigned to seven seats. 

This time around, the party’s support has dropped again, leaving some to question the viability of Labour into the future. 

If voters have moved to the left and thrown their support behind Sinn Féin, and then transferred to parties like the Green Party and Social Democrats, why have they overlooked the traditionally centre-left Labour Party?

An unforgiving electorate

“The party still hasn’t been forgiven for the 2011 government when they were associated with a considerable period of austerity and blamed for it, blamed for not preventing it” former Labour advisor and party member for 50 years, Fergus Finlay said.

“The truth is the party needs to rebuild itself, it needs a period of time in which it can reassess its values… We started [the campaign] from a very different situation, the party does not have the resources it used to have. To be fair, the party looks like it’s losing three seats and gaining three seats.” 

Asked if it was time for the party to call it a day, Finlay said: “We’re the oldest and most truly democratic party and I don’t want to see it die… It may not be possible, I’m not going to say it will be easy, but I think anything is better than walking away from it.”

Coalition talks

Party leader Brendan Howlin has insisted Labour will sit on the opposition benches as talks get underway in the coming weeks to form a government but if Mary Lou McDonald has any hope of forming a left government, Labour’s seats could be crucial. 

Alternatively, a government might be possible between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil after Micheál Martin softened his stance on such an arrangement, but associate professor of political science at DCU, Eoin O’Malley, cautioned that a government of this make-up could spell even further ruin for the Labour Party. 

“You think just because it is 100 years old, you half think that it can’t [disappear] but they’re down at 4% now and they’re not going to be part of the next government so you wonder what they’ll have to offer in the next Dáil,” he said. 

“They’re not going to be a loud voice on the left of the government and they’re not a loud voice on the right, and strategically it is going to be hard to position themselves.

“If, as I suspect, [the government] will be something involving Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, they’ll have nowhere to put themselves there, whereas Fine Gael will carve out a centre-right position.”

Five of the 31 candidates put forward by the party in this general election have been elected so far, with two others in the running still. 

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Howlin was saved in his Wexford constituency on the eighth count.

“We had ambitions to progress like every political party in this campaign, I think we were blindsided by the surge of votes for Sinn Féin that stopped many gallops across all political parties,” he told RTÉ News moments after he was elected. 

“There’s a number of people who we’d hoped would be joining us in the Dáil who were eclipsed by the surge to Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin has a mandate, they were the party to make the greatest gains by a country mile.” 

A vote among party members to consider whether Howlin should stay on is likely to take place in the coming months. “I will do what I believe is right to advance the Labour Party, that’s what I spent my life doing and I intend to continue doing that,” Howlin said. 

New leadership in the form of Ged Nash who won a seat in Louth, or Alan Kelly, who retained his seat in Tipperary might re-inject some life into a party that is associated with the “old establishment” parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, according to Eoin O’Malley. 

“Presumably, if you had Ged Nash or Alan Kelly, they’d be a bit more aggressive and maybe that’s what it needs but I think it still has strategic problems and the position of the leader itself isn’t going to solve that.”

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