Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin made a whistle-stop visit to Galway last week, during which he sat with the Galway Advertiser and candidly reflected on Labour’s recent electoral travails while looking forward to restoring the party’s fortunes.
My last two interviews with party leaders – Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald - took place against the backdrops of gray and rainy days but Howlin brought bright Wexford sunshine along with him; a possible good omen for Labour’s future prospects he suggested light-heartedly.
Howlin was born into a staunch Labour household in Wexford, where his father was a leading trade unionist and long time director of elections for Brendan Corish. “I grew up to the discussion of politics,” he recalls. “Brendan Corish was a close friend of my father and a frequent visitor to our house. I’m actually called Brendan after him and Brendan Corish’s son John is named after my father. However, I didn’t get really involved in Labour until after college. My first involvement in an issue was to oppose the building of a nuclear power station in Wexford. I helped organize the anti-nuclear festival at Carnsore Point in 1978. We were expecting about 5,000 but over the weekend 40,000 arrived.”
A TD since 1987, Howlin has seen the fortunes of the left fluctuate both here and abroad. He assesses its current status. “Social democracy has shaped modern Europe and those of us of the left would still look to the Nordic countries, like Sweden and Denmark, with their social provision, good health, and education systems, their public housing, as being the models to aspire to," he said, "but it is certainly under threat now in a way I never envisaged it would be. We have illiberal democracy raising its heads in countries like Hungary and Poland, while even in Germany and Austria populist right wing parties are gaining ground. Social democratic parties across Europe must reassert the values that are so important. We need to ensure that contract of constant social progress is renewed and that is what we are trying to do in the Labour Party in Ireland.”
'Jeremy Corbyn has connected to young people in particular who are disillusioned with mainstream politics...If you read the UK Labour manifesto there is nothing in it the Irish Labour Party wouldn’t support. In many ways the policy platform we would put forward would be more radical'
In Ireland, Labour has lost ground in recent years to the likes of Sinn Féin and People Before Profit. “The left is a more crowded space now,” Howlin says. “There are people of the left in Sinn Féin but I don’t regard it as a left party. It is a populist party that will do what is necessary politically for its own advancement – that has been its tradition in Northern Ireland. In terms of some of the shrill voices of the extreme left, there is a significant difference between voices of protest and parties that want to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.
"We in the Labour Party don’t want to be simply commentators of events; we want to solve people’s problems. There is a unique selling point for the Labour party; we are the oldest party in the State, we have been pivotal in setting the social and economic agenda for Ireland for a very long time boxing well above our share of the vote which is usually about 10 per cent. We had vastly more influence than that, if you look at the social agenda the two seminal votes of the last five years have been Labour party-championed issues; marriage equality and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. I think more people will reflect and will want a practical working left party that will make a difference to people’s lives.”
Can Howlin’s Labour draw any lessons from Jeremy Corbyn’s reinvigoration of the UK’s Labour Party? “There certainly are lessons we can learn,” he replies. “I have had many meetings with Jeremy Corbyn and I am looking forward to going to the British Labour Party conference in a couple of weeks’ time. There is no doubt that Corbyn has connected to young people in particular who are disillusioned with mainstream politics and rally to his analysis of Tory-led Britain. If you read the UK Labour manifesto there is nothing in it the Irish Labour Party wouldn’t support. In many ways the policy platform we would put forward would be more radical.”
'Our approach is for a proactive State to be directly involved and not to leave it to market forces to determine what sort of provision we have in this country'
Howlin outlines some of the policies Labour will put before voters at the next election: “After a decade of austerity we now need to invest in public services. So we are opposed to tax cuts. The Government is proposing to give the 19 per cent of tax payers who pay the highest rate about €5 per week back. Is that the most useful thing we can do with tax resources? We say not. We want to invest in public services and we have clear plans to do that.
"The most critical issue that we face is housing and Labour has a comprehensive and radical set of solutions that will be a permanent fix to our housing crisis. It addresses security of rent, rent price fixing, and exploitation of land prices, by legislating for local authorities to acquire land at reasonable value. It commits to building 80,000 social and affordable houses over five years through the deployment of €16 billion and we detail where that money would come from. On healthcare we are committed both to the Slaintecare proposals and free GP care for everyone. Our approach is for a proactive State to be directly involved and not to leave it to market forces to determine what sort of provision we have in this country.”
Labour’s last experience of coalition was far from happy. Howlin acknowledges this and shares his thoughts on how he would approach the prospect in the future. “We were certainly scarred by the electoral results that followed our last participation in government," he says. "We have to be honest with ourselves. The people who normally vote for us have fallen out with us and we need to reconnect with them. Since becoming leader in 2016 I’ve been talking to trade unionists, community organisations, and others who felt let down by some of the things we did in government. We have to explain that we went into government in the worst of times yet did our best to defend public services and get people back to work.
"We do have positives to point to regarding things we achieved, like resisting Fine Gael’s agenda of privatisation. If we go into government again, we must ensure there is a clear Labour voice that is distinctive from the government voice. Last time we allowed the government voice to be the only voice, and we kept some ferocious battles quiet because we did not want to destabilise the economy. We paid a price for that so we have to have a clear Labour voice on every issue next time and a clear Labour red line that if it is not adhered to, we will not participate or support the government."
Recently a number of Labour councillors have publicly voiced their dissatisfaction with Howlin’s leadership and Alan Kelly has been mooted as an alternative leader. Is Howlin’s position secure?
“We all want the Labour Party to succeed,” he states. “None of us are thrilled that our support is at about six per cent in the opinion polls. We want to do better and people have different views about how to achieve that. We’re going to have a very open discussion on these matters over the coming weekend and I believe we will emerge stronger from that. I don’t think there is any scope for internal division because that would only diminish our relevance further. I disagree with the notion that simply changing the leader is transformative.
"I want to have a collective leadership in the party and that means every member of the parliamentary party and every councillor and activist participating and reaching out to their friends, neighbours, and work colleagues to say that Labour is important, and being part of building a strong, democratic, and open party shaped by its members. We have changed the rules so that at the next conference every member gets a vote on every issue which is in contrast to some who are less open about their decision making. I’m confident; I am an optimist by nature, and I wouldn’t have survived this long in politics if I wasn’t an optimist.”
Finally, Howlin looks forward to two Galway Labour figures going to the polls: “Michael D Higgins has been a magnificent president. He has embodied the best of Irishness in terms of our culture and our heritage and has been a remarkable unifier for the country through difficult commemorations. It will be a wonderful thing for Ireland if he is re-elected. We need a Labour TD in Galway west and walking around Galway with Niall McNelis I see he is widely recognised as a doer and a good mayor, and I hope he will be part of the Labour parliamentary team after the next election.”