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A fresh start for Irish Labour?

6 April 2020

On the same weekend that Keir Starmer was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, on 03 April 2020, Tipperary native Alan Kelly became the 13th leader of the Irish Labour Party.

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Barry Colfer
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Alan Kelly takes the helm at a difficult time for Irish Labour. To evoke James Joyce, the party’s recent history has been a nightmare from which it has been trying to awake, at least electorally speaking, for most of the past decade.

In a record general election result in 2011, Labour returned 37 deputies, and formed the biggest coalition in the country’s history alongside Fine Gael, as the parties shared 113 seats in the 166-seat Dáil (lower house). The coalition briskly set about dutifully implementing the swingeing cuts and austerity measures contained in the country’s ignominious financial bailout by the troika of the EU, ECB and IMF that had been agreed in 2010 by the outgoing government, and restored the country’s economic sovereignty by exiting the bailout structures in December 2013.

While the party was able to precipitate limited progressive reforms during its time in office, including: the extension of state subsidised healthcare to children under 5, the protection of basic social welfare payments, the provision of a legal definition of collective bargaining, and marriage equality, the party was also responsible for meting out extremely unpopular and far-reaching cuts and reforms that had a deep impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Incomes fell, unemployment soared, and Ireland rediscovered its tradition of net migration, after a brief enough hiatus during the Celtic Tiger years.

In the 2016 general election, the party were hammered and came within a handful of votes of electoral oblivion, barely maintaining speaking rights in the Dáil by returning 7 deputies. Fine Gael meanwhile were returned to government, albeit in a significantly reduced state, governing as a minority. (This dynamic clearly echoes with the experience of the Liberal Democrats in the UK following the 2015 general election at the bookend of the coalition government).

Labour has done a terrible job of communicating anything positive or constructive about their time in government or opposition over the past 10 years. At the 2020 general election Labour managed to fare even worse than before, dropping to a record low of 4.4% in the national polls coming fifth, and returning 6 deputies, albeit with a few new and fresh faces within that number. Outgoing party leader Brendan Howlin announced his resignation almost immediately.

Even for lifelong supporters and analysts, it is unclear what Irish Labour now stands for, as the party is squeezed on all sides by the centre-left offerings of the Greens and Social Democrats (a portion of whose leadership broke away from Labour in 2012), and the harder-left offerings in Sinn Féin and the radical left parties. It is in this context that the new leader must sketch out a new identity for Ireland’s oldest political party.

The 2020 election fallout

The February 2020 election took place in the narrow window between the new year and the COVID-19 pandemic. It was mainly notable for the fact that the erstwhile duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fractured, given the dramatic breakthrough of Sinn Féin at that poll, as the party returned 37 seats, coming first in the popular vote in an increasingly fragmented electoral landscape.

However, what would likely have been a protracted and acrimonious period of government formation was overtaken by the pandemic, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s government has hung on in office, and has been widely commended for its effective handling of the unfolding crisis.

In what would have been a surreal development in ordinary times (but we know that we are not living in ordinary times) Varadkar, a qualified medical doctor, answered his own government’s call by rejoining the medical register to work a session a week to help with the Coronavirus pandemic.  Varadkar led his party to a near historic low of 20.9% and 35 of 160 seats in February, coming a close third behind Fine Fáil and Sinn Féin. The first major poll  since the crisis shows popular support for Fine Gael surging thirteen points since its election showing  to 34%, Sinn Féin up three to 28%, and Fianna Fáil down four to 18%. As politics develops at warp speed, all has changed, and changed utterly.

So, amid this unprecedented period in Irish politics, who is Alan Kelly?

The new leader of the Irish Labour Party

Alan Kelly was born in rural North Tipperary in 1975, and has been involved in Labour politics since the early 1990s. He served as the Chair of Labour Youth in 2000 and established the Labour student society at University College Cork.

While Kelly has served across almost every level of Irish politics, he unusually did not serve time as a county councillor – the traditional starting point for many political careers in Ireland’s clientelist and highly localised political system. Instead he was elected directly to Seanad Éireann, Ireland’s upper house, serving two years there before being elected as MEP for Ireland’s southern constituency in 2009.

Kelly was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 2011 and has held his seat in two subsequent general elections in his largely rural and sprawling home county of Tipperary. The fact that Kelly failed to complete either of his terms in the Seanad or the European Parliament tells us something about his singular ambition of becoming a significant figure in domestic politics, an ambition he realised in a relatively short space of time.

Kelly became a senior cabinet minister with responsibility for the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2014, after being elected the party’s Deputy Leader that year. He was subsequently appointed as Labour’s director of elections and chair of Labour’s national campaign committee ahead of the (disastrous) 2016 general election. That year Kelly sought, but failed to secure, the nomination of his parliamentary colleagues to contest the leadership of the party left vacant by the departure of Joan Burton.

In 2020, having been re-elected to Dáil Éireann, Kelly won Labour’s leadership contest comfortably (1047 votes to 868) against his newly re-elected party colleague Aodhán Ó’Riordáin.

What can we expect from Alan Kelly?

Kelly is extremely ambitious, and embodies the local nature of Irish politics. Throughout his career as a senator, MEP and Dáil deputy he has been well-known among county councillors and activists up and down the country.

He is widely seen as a conviction politician, having been involved in several high-profile, often thorny, campaigns, including as regards Garda (police) corruption, the mismanagement of the construction of a new national children’s hospital, the provision of the HPV vaccine to boys, and a high-profile cervical cancer screening scandal.

Kelly has also been heavily implicated in some major controversies, including the failed attempt to introduced a billed system for water services (2011-2015), and the administration of the terms of the Troika bailout in its entirety.

However, unlike other senior Labour figures, Kelly is less inclined to be apologetic about Labour’s times in office, and is more assertive about the good things Labour has done – and the worst impulses of Fine Gael that Labour successfully resisted, or at least tempered, during the 2011-2016 government. If nothing else, this is likely to provide a welcome boost in confidence to Labour’s demoralised canvassers and supporters.

A COVID-19 government

As newly elected leader, Kelly confirmed that he will ‘engage’ with other parties but insisted it is up to others to form the next government.

However, keeping his options open, Kelly further remarked that ‘It seems that some parties are more interested in playing politics than solving the crisis the people of this country face’.

As one party after another from across Ireland’s newly fragmented political landscape has excluded itself from government for various reasons, the previously unthinkable coalition of the traditional Civil War foes of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – who have between them led every government since the foundation of the state a century ago, but never together – now seems almost certain. This combination still falls short of an overall majority with only 72 seats, while 80 are needed, with rumblings of support coming for various combinations of independents to make up the numbers. There could yet be an opening for Labour to bridge the gap.

Kelly now faces the choice of opting to stay as one of several small parties in opposition in the hope of consolidating, or of electing to take part in a government – potentially just for the duration of the global health pandemic. It would be out of character for Kelly to shy away from trying to take on responsibility for things, but on this occasion, the numbers might be against him.

Indeed, Kelly’s first public statements as leader indicate a preference for remaining in opposition, observing that Labour is now Ireland’s 5th largest party, and any three of the four largest parties could together form a cohesive government. This suggests a strategic belief that Labour’s best hope of an electoral resurgence may be a period of providing robust and vocal opposition. This could play to Kelly’s strengths, and would fit into the party’s traditional pattern of reaping a political dividend from strong and charismatic opposition.

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