FERGUS FINLAY: Howlin may well have planted the first seeds of Labour’s recovery

ALWAYS watch party leaders’ speeches, with a bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s the memories that cause it.

In my Labour days it used to be my job to draft the speech that the party leader would give to his conference in the live television slot. I’ve done loads of them in my time, and I often think I’d be 10 years younger, and have a full head of hair, if I hadn’t.

Of course, you have to try to draft a creditable speech that deals with the issues of the day — and also one that deals with the circumstances the leader is in. If the leader is wildly popular, the drafting is much easier. If his back is to the wall, sleepless nights are involved, because there’s a huge premium on getting the speech right. And there’s nearly always a need to get something on the record — and it’s usually something that shouldn’t be adlibbed.

In the end of the day, of course, it’s the leader who takes responsibility for the speech. He or she makes the speech their own before it’s delivered. If it endears them to the masses and gets a good media reaction, the leader and the speechwriter have earned their pay.

When the speech is on live television, there are enormous added complications. If you’re given a half hour by the broadcaster, you get a half hour. Not 31 or 32 minutes. If the leader runs over, they reserve the right to go off air when he or she is in mid-sentence. Which means if the leader goes on too long, there is no possibility of the television audience getting any sense of the enthusiasm in the hall.

Then there’s the set, the lighting, the heat on stage, and the dreaded autocue. Nowadays party leaders are more used to using autocue, but back in the day it was a monster, to be feared. It’s supposed to make it easier, because the script is projected on three screens in front of you, but in its early days politicians were simply terrified of it.

If you glance from one screen to the other as you read aloud, it looks for all the world on television as if you’re talking naturally to different sections of the audience. But if you’re glaring at one screen and unable to move your head, with your hands looking like clenched fists stuck to the lectern in front of you, it just looks as if you’re mad with the whole world (or just a bit).

Brendan Howlin dispensed with all that on Saturday night for his leader’s address to the Labour Party conference. If I’d been advising him in advance (I wasn’t) I’d have been fainting with anxiety. A live television audience, and here he was — no lectern, no script, no autocue, no stopwatch, no props. Just some ideas that he wanted to share with his own people, and with us who chose to watch on television, while he strolled around a large stage.

It was a disaster waiting to happen. Except it wasn’t. It was the best speech I’ve ever heard Brendan Howlin make, and one of the best I’ve seen from any party leader in recent times

Relaxed, honest, thoughtful, and full of no-nonsense ideas. He didn’t go for cheap laughs, or cheap applause, by having a go at anyone else. He simply laid out his party’s stall, clearly and directly.

Here’s the thing. There can be little doubt that going into this conference, Brendan Howlin needed to put the best of himself on show. If he had screwed up at conference (like, remember, the way Theresa May did a year ago at her conference) the papers today would have been full of speculation about his imminent political demise.

But they’re not. He’s been through a rough patch and no-one would have been surprised to see a tetchy, make-my-day version of Brendan Howlin on display. Instead, there was warmth, humour and common sense, and none of the big words and flowery language that you often hear when he’s speaking in public.

More to the point perhaps, Brendan Howlin may well have planted the first seeds of Labour’s recovery in the course of his speech, by calling on his own party’s voters to transfer their preferences to what he called other progressives in the next general election, notably to the Greens and to the Social Democrats.

He knows — everyone knows — that Ireland’s oldest political party is facing a long road back to good political health. The party has been voted out of office before, usually after a torrid time in government. But it has never been surrounded by so many threats in opposition as it is now. There are many on the hard left in Ireland whose lives and political activities revolve around a visceral hatred for Labour. And then there is Sinn Féin, who have an awful lot of the seats that Labour lost, and have no intention of giving them back. At the moment Labour and Sinn Féin are in what might be a life-and-death battle for the hearts and minds of the same section of the electorate, and right now Labour is hugely out-gunned in that battle.

So it makes sense for Labour to figure out who its potential allies are. Whatever about personality, there is no doubt that the Green Party, the Social Democrats and Labour have much more in common than divides them. It makes sense that they should be talking to each other, and that they should be more friends than enemies.

It will, I suspect, be really important to the other two that Labour isn’t just playing games here. Some will suspect that if the numbers work out that way after the next election, Labour would be only too willing to go back into government with Leo Varadkar or even Micheál Martin. If any kind of dialogue starts on what one might call the progressive left, I suspect it will have to be underpinned by a cast-iron commitment that nobody in the progressive alliance goes into government on their own.

But there is a strong, undeniable argue for a progressive alliance in Ireland. The parties that could be involved in its make-up all believe in a major role for the state in housing, in much better public services as a trade-off for tax cuts, in more liberal social policies, and in the environment. It would take a lot less time, I’m guessing, to write a progressive alliance manifesto than to agree on who should be its leader.

That’s where generosity will be required. The Social Democrats have resolved their internal
problem, at least for the present, by having both of its TDs as joint leaders. If they double their seats in the next election, that approach may not hold.

By making the announcement he made in his speech — that Labour would unilaterally and without looking for anything in return ask its voters to support other progressive candidates — Howlin showed the generosity necessary to get a dialogue going on the democratic left. And who knows — maybe even the beginning of a real political alternative.


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