While the legendary Jack McQuillan polled over 12% of the vote in Roscommon when running for Labour in the 1965 General Election, the party has never made an electoral breakthrough here (McQuillan was elected on many occasions when not running for Labour).
The famous party of James Connolly has participated in government many times – and done the State some service – but never with a Roscommon hue.
As to largely timid local Labour forays of more recent memory, John Kelly’s decision to run in their colours in 2011 was an ill-fated one; if anything, it restricted the personable Ballintubber man. He polled 4,455 number ones, a vote share of 9.38%. It was almost identical to the impact he’d made as an Independent four years earlier.
By 2016, still with Labour, Kelly was further squeezed, polling a disastrous 1,211 number ones (2.65% vote share). Again, this had much more to do with a Labour label that had no traction in Roscommon than with Kelly’s own appeal. With the benefit of hindsight, Kelly would have been better off staying as an Independent, although he did serve for a term as a Labour Senator.
Long after McQuillan, and some time before Kelly’s flirtation with Labour, Hugh Baxter – passionate, articulate and with lots of potential – was arguably the right man in the wrong place.
I mention all of this in the context of Alan Kelly’s surprise resignation as Labour leader last week. For a man with ‘AK-47’ as a nickname, the wonder is that when a ‘gang of three’ called to tell him his number was up, he didn’t send them packing.
One would have expected Kelly to put his internal critics in their place, especially given that he hasn’t even had an opportunity to lead Labour into a full-scale election yet. Instead, for some reason, he offered no resistance.
While Kelly was unpopular outside his Tipperary base, I admired his straight-talking style. However, he was a loose cannon with a lack of diplomacy and realpolitik. That direct style wasn’t getting Labour far under his leadership. Ivana Bacik’s success in the Dublin Bay South by-election last year was not followed by any bounce of note in national opinion polls.
Labour is still being ‘punished’ by the electorate over its time in government. Kelly’s own ministerial record (the perception of it at least) is a big part of that. The party has increasingly become less relevant, squeezed by Sinn Féin and others on the left.
The task facing the next leader of the Labour Party is a big one. Before they can even dream of any return to ‘glory days’ they need to try and make the party relevant – not to mention heard – again.