The break-up couldn’t have been more decisive, and time has since moved on. But Labour, it seems, can’t get over the Irish electorate. Like Jennifer Aniston’s reported delight that her former husband Brad Pitt had belatedly realised his big mistake in leaving her, Labour dreams of the day that it can remark with satisfaction: “That’s karma for you!”
As he arrived for his party’s think-in last Thursday evening, the Labour leader Brendan Howlin betrayed a mindset in his party that hasn’t been altered by the message delivered by the electorate in February: we did nothing wrong, the voters were ungrateful, and soon they will realise how lucky they were to have had us.
“A lot of people weren’t listening to us, they had made up their minds,” he told reporters. “I did thousands of doors, and there was almost a view formed by people that ‘you had let us down, you broke your promise and let us down’ without crystallising what it was.”
Voters were “hurt” as a result of the economic adjustment he acknowledged. But their blame was misplaced, and Labour was “wounded”. He went on to repeat a hyperbolic mantra that was used before the election: “In 2011 we were handed an economy that had hit an iceberg and we steered it back to safety.”
Labour, of course, needs to stand over what it did in government. But the constant and sometimes over-stated insistence that it saved the country wasn’t enough to save itself when it came to the casting of ballots. And sticking to that tried and failed message sure as hell is not going to save the party now.
It’s clear that Labour still sees itself as the victim in its fallout with the Irish public. As any dumped celebrity might tell them, now is the time to put on their best face, a breezy smile and, whatever they’re feeling inside, don’t let their bitterness – or worse still, desperation – show.
There is, of course, a far more fitting and obvious example for Howlin to follow as he embarks on the process of fixing Labour’s broken relationship with the Irish electorate. And it was on display at another think-in last week, where a different party leader’s biggest worry was how to hide his swagger. Micheál Martin was enjoying the meeting of his party that had doubled its number of TDs since the same event last year.
Howlin said on RTE’s Morning Ireland last Friday that Martin had advised him to ignore polls. But there are some words of advice he might have imparted, which were important to Fianna Fáil’s renewal: purge the past, park your pride, patience and most importantly, serve your penance.
After Fianna Fáil’s electoral near-wipeout in 2011, Martin and his strategists went meticulously about disassociating the party from its own past. This required a ruthless purging of personnel – shoving older representatives aside to make way for newer, younger faces, particularly in the Seanad. It also required repackaging itself as a whole new political product that made little reference to what it once was.
This task is somewhat harder for Labour, which is starting the renewal process from a smaller base and with a much older parliamentary party. Its Seanad seats have been won by former TDs who got close to being elected, are good media performers and have a reasonable chance of getting in next time round, like Kevin Humphreys.
Unlike Fianna Fáil, which used the 2014 local elections to blood new candidates, Labour might not get the chance of doing this before the general election comes about. But it still needs to put fresh faces forward.
As important as the newness of its personnel will be the freshness of its message.
While it needs to be loyal to the core values of its past, Labour has to do so in a forward looking manner. Howlin’s speech last Thursday night contained references to the party’s “proud tradition” and what it has championed “for the past 40 years.” But he needs to clearly set out how this translates to the Irish voter of today. Instead, he is focusing too much on the part of Labour’s history that he should be willing the Irish electorate to forget. At least half of his think-in speech was a reflection on Labour’s achievements in coalition, and why it was never sufficiently thanked.
It blamed everyone but Labour. The party, Howlin said, “could have gone on to tackle the challenge of rebuilding a fair society after the crash. But, frankly, many Irish people stopped listening to Labour”. He blamed Sinn Féin and the “anarchists” and “cynics” who “play politics with people’s lives” and would bring about an “economic implosion”. He blamed “modern news reporting”, which “can be a dangerous animal”. He even blamed the work of government itself, which “is messy and distracting and stopped us being clear about some of the things we were achieving”.
There was just one sentence that dealt with the crux of why the electorate lost faith in Labour. Howlin noted, almost as an afterthought, that “partly, also, we made some particularly high promises. And we didn’t always deliver”.
Here is where it needs to learn the Fianna Fáil lesson of penance. The apology – delivered at the first Fianna Fáil ard fheis after the 2011 wipeout – was crucial in allowing Martin to move on and get on with the job of rebuilding. More importantly, he was careful to put any defence of the past on hold. Fianna Fáil sat back and took its kicking, and let the electorate get it out of its system well in time for the 2016 election.
A bit of humility will not come easily to Labour, particularly when the leader’s delivery can come across as pompous, and when we are talking about TDs like Alan Kelly. Labour will sincerely feel that it has nothing to apologise for. “If Fianna Fáil’s sin was destroying the country, our sin is recovering it. It is a lesser sin,” Howlin said.
But the electorate is not going to withdraw its blame at this point. So there is no point arguing the merits of whether it was fairly apportioned. In fact, it could be argued that the electorate never fully came round to “forgiving” Fianna Fáil and is believing it to be less blameworthy. A large portion just decided to move on from the past and vote on the future.
Whatever about their respective recent pasts, Fianna Fáil are the great pragmatists of Irish politics while Labour have been the more passionate. Both are proven survivors.
Now Labour needs to put its hard feelings aside and move on.
Mary Regan is political editor of UTV Ireland