Alone on left, Labour understands that social progress and economic success go hand in hand – 8pm embargo
Speaking at the Tom Johnson Summer School, Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin
Embargo – 8pm Saturday 11 June
It’s an honour to be here again at the Tom Johnson Summer School – my first opportunity as Leader of the Labour Party to address this event. Since my election as Leader, I have been speaking about the immutable values that the Labour Party represents.
I have spoken about the need to focus in an unrelenting fashion, on improving the lot of those at work and to secure work for those who do not have it. I have spoken about the need to continue our role as Ireland’s liberal party. The party that legislated for contraception, decriminalisation of homosexuality, the x case, and of course marriage equality must remain the party that will fight for repeal of the eighth amendment. Let’s be honest – nobody else will.
And we remain the party of equality – the party that realises that birth and environment impact on life opportunities and that those things matter.
Work and employment is the critical rung on the ladder. Unemployment is the enemy of equality. That’s what makes Labour values different. Different from the conservative right, of course. Different too from those that purport to be of the left.
Socialism for us has always been a philosophy of liberation. The coming together of people, in political parties, in trade unions, to better their lives. To provide more opportunities for their children than they enjoyed themselves. In a word, progress.
We know well that the children of working people are every bit as smart of those who enjoy greater affluence. For us socialism has got to be about opportunity. And ambition. Opportunity for people to better themselves.
For some socialism is merely a creed of protest and opposition. Those have their place. But for us it is more than that. And the state has been the critical agency in delivering that progress.
And progress there has been. In the past 100 years life expectancy for the average woman or man has increased by twenty five years. Universal healthcare, social welfare, increased participation in education have all played their part. And in this country Labour has been their champion.
But alone on the left Labour realises the link between social progress and economic success. In our last two periods in office we have left the economy and the public finances in better condition than we found them. Who else can say that?
We know that economic success creates opportunities so we advocate that the state works with business to create those opportunities.
We know too that the state can’t do everything – the hard left proved that over the last hundred years. And we realise too that the contract with the state is a two way street. We have rights and we have responsibilities.
One thing the right and the hard left have in common is their antipathy to the state as a force for good. You’d expect more from the Left. Had the state fallen into their hands five years ago they’d have destroyed it. Rendered it impotent and bankrupt. Of no use to anybody. Of no use to those who depend on the state for their salaries, their pensions and their disability supports.
From Sinn Fein to the AAA, every flight of fancy, every illusion, every dream was to be followed rather than confronting the reality that we, as a society, were in peril. Politics without consequences is their world.
And their animus to us is driven by our refusal to accede to their world of black and white, good and bad. It’s their arrogance that gets me. If things were as simple as they pretend don’t they think somebody else would have done it already?
So while they talk, Labour will do the hard yards. When given the opportunity to rally behind greater rights for workers two weeks ago, trotskyists decided instead to attack the Labour Party.
When Fine Gael proposed their South Dublin inheritance tax giveaway, Richard Boyd Barrett decided to support them, instead of arguing for this money to be invested in public services.
The problem with groups like these is that they share Fine Gael’s approach, just from a different perspective.
Instead of seeking to encourage ambition and aspiration, they see grinding poverty as a political opportunity. They thrive in other people’s misery. Instead of working to implement solutions that would tackle inequality, they are content to keep people in poverty, knowing that poverty builds anger, and that anger is their only vehicle for political advancement. And fundamentally they see the state as an oppressor. An entity to be undermined and destroyed.
Comrades there is a difference between us and them. A difference to be proud of. The Labour Party stands opposed to both of these trains of thought, because the Labour Party believes we must be ambitious for Ireland, and ambitious for the people of Ireland.
Maturity We believe that people benefit from opportunities to work. And not just financially – work provides people with dignity and purpose. We believe not only in making sure that people have jobs, but that they have good jobs. Jobs with decent pay, decent working conditions, and decent opportunities for promotion and self-development.
Because we believe that there is nothing wrong with ambition and aspiration. Nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself. And certainly nothing wrong with wanting to create a better future for your family.
In Government, we increased the minimum wage, twice. In the process putting €3,000 a year extra into a full-time workers’ pocket.
We legislated for collective bargaining and for the restoration of JLCs so that people can organise in the workplace, and fight for better pay and conditions for themselves.
We began the work of building whole new categories of apprenticeships, so that college is not the only vehicle to build a secure and sustainable career. And when times were hard we sought to protect the gains of the past and to return the state to a position when we could take forward the positive agenda once more.
The irony is that the real debate about the future direction of Irish society over the last five years was taking place within the Government. The opposition resorted to little more than naked populism. No more so than on water.
We now have the worst of all worlds. Facing a protracted battle with the European Commission. Without a model to resolve one of our greatest infrastructural challenges of the next few decades. And with more than half the population who paid the charges angry and resentful at being targeted for obeying the law.
But this chaos is not unique. Ireland now finds herself governed by a coalition of chaos. Ministers tell newspapers they are thinking of voting against their own Government. Irish politics favourite charlatan, Shane Ross, drags every disagreement he has with the Taoiseach into the media. And Cabinet Ministers decide to ditch programme for Government commitments just weeks after the publication of those commitments.
This coalition is unstable, and it is conservative. When they are right, we will support them. But when they are wrong, we will oppose them vigorously.
When the programme for Government decided to ignore workers’ rights, we decided we would oppose this approach. We built a coalition within Leinster House and outside, and we beat the Government. In achieving that, we relied on the work of our TDs and Senators. We relied on members of trade unions and party activists to help build a coalition of support for our motion.
And of course we relied on the unswerving determination of groups like Clery’s workers, or the Tesco workers, to be honoured here tonight – who kept public attention on corporate attacks on working conditions and the dangers of vulture capitalism.
With this coalition standing alongside us, we beat the Government. And when we need to, we will do so again. We didn’t rescue this economy and this state to see the opportunities born of our success wasted.
While attending a Labour Youth organised event, I also want to pay tribute to the work you have done over recent years in this area.
Labour Youth is no talking shop. No debating club. Members of Labour Youth are the type of people who not only identify problems – the easy bit – but also propose solutions and then work to get those solutions implemented. I hope our achievement last week made you proud. And that it inspires you to go on and fight for more.
On the day I was elected Leader I said that democracy faced a challenge. And while it may manifest on either the Left or the Right, it is born of the same problem. Many do not believe that their lives will get easier. They do not believe that their children will enjoy better lives than they did. But we have the resources now. This year the state’s books will balance. Our debt will fall below the European average. Economic growth will exceed that of our European neighbours.
But the public will not understand if our new capacity is not used to improve our public services and their lives. I fear many economists have lost sight of this truth. The economy is the lives of working people not some depersonalised entity. An economy is not overheating with 8% unemployment and massive social challenges.
Mario Draghi has done his bit. He is more Labour’s way than Trichet! Now Europe needs to take up the challenge. It has laboured too long either in or on the brink of recession. It is time to facilitate greater investment across the continent. It is time to rescue Europe from its sloth. It is time to rescue Europe from the political extremes that use this sloth to their advantage. It is time to face the future with purpose.
Of course we must be prudent. Of course we must be sensible. Nobody knows that more than we. But the challenge we face now is not the challenge we faced eight years ago.
From Donald Trump to Gerry Adams. From Boris Johnson to Paul Murphy.
They all trade on cynicism.
And cynicism is the enemy of working people worldwide.
And we will defeat the cynics!