Alan Kelly was not well liked by his fellow TDs. He was not well liked by a significant bloc of voters. We’ve learned this week he wasn’t well liked by many of his back room staff. But he was something different from what had gone before. And when Brendan Howlin quit as Labour Party leader, the party members knew they wanted to try something different. So, they put him in charge.
But party members don’t have to work with their choice of leader, unlike the TDs or staff. So, this week, their choice for the face of the party turned up at a hastily announced press announcement to resign. He confessed that he was as shocked as the press to find himself in this position.
Almost immediately, the TDs started briefing that the next leader- by acclamation, so as to avoid another vote by the members- would be the party’s newest TD, Ivana Bacik.
While there will be a change in tone at the top, this will be Labour’s third leader since the electorate passed judgement on the relish with which they had advanced and defended the cuts of the troika government with FG.
It is hard to remember now, but that was a cataclysm for the ‘half’ part of Ireland’s Two and a Half Party system. In one day it went from 37 seats to 7. To try to get a sense of the impact that had, Alan Kelly had just sold the Party’s HQ building and started renting space instead to make room for growth to come;
“A spokesman for Labour said they had outgrown Ely Place to such an extent that even the largest rooms were not large enough to accommodate meetings.”
As it turned out Labour’s Georgian HQ would have had to become a kind of reverse-Tardis, being so much smaller on the inside that it simply couldn’t accommodate seven people in a room.
In a way, the comedy statement from the unknown spokesman is telling. It’s a comment from a party which refuses to accept what is happening to it.
And that, in the end, is why Labour keeps cycling through leaders without really rebuilding any relationship with all those voters it lost. The party will acknowledge that people are unhappy with it after its last stint in government. But what it has never said- and still won’t- is that the voters are justified in some of their criticisms of how the party behaved in office.
The Labour Party’s TDs and Senators still say they did the right thing the last time they had power over people’s lives. And, by extension, when they acknowledge the public’s anger at them, there is always a silent clause- “but the public are wrong”. And the public never fails to hear it.
Ironically, more than the actual decisions, it is this stubborn position of both defending their historical actions and also the siege mentality they developed- that those who opposed them were stupid, or sometimes just bad- which holds them back now.
Labour’s Ministers enjoyed having power. They identified themselves as powerful people who were making important decisions. And they came to identify the people who were unhappy with those decisions as their enemies. They promoted policies intended to drive down people’s incomes, ran campaigns against social welfare recipients and they enthusiastically defended the Irish Water debacle.
After Brendan Howlin took over as leader of a party that could fit in a Citroen C4, he knew that they had to make some sort of contrition statement. This is how he framed it;
“We are rightly proud of the many things we did in office. But we’re also honest enough to recognise that we didn’t get everything right.”
When asked to pinpoint what those mistakes were, however, he didn’t actually admit anything the party had done in Government was wrong. Instead, he said the lesson he’d learned was not to promise anything better.
Politics is complicated, but one of the simplest parts of it is how closely the story each party tells about itself matches the story the wider public carries around.
The Labour Party is a party that believes it has been wronged by an ungrateful public and that its votes have been taken away unjustly by other parties - some by Sinn Féin, some by the Social Democrats.
They’ve turned the weans against us, it wails.
Power, said Minister Alan Kelly, was a drug that suited him.
The party has never taken the first step on the road to recovery from that destructive high. It has never admitted that it wronged its voters. Until it does, it doesn’t really matter who leads the party. All those people who used to give it their number 1, like me, will just hear the same message.
The Labour Party needs voters more than they need it. But who would support a party that still tells you how wrong you were not to love it for working against you at the hardest time of your life?