Opinion: The Labour Party finds itself at a crossroads where it must reform or perish

By Seán Sherlock TD and Vittorio Bufacchi, UCC

The annual conference of the Labour Party will be held in Dublin’s Ballsbridge Hotel from November 2nd to 4th. With seven TDs and four Senators in the Oireachtas, the party has seen better days. The picture at the local level is not rosier, with the Labour Party represented by just 46 councillors throughout the country. In a democracy, the people are sovereign, which means that voters must never be blamed for the preferences expressed at the ballot box. The Labour Party is cognisant of this, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to regain the trust of the Irish people.

Some political commentators have been over-zealous in their assessment of the predicament the party finds itself in, going as far as contemplating the threat of extinction. This is sweet music to the ears of the many political vultures inhabiting Irish politics today. So let’s be clear: the Labour Party is not dead and it isn’t dying.

After the successful campaign for the Repeal of the 8th Amendment, the Labour Party is seeing a steady resurgence in its membership. Labour Clubs across Irish universities are showing healthy signs that a new generation of political activists believe in the message of social justice the Labour Party has championed, through thick and thin, praise and abuse, for more than a century. 

From RTÉ Archives, Nick Coffey profiles Michael D Higgins for the PM programme after he became chairman of the Labour Party in 1978

But the Labour Party finds itself at a crossroad and complacency would be unforgivable at this delicate moment in its long history. Politics is dynamic and political parties must be willing and able to evolve, adjust, and adapt. To remain inert is to stagnate, a potentially fatal mistake for any political institution.

This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson we can learn from Roman history. Cicero’s beloved Roman Republic collapsed and was replaced by dictatorial governance precisely because too many senior members of the Senate were too arrogant to accept the realities of governing a vast empire, with the new challenges and threats this posed. Lack of flexibility is the antithesis of the art of politics.

The Labour Party is not an exception to this fundamental rule of political life: it must keep up with the times and make changes where and when required. We believe that there are four areas where the Labour Party needs to recalibrate its compass, if it wants to become once again a powerful voice in Irish affairs.

From RTÉ Radio One's This Week, an interview with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin

First, all self-destructive temptations must be checked. The recent hullabaloo about the leadership of Brendan Howlin being challenged has not helped and it reflected badly on the party. What the Labour Party does not need, and cannot afford at the moment, is to waste time and energy, and precious time on airwaves, on speculations about its present leader. The good news for the Labour Party is that the issue has now been settled and Howlin will contest the next general election as the party leader, which is how it should be. What will happen after the election is in the hands of the political gods, i.e. the Irish voters.

The Labour Party must find a way to convince the Irish voters that it has left behind the mistakes made while in government during the years of austerity.

Secondly, the Labour Party desperately needs to go back to basics. With the risk of stating the obvious, the Labour Party is in opposition, and it should act as an opposition party: by holding the current government accountable whenever signs of incompetence and corruption are detected.

On housing, taxation, health care and education policy, this government has put blind trust in market forces and the myth of a trickle-down effect. The truth is that making the rich richer will not help the poor, but it will exacerbate inequality, increasing the already unacceptable gap in Irish society between the haves and the have-nots. The evidence discrediting the fabled trickle-down effect is overwhelming, with Thomas Piketty’s masterly historical analysis, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the latest of a long line of empirical studies on the limits and lies of unbridled capitalism.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, a discussion on the future of the Labour Party with Senator Ged Nash and Cllr Fiona Bonfield

Thirdly, the Labour Party needs to rebuild trust with its historical electoral base. It needs to reopen a conversation with Ireland’s working class. The Labour Party is a broad church, proud of its inclusiveness, always giving a voice to people of all walks of life. But the working class is, and must always be, its beating heart. The Labour Party must find of way of regaining the trust of trade unions, of skilled and unskilled workers, of unemployed men and women.

In his influential book Trust and Trustworthiness, political scientist Russell Hardin argued that trust can be best described as "encapsulated interest". We place our trust in institutions, or persons, whom we believe to have strong reasons to act in our best interests, and who want to maintain a relationship with us. Trustworthiness is built over time, and it may even require that people violate their own self-interest in order to honour commitments they have made to others. The Labour Party needs to reflect on its conduct over the last 10 years and ask itself a difficult question: has it done enough to convince the Irish working-class that it is trustworthy?

If the party wants to reassure voters that a vote for Labour is a vote for inclusion, participation and social justice, it must implement some sweeping changes

Finally, looking at the future, the Labour Party needs to embrace a radical transformation in its core personnel. We are not recommending a complete make-over, but what is required is more than cosmetic changes. The Labour Party must find a way to convince the Irish voters that it has left behind the mistakes made while in government during the years of austerity.

In order to implement this clear break from the past, the Labour Party must change the profile of its representatives. We are not talking about forging a "New Labour", a label that has forever been compromised by the belligerent, centrist policies of Tony Blair in the UK. Nevertheless, if the Labour Party wants to reassure the next generation of voters that a vote for Labour is a vote for inclusion, participation and social justice, it must find the courage to implement some sweeping changes.

"The party needs to encourage, mentor and sponsor a new breed of politician amongst its ranks"

Above all, the party needs to encourage, mentor and sponsor a new breed of politician amongst its ranks. It needs more women, more minorities, more idealists and more visionaries still uncontaminated by the game of politics, more militants attuned with the challenges of global citizenship. In 2017, Hilary Clinton proclaimed that "the future is female". It wasn’t to be for her, or for the many women disappointed to see Brett Kavanaugh elected to the Supreme Court of the United States, but we must hold on to the belief that things can be different, and better, in the future. 

If the Labour Party has the courage of its convictions, and makes the changes we recommend, the fortunes of this party could rapidly change. If not, an interminable period of political isolation and wilderness could be on the horizon.

Dr Vittorio Bufacchi is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at UCC and member of the Labour Party. Seán Sherlock is Labour TD for Cork East and spokesperson on Justice, Children & Youth Affairs.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ