Almost a year after Ivana Bacik's election as leader, Labour is in disarray

Published date18 March 2023
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
Party figures have been heard in Leinster House loudly decrying what they see as overly favourable media coverage of Cairns' ascent to the leadership of the Social Democrats

It's not just in the Dáil bar that such grievances are being aired. Locally and nationally, there is a growing fear in Labour that a Social Democrats' success story could be another nail in the coffin of the party founded by James Connolly more than 110 years ago.

One poll showed Social Democrats' support doubling in the days after Cairns's election. Such "bounces" often happen for new leaders, and they can fade just as quickly, but it has completely evaded Ivana Bacik, who became Labour Party leader a year ago next week.

Inside Labour, strategists scoffed at this poll and the coverage of it, labelling it over-the-top and bizarre: "Holly for Taoiseach? That is mad," one said.

But the real, underlying issue is not media coverage, or polls. Instead, it is that the Social Democrats now undercut Labour's entire strategy to win back support from voters who abandoned the party after the economic crash.

Bacik's big pitch was that there was another choice beyond the "conservative forces" of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand, and populist Sinn Féin on the other. There was, she said, a "hunger" for a positive change somewhere on the centre-left. That was the space for Labour – but that space looks pretty crowded now.

One well-known Labour figure said the Social Democrats could leave Labour candidates marooned if it edges ahead and captures 6 to 7 per cent of the vote, while another privately warns that Labour would have just two TDs if an election was held now.

Branding issue

Yet Holly Cairns is very far from Labour's biggest problem, and a long-term Soc Dems surge is by no means certain. The fact is, Labour has much bigger issues closer to home.

The party will gather next weekend in Cork for the party's annual conference. Most will put a brave face on it but multiple sources have told The Irish Times that under the surface, the mood in the camp right now is dire. More than 15 people – from parliamentarians to party officials – contributed to this article.

"There is a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of motivation. It is all a bit deadpan. There is no angst, no anger, many party members are just not expecting too much out of Ivana's leadership, out of the next local elections, or the next general election," said one source.

Members who spoke off the record were far more frank in their criticisms, while others are clearly still smarting from previous media coverage of their woes. There have been personality clashes, too, among TDs, although the ones in question are loath to admit it publicly

"We have never really recovered from the last time we were in Government. We have a major branding issue. The party brand is pretty dreadful. And...

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