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Labour fighting for relevance on a crowded pitch

In a week of unexpected political upheaval, the Labour faithful gather today and tomorrow for the party’s annual party conference.

This is perhaps unlucky timing for the party as attention is very much on the new Fine Gael leader.

However, the conference is an important moment for Labour as it heads into another round of crucial electoral tests.

There are just under eleven weeks to local and European elections meaning the campaign proper will kick in when the Dáil returns after the Easter break and those contests are critically important for a party in dire need of new blood for the general election which will follow some months later.

Labour has still not recovered since its 2016 routing after going into Government with Fine Gael during the austerity years.

So how is Labour doing?

It is in a battle to hold onto its seven Dáil seats and gain new ones but as one person commented, elections are always tough for Labour, there is nothing new about that.

Then there is the perennial threat posed by the Social Democrats which appears to have more momentum behind it right now than Labour does.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáín is running in the Dublin constituency in the European elections

Internally some dismiss the suggestion that the two parties are competing electorally pointing out that realistically there will be very few constituencies where both are seriously contesting for a seat.

Dublin Bay North is one example with sitting TDs Cian O’Callaghan and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

There may not be many others but perhaps the issue is more about the crowded space occupied on the political spectrum by two centre left parties operating in the shadow of Sinn Féin.

Since Dublin Bay South TD Ivana Bacik took over as leader two years ago, there has been no lift for Labour in the polls.

Labour generally sits at around 3-4% in various poll series while the Social Democrats have been pulling slightly ahead.

Labour is challenging in all three European constituencies albeit from its current position of zero MEPs.

In Dublin, Mr Ó Ríordáín is running in what is a bear pit of a constituency.

Conventional wisdom concludes that Sinn Féin should gain a seat given its current showing in the polls, with everyone else competing for the remaining three.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and Independent Clare Daly all currently hold seats but Frances FitzGerald is stepping down with Senator Regina Doherty in the fray.

Labour faces a tough contest in the capital but party insiders point to Mr Ó Ríordáin’s high profile.

In Ireland South, sociologist Niamh Hourigan is running for the party in a contest which may be a bit more open as long-sitting Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune is bowing out.

Ms Hourigan is also said to be eyeing up a run in Limerick city in the general election.

The party also plans to contest Midlands North-West and it will have a contender for the newly elected position of Limerick mayor.

For the local elections, the party currently holds 56 seats. Nearly 100 candidates have been selected with more set to be added.

What Labour needs are good breakthrough candidates who can inject youth into the party as stalwarts like Brendan Howlin and Seán Sherlock step down next time round.

For the general election, the boundary revisions have been digested and while Mr Sherlock clearly lost his base in Mallow, others have benefited.

Cllr John Maher in Cork North-Central will be pushing for the extra seat in the now five-seater while an additional TD for Kildare North could help Cllr Angela Feeney.

Elsewhere the splitting of Dublin Fingal and Tipperary into two three-seat constituencies makes it more difficult for Duncan Smith and Alan Kelly.

In Wexford, Cllr George Lawlor will be hoping to retain the long-held Labour seat.

However, the creation of a new neighbouring constituency means Wexford is losing one TD and in Dublin, Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin are both based in very hotly contested areas.

An issue for the party and other small parties though is a potential framing of the overall election as the Government versus Sinn Féin.

This again leaves Labour fighting hard for relevance on a crowded pitch.

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