The Labour Party holds its annual conference in Galway this weekend, so Insider thought it worthwhile to take a closer look at Galway’s political alternative.
Labour is at an historic high in the city, a probable reason why the conference is being held here, and is now the largest party in Galway city. Indeed it is just one council seat short of the combined total of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Last June’s Local Elections saw the party increase its representation to five, the second consecutive time Labour has been the largest on the Galway City Council.
In the county the party has a notable electoral weakness, particularly in Connemara. Inroads were made in Oranmore and Claregalway however, where it lost out on an historic seat by three votes. Nevertheless, if the party is to have long term ambitions in Galway West, it must focus beyond its city comfort zone.
Creating an identity for itself, separate from its long-time standard bearer Michael D Higgins, is often a struggle. The difference between the ‘Michael D’ vote and the ‘Labour’ vote is a source of debate.
Some pundits saw the Local Election success as the maturing of an independent Labour identity. Higgins has never hidden his Labour badge and this undoubtedly helped the process. However Insider will wait until whenever Michael D exits the scene before pronouncing on the party’s ability to cope without him.
Labour’s success has undoubtedly made it an electoral threat, particularly to Fine Gael which has long held that in order to get two Dáil seats in Galway West, it would have to take out Labour.
Recently, the strategy changed to one of waiting for Michael D to retire. That strategy was undermined during the 2009 elections when Labour again beat Fine Gael in the city.
Many believe the realisation that Labour could continue to prevent their second seat motivated FG to block the party at council level. To do so, FG agreed a mayoral deal with the ‘auld enemy’ Fianna Fáil, despite having vigorously campaigned against them just days previous. Insider believes this political compromise may backfire in the long run.
Despite the obvious setback, Labour has looked comfortable at council level and appears to enjoy the freedom of being independent of a pact. It has allowed able councillors such as Billy Cameron to lead an opposition on issues such as the refuse waiver, tenancy rights, and traffic management, while new councillors like Derek Nolan are skilfully articulating an alternative vision of the city through the development plan, policy committees, and the council budget.
Labour’s expansion though has not come without growing pains. In 2007, the party entered into separation proceedings with Cllr Catherine Connolly that, while largely concealed, were reportedly very unpleasant.
A successful politician with strong electoral support, the party lost an experienced heavy hitter in Cllr Connolly. Media and political speculation about her possible return is frequent. The relationship however has never mended, and Insider understands from Labour sources that the divorce is final and differences are permanently “irreconcilable”.
Cllr Connolly herself certainly appears happier on her own, enjoying her freedom from the party machine and the constraints of working in a team.
The big test for the party will come at the general election, whenever it is held. Speculation is rife about whether Michael D will run or not, and the likely impact that will have on the Galway West race.
Higgins has been quite vague on the topic and perhaps has not yet decided. While party sources seem relaxed about the issue, they are also looking to the future.
Labour’s obvious source of future candidates lies in its councillors, and councillors Cameron and Nolan are regarded as the most electable, each having polled strongly in the locals.
Surprisingly, Cllr Cameron has been sending signals that he is not interested. This would be a major loss to the party, as he is enormously popular in the Galway City Centre ward, and indeed across the city. He is a capable media performer, he would certainly poll well, and would be a great addition to any Labour ticket.
Cllr Nolan is widely tipped as the most likely successor. He has impressed not only with his strong electoral performance, but with his youth, and obvious ability. He is very popular with the membership, being an active Labour member since he was a teenager, including a two year stint as party chairman.
Stubbornly, Cllr Nolan has refused to be drawn on whether he would run, repeating a standard answer on his support for Michael D and the hope that Michael D will continue in representative politics.
Other possible contenders are councillors Tom Costello and Niall McNelis, and to a lesser extent Colette Connolly.
While liked within the Labour party, the external consensus is that none of these three could challenge for a Dáil seat. Councillors Costello and Connolly were both overshadowed by their running mates at the Local Elections, while Cllr McNelis, who ran a good campaign last June, has shown a greater interest in European affairs than national politics.
The party seems confident, perhaps overly so, that it can retain its Dáil seat if Michael D stands down. If there is a threat to Labour, it lies in complacency.
Nationally, Labour has a poor track record of retaining Dáil seats. As it now stands there is a strong prospect of converting the Michael D seat into a Labour seat, but a deterioration in polling numbers over the coming year could put that in jeopardy.
Labour has no choice but to develop in the county. If it fails to do this, it faces the medium term prospect of being unable to elect a Dáil representative. On the positive, if it does it properly, it has the long term potential to realistically challenge for two seats.