April 24, 2017, 12:03 a.m.
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Perhaps the thinking within the Labour Party is that the public needs to first know what it is rather than what it wants to do.
The keynote speech by Brendan Howlin at the weekend’s party conference in his hometown of Wexford offered a broad sweep of viewpoints and positions but little by way of new policy.
The only two specific pledges were a promise to spend €3 billion the Government wants to set aside for a rainy day fund on infrastructural projects and to ban microbeads.
The biggest cheer from the hall was for Howlin reaffirming the party’s commitment to repealing the Eighth Amendment, a subject that is comfortable Labour territory.
As always with Howlin, the speech was well delivered, and served as a pick-me-up to the 500 or so in the hall of White’s Hotel; those who now seek to rebuild Labour from its current parlous state.
The mood among the delegates was one of resilience, even if there is still hurt about the party’s performance in last year’s general election and its most recent experience in government. Howlin gave a nod to this in his televised speech.
“During our time in government we made mistakes. I know that. We all know that. We also achieved a lot.That we got little recognition for that is simply the hard truth of politics.
“The people make the ultimate decision. And they decided we didn’t do well enough. The challenge now for Labour is not to fight the last election again. But to listen to the people, and to prepare for the election of tomorrow.”
That preparation has begun in practical terms for Labour, with candidate selection ongoing. Senior party figures said privately over the weekend that the emphasis now must be on projecting the values of the party, such as workers’ rights, rather than specific policy development.
Yet there is still a wounded confusion about the way forward. Labour has always prided itself as being the party of the left prepared to enter government and gets its hands dirty while others preferred the purity of opposition.
Jack O’Connor, the new party chairman, spoke of the extra protections for workers the party managed to achieve while in coalition with Fine Gael as an example of what can be achieved in office.
But, against that, Longford-Westmeath TD Willie Penrose said Labour should not go back into coalition for another 15 years, and numerous delegates said another spell in government should only be considered if the party is strong enough to exert real influence.
It is hard to see how Labour can repeat or surpass its 2011 result, when it was returned with 37 seats, but was thereafter hugely damaged by its term in government, dropping to its current level of seven seats at last year’s election.
Any hope a return to the sunny uplands will soon be at hand is hard to find. One TD privately said the best that can be hoped for at the next election is the “status quo”; that Labour returns with its seven seats before working towards more progress at the following contest.
The party does, however, have aspirations to make gains in constituencies such as Louth and Dublin Bay North, where Ged Nash and Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin are hoping to regain their Dáil seats, and in Dublin South Central, where Rebecca Moynihan will be the candidate.
Most in Wexford accepted that the Labour recovery will be a long and hard journey, and Howlin had cast the conference as the second stage in that process. The first year was about introspection, and Howlin said the party was now ready to face outwards.
He can only hope that the values he wants the party to project will be enough to ensure its survival.