‘Hostile takeover’ or much ado about nothing? Determining the political legacy of the entry of Democratic Left into the Labour Party 

by Darren Litter

At first glance, the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party are distant political entities. The Labour Party is a “very much a party of the Irish mainstream”[1], whereas the Workers’ Party have tended to operate within the sphere of “Soviet-style” Marxist-Leninism[2]. While there is undoubtedly considerable accuracy to this perception, an oft-ignored overlap in this context is the short-lived Democratic Left party (1992-1998). Formed by “reformist” Workers’ Party activists such as the then Workers’ Party leader Proinsias de Rossa (TD); this democratic socialist ‘breakaway’ movement ultimately merged with Labour in 1998[3]. As opposed to a mere outlier influence, the Democratic Left faction ‘quickly began to occupy the main positions’ within the Labour Party [4]. When Labour won a record 34 seats and entered government in 2011 for instance, two of its five ministers (party leader Eamon Gilmore and the prior party leader Pat Rabbitte) were extraordinarily first elected as Workers’ Party TDs[5].  Building upon the pioneering work of authors like Brian Hanley[6], this blog will probe the extent to which this so-called “reverse takeover”[7] has drawn Labour toward the more pronounced leftist space occupied by the Workers’ Party.

To establish the long-term political significance of the overlooked Labour-Workers’ Party connection, this blog will draw upon the scientific Voter Advice Application #euandi2019 [8]. Developed by European University Institute (Italy)/University of Lucerne (Switzerland) and 28 country-specific research teams, this online tool is centred, fundamentally, upon “helping citizens make an informed choice in the 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections”. Through elucidating party responses to “22 policy statements covering a wide range of contemporary policy issues and policies values” however, #euandi2019 simultaneously provides political scientists with “a rich source of academically valuable data”[9]. Based upon comprehensive engagement with official party documentation and the parties’ nominated policy representatives, this carefully ‘calibrated’ data enables political scientists to both cross-analyse parties and compare their current positions with previous electoral stances. Importantly for this Labour Party/Workers’ Party case study, this is conducted across highly pertinent axis (Left/Right, Pro-EU/Anti-EU)[10].

1988 – Future Labour leaders with their then Workers’ Party leader


Eamon Gilmore (left) and Proinsias de Rossa (right) pictured with the then Workers’ Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla (centre)

Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times

Domestic Level Issues

Taxation, spending, welfare

Source: #euandi2019

Reflecting Brendan Howlin’s (Labour leader) recent revival of the Democratic Left mantra of ‘democratic socialism’[11]; the area of taxation, spending and welfare yielded absolute symmetry between the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party. In the context of the premise of strong public spending and social protection for instance, we find without exception that the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party are ‘completely in agreement’ (see Figures 1-3). In regard to the more nuanced issue of progressively taxing private capital moreover, we again find that both the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party are decisively supportive (see Figure 4). This pronounced leftist positioning brings into question whether the Labour Party can continue to be justifiably viewed as excessively ‘centrist’ on economic issues[12].



Source: #euandi2019

While taxation, spending and welfare were indicative of substantive Labour-Workers’ Party convergence, our findings regarding immigration were much less symmetrical. Although both the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party reject a nativist attitude toward immigration, we see that the strongly ‘workerist’ Workers’ Party is more cautious in its endorsement of the liberal concept of the free, inward movement of people (see Figure 5). In regard to culture and values moreover, we again observe significant differentiation between Labour and the Workers’ Party. In contrast to Labour’s liberal support for the safeguarding of cultural and social diversity (the most pronounced expression of this came during the leadership tenure of former Workers’ Party TD Eamon Gilmore[13]), the Workers’ Party favour a rigid, statist model of secularism (see Figure 6).

Environmental issues

Source: #euandi2019

An explicit goal of Democratic Left was to induce a ‘greening’ of left-wing politics in Ireland [14]. Significantly, environmental issues is an area where we do in fact find clear symmetry between Labour and the Workers’ Party. Denoting the proliferation of green politics within leftism, both Labour and the Workers’ Party are in favour of innovative public strategies for dealing with Ireland’s ‘climate emergency’ (see Figure 7)[15]. Contrasting more liberal centrist parties however, we ultimately find that this support is qualified by a strict preference for capital-based funding models (i.e. corporate taxation, the sale of state shares) (see Figure 8).

Social issues

Source: #euandi2019

During the 1990s, the influence of Labour and the Workers’ Party (Democratic Left in the later context of divorce) was central to watershed developments such as the election of Mary Robinson (1990)[16] and the creation of divorce provision (1995)[17]. Building on this secularist emancipatory tradition, we see from Figure 9 that both the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party are unreservedly supportive of progressive social developments such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Departing somewhat from its ‘workerist’ image however, we surprisingly found that the Workers’ Party does not appear to share Labour’s more progressive attitude toward wider social issues such as the severity of criminal justice (see Figure 10).

European Level Issues

Broad EU support

Source: #euandi2019

Our testing of domestic issues generated significant points of symmetry between the Labour Party and the Workers’ Party. The expansion of this testing to European level issues however generated much more divergent outcomes. Departing radically from its historical opposition both to EU membership (1973)[18] and the subsequent Single European Act (1987)[19], the contemporary Labour Party is avowedly supportive of EU integration (see Figure 11). Significantly, this endorsement also largely extends to the more contested issue of the single currency (Labour policy during the height of ‘Democratic Left influence’ explicitly supported continued Irish membership of the euro[20]).

Reflecting its ‘neoliberal’ conception of the EU, the Workers’ Party is strongly sceptical of both EU integration and the European single currency. Contrasting the anti-EU isolationism of Europe’s far-right however, the evidence we collected from the Workers’ Party denotes that its opposition to the EU is predicated specifically upon the EU’s “current politics”. In this regard, the modern Workers’ Party do not advance resolute opposition to the concept of the EU (see Figures 11-12). This represents a moderate, but significant departure from its historical, ‘Cromwellian’ depiction of the European project [21].

Economic and fiscal policy


Source: #euandi2019

Our testing regarding economic and fiscal policy produced a series of significant outcomes. While Labour’s support for EU level taxation is in keeping with its brand of European social democracy, a more anomalous finding in this regard is the symmetrical position of the Workers’ Party (see Figure 13). Although the Workers’ Party maintains broad opposition to what it perceives to be the ‘neoliberal’ character of the EU; the evidence we collected indicates that it is simultaneously ‘open’ to forms of taxation competence that would address progressive concerns (i.e. taxation of multinational corporations). This newfound pragmatism represents a marked change in the relative absolutism that previously characterized the Workers’ Party’s attitude toward ‘more Europe’[22].

The Workers’ Party categorically rejects the concept of rigorous enforcement of EU deficit rules. Indeed, it is the view of the Workers’ Party that capital spending should be underpinned by full domestic autonomy [23]. While its strongly pro-EU outlook would suggest a more cautious approach, we found that Labour actually shares this resolute opposition to austere ‘fiscal discipline’. As evidenced in the Workers’ Party context, Labour advances the position that national governments should be permitted to engage in “necessary” capital investment (see Figure 14). Reflecting public concerns regarding the homelessness crisis, the key theme in this regard is the strengthening of public housing provision [24].

Foreign and security policy

Source: #euandi2019

Departing radically from its amenability toward EU level taxation justice, the Workers’ Party exhibits consistent, categorical rejection of deepening EU foreign and security capacity. This is predicated upon the Worker’s Party radical contention that the EU is an “imperialist economic, political and military bloc” [25]. While Ireland’s neutrality is increasingly subject to political scrutiny, we find that the Labour Party in fact strongly shares the Workers’ Party’s opposition to EU militarization[26] (see Figure 15). However – in contrast to the absolutism of the Workers’ Party – Labour maintains a favourable attitude toward the concept of a more united, diplomatic Europe (see Figure 16).

Moving beyond observation – what the #euandi2019 algorithm says

Source: #euandi2019

Source: #euandi2019

Source: #euandi2019

When former key Workers’ Party players entered the Labour Party, there was concern within Labour that radical leftism would gradually take hold of the party[27]. This was internally conceptualized at the time in terms of a sustained ‘Trojan Horse’ effect. Normatively speaking, certain aspects of Labour and Workers’ Party policy are indicative of the kind of symmetry that sceptics of the Labour-Democratic Left merger feared. As Figure 19 illustrates, this is especially applicable in the context of conventional left-right issues. When we input both party’s positions into the scientific #euandi2019 algorithm however, we in fact find that Labour and the Workers’ Party adhere to substantively different varieties of leftism. Labour is most at home with the pro-European centre-leftism of the Green Party (81% convergence), whereas the Workers’ Party are more akin in nature to the Eurocritical, leftism of Sinn Féin (83% convergence) (remarkably, the latter parties bitterly split from one and other in 1969 over profound differences in political ideology). This is further encapsulated by the way in which both Labour and the Workers’ Party are consistently separated by at least two other parties of the left (see Figures 17-18). As opposed to validating the reverse takeover hypothesis therefore, the findings of #euandi2019 validates the contention that the ultimate legacy of the Labour-Democratic Left merger is one of assimilation into centre-leftism[28].


Darren Litter is currently completing an MEconSc in European Public Affairs & Law. He is a student affiliate of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the Dublin European Institute and was a student researcher in the #euandi2019 Ireland team. Following completion of his MEconSc programme, Darren will be returning to Belfast to commence a PhD studentship in Politics.

[1] Benoit, K. & Laver, M. (2002). Estimating Irish party policy positions using computer wordscoring: the 2002 election – a research note. [Online]
Available at: https://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/wordscores/papers/Ireland2002_4.pdf
[Accessed 2 May 2019].

[2] Dunphy, R. (1998). ‘A group of individuals trying to do their best’: The dilemmas of democratic left. Irish Political Studies, 13(1), pp. 50-75.

[3] Coakley, J. (2010). The Rise and Fall of Minor Parties in Ireland. Irish Political Studies, 25(4), pp. 503-538.

[4] Breathnach, P. (2014). Lessons from the demise of Democratic Left and its aftermath. [Online]

Available at: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sites/default/files/assets/document/Breathnach_Lessons_from_the_demise_of_Democratic_Left_vPPS.pdf

[Accessed 2 May 2019].

[5] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/eamon-gilmore-workers-party-councillor-from-galway-who-went-on-to-lead-labour-1.1810019.

[6] Hanley, B. (2011). Reviewed Work(s): Democratic Left: the life and death of an Irish political party by Kevin Rafter. Irish Historical Studies, 37(148), pp. 663-665.

[7] McDaid, S. & Rekawek, K. (2010). From Mainstream to Minor and Back: The Irish Labour Party, 1987–1992. Irish Political Studies, 25(4), pp. 625-642.

[8] https://euandi2019.eu/PT/default/EN/pages/about

[9] Cross, J. (2014). euandi – A voter advice application for the forthcoming European elections. [Online]
Available at: https://europedebate.ie/euandi-voter-advice-application-forthcoming-european-elections/
[Accessed 16 March 2019].

[10] https://euandi2019.eu/survey/IE/default/default#results/xy/767290AA102533E5D07CA6260A6671D51C9D467DDD4CD194906E0BDA8106331D

[11] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/brendan-howlin-ireland-needs-a-new-democratic-programme-1.3768208

[12] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/the-irish-times-view-on-the-labour-party-s-fortunes-an-uncertain-future-1.3605643

[13] https://www.labour.ie/download/pdf/euro_manifesto_211_draft_1.pdf

[14] Dunphy, R. (1998). ‘A group of individuals trying to do their best’: The dilemmas of democratic left. Irish Political Studies, 13(1), pp. 50-75.

[15] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48221080

[16] https://www.independent.ie/life/flashback-1990-mary-robinsons-election-as-president-34169915.html

[17] Breathnach, P. (2014). Lessons from the demise of Democratic Left and its aftermath. [Online]

Available at: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sites/default/files/assets/document/Breathnach_Lessons_from_the_demise_of_Democratic_Left_vPPS.pdf

[Accessed 2 May 2019].

[18] https://www.rte.ie/archives/2017/0427/870769-ireland-says-yes-to-europe/

[19] https://irishelectionliterature.com/2012/08/05/towards-1992-labours-agenda-for-ireland-a-pamphlet-from-the-labour-party-reagrding-the-single-european-act-1987/

[20] https://www.labour.ie/download/pdf/final_european_manifesto_v7.pdf

[21] https://irishelectionliterature.com/2016/07/28/mansholt-the-second-cromwell-1971-official-sinn-fein-anti-eec-pamphlet/

[22] http://workersparty.ie/statement-by-workers-party-president-on-eve-of-eu-referendum/

[23] http://workersparty.ie/clare-daly-td-endorses-cllr-eilis-ryan-for-european-elections-in-dublin-in-may/

[24] https://www.labour.ie/download/pdf//labour_irelands_standing_up_for_a_social_europe_hr.pdf

[25] http://workersparty.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Workers-Party-submission-to-review-of-Irelands-foreign-policy-and-external-relations-2014.pdf

[26] https://www.labour.ie/news/2017/10/25/post-eu-council-statement-by-brendan-howlin/

[27] Hanley, B. (2011). Reviewed Work(s): Democratic Left: the life and death of an Irish political party by Kevin Rafter. Irish Historical Studies, 37(148), pp. 663-665.

[28] Breathnach, P. (2014). Lessons from the demise of Democratic Left and its aftermath. [Online]

Available at: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sites/default/files/assets/document/Breathnach_Lessons_from_the_demise_of_Democratic_Left_vPPS.pdf

[Accessed 2 May 2019].

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