Labour remains best vehicle to deliver a better society-Brendan Howlin

22 July 2016

When Susan O’Keeffe asked me to read a Yeats poem in public for Yeats 2015 last year (the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth), I picked Easter 1916.

The line that stands out for me is “too long a sacrifice can make stone of the heart”.

Our theme today comes from a different line in that poem.

But it is the heardening heart line that strikes me as most apt for today’s politics.

Too long a sacrifice has been endured by our people for the past eight years.

And it has hardened hearts.

It has turned aspiration to apprehension; hope and ambition to fear and frustration.

I worry about the cynicism that has fed off that sacrifice.

I worry too about the independents elected to high office, unwilling to accept the collective cabinet responsibility outlined in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

I worry about the growth in support for politicians whose platform is that they refuse to be bound by our laws.

It is perhaps too soon to warn that ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’, and ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

But we certainly find a resonance in The Second Coming’s warning that ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

Most of all, I worry about what the erosion of responsible politics at the hands of these passionate anarchists will mean for those who are the most marginalised.

For it is those struggling with poverty and disadvantage who depend the most on a viable, properly functioning state.

Reading over these poems again, it is easy to get caught up in such worries.

Easy to look around and ask ‘was it for this the wild geese spread the grey wing on every tide’?

But it is more important to remember that there is always a choice between chaos and a bright new dawn.

I believe that we must always seek to turn ourselves towards the bright new dawn.

Just a couple of months ago, that was a difficult challenge for those of us in the Labour Party.

We worked hard in Government for five years.

We believed then, and still believe now, that we did a lot of good during that time.

We raised the minimum wage in a meaningful way, twice.

We oversaw a reduction in the unemployment rate from 15.1% to under 8%, with more than 140,000 jobs created.

Literacy and numeracy levels in our schools improved for the first time in a generation.

Equal access to same-sex marriage became a reality.

Most importantly, the days of real concern about the future viability of our nation have receded into memory.

Our contribution will be judged by history, and I think any fair assessment will conclude that we left the country in a better place than we found it.

We knew then, and perhaps we know even better now, that we also made mistakes along the way.

And that we must show humility in recognising those mistakes;

And work to rebuild the trust of those who support us.

Whatever our achievements or errors, the Irish people delivered their verdict earlier this year.

It was a bitter pill for my party to swallow.

Many colleagues – many good, honourable and passionate public servants – were cast aside.

Many in the media wondered if there was any future for the party.

But as we have done for 104 years, we paused, we reflected, and we picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves down.

We did so knowing that we share a belief in a better society.

And a belief that the Labour Party was, and remains, the best vehicle to deliver that better society.

Since my election as leader of my party, I have been reflecting on how we take the immutable values of the Labour Party, and refresh our thinking for the challenges that Ireland now faces.

We have always been a social-democratic party in the mainstream European tradition.

But social-democracy itself is experiencing a slump across Europe.

Challenged by populist, nationalist and cynical forces.

Losing support to groups that proclaim themselves to be of the left.

But whose electoral success depends on maintaining poverty and anger, not alleviating them.

The British Labour Party is riven by torment and factions.

We were established more than a century ago, like our British comrades, to advance the cause of working people in parliament. 

We do not believe that to serve in elected office renders us part of the elite or the establishment.  

Rather we believe refusal to do so renders us servile. 

There is nothing the establishment likes more than left-wing parties that confine their energies to campaigning and run scared of governing.

Winning elections matters. 

So as we seek to rebuild the Labour Party, we need to be bold.

There is no template for social-democratic success in any neighbouring country that we can simply appropriate.

Never was that more true than now.

We must build our own template – one rooted in the values that have always inspired the Labour movement.

The core of what the Labour Party believes is relatively straight forward.

The Irish economy exists to meet the needs of our people.

Our economy should be organised so that effort is rewarded, and all people have the chance to develop to their full potential.

We need both the state and private enterprise to deliver this ambition, each in turn adding value.

The state should support private enterprise, particularly through greater investment in capital and social spending.

Businesses must also support the state – they should pay a reasonable level of taxes to support the social good.

Our tax policies and our welfare system must be redesigned to progressively tackle inequality, to overcome disadvantages of all forms.

Healthcare, education, childcare, housing – these should be available to all.

Barriers to entry should be torn down so that equality of opportunity for all means exactly that.

These services should be efficient and cost effective.

And they should be primarily public, so that the whims of the markets don’t distort access to much-needed services.

We are more than rational economic units – we are a people varied in background, ethos and talent, but united in our common humanity.

A common humanity which is enhanced when we liberate people from oppression or disadvantage.

And which allows us to lift our heads and imagine solutions to the increasing temperature of our globe, or the plight of those fleeing war towards our borders.

Our common humanity is passionate and compassionate.

By recognising that, and seeking to build upon it, we can construct a politics that once again invigorates our people.

That empowers people to get involved in their local communities.

This is the core of our challenge – to make people feel hope once more instead of fear.

I believe that the Labour Party must dare to imagine a better form of capitalism.

One that serves the many, and not just the few.

The Labour Party was founded from the trade union movement.

And it was in that proud tradition that I grew up.

My father was a trade unionist and a Labour councillor.

He worked side by side with my political mentor and predecessor as leader of the Labour Party Brendan Corish.

Indeed, they were so close that it was Corish I was named after!

It is work and the rights of those in work which has been our raison d’etre since our foundation.

And this will remain the case.

We believe in the dignity of work.

We believe that work should always pay.

We believe in valuing those who work in the service of the public.

And we also believe that creating jobs and profit is a valid and valuable endeavour.

That risk and ambition deserve some reward.

Social democrats in Ireland nowadays recognise that markets and the state both have to play a role in a growing economy.

We also recognise that the current shape of our economy is losing the consent of those it is supposed to serve.

That our people see growing unfairness, growing income disparity.

And that our economic model must respond to the will of our people.

There are ways of fixing this problem.

More capital investment can improve our social infrastructure while encouraging sustainable growth.

Investing in our people – in childcare, in our schools, in apprenticeships and college – these can achieve the same.

And so the Labour Party will argue for this investment;

Including a modification of the spending rules to achieve this.

But building a better economy in Ireland doesn’t just mean spending more money.

It means looking to new models.

I have asked Joan Burton and Sean Sherlock to examine how we can build a truly shared prosperity.

Could we do more to build co-operative and mutual enterprises, giving people a greater stake in the management of enterprise?

Could we meaningfully support social enterprise, recognising that business need not just be about money, but can also build social capital?

Could we redesign an economy that prioritises the need for intergenerational solidarity, destroying the corrosive idea that the next generation should not expect a better life than their parents or grandparents?

Labour will address these questions and more over the coming months.

We will outline a roadmap towards a better economy.

There is one area which I know will be a part of that plan.

Our economy needs to be more local.

Supported by local Government that is resourced and empowered.

The abolition of town councils was a mistake.

In Government we should not have agreed to it.

The decision by some councillors to block a directly elected Mayor for Dublin was also a mistake.

And I hope the people of Dublin will get to vote directly on that proposal soon.

We need town councils, we need directly elected Mayors, and we need local Government to be given much, much more power.

The members of Dublin City Council have an idea at the moment.

They want to introduce a small hotel bed tax.

One or two euros per bed per night.

Bringing an extra €4m into the council budget.

They want to use this money to invest in the arts in ways that can attract more tourists.

In turn, this will create more employment, and support the sustainable growth of our capital city.

This, it seems to me, is exactly the type of virtuous cycle that should be encouraged.

A cycle of innovative policy thinking relevant to the local context, which simultaneously narrows the democratic deficit.

Rather than blocking this and other ideas, central Government should get out of the council’s way.

And let local politicians, working with local communities, implement plans that are supported by local people and can grow the local economy.

A reformed capitalism must include the need for a renewed social contract.

As a party, we believe in public services.

We believe that the work done by public servants should be praised, not denigrated.

Put plainly, we believe that work done for the public is every bit as valid as work done for the market.

As I’ve said, we believe in capital investment, and that the fiscal rules must be altered to allow for greater such investment.

We will fight for such change.

I say this because we believe that no child should go to school in a prefab;

That everyone should have access to broadband no matter where they live;

And that we must find a way to reinvent social housing so that the right to shelter is one that is vindicated for all of our people.

But capital investment alone is not enough.

We must also argue for social investment.

And we will argue for reform.

Because it is right that our people should continually expect public services to improve.

That, after all, is the heart of the social contract.

Our people should pay their taxes.

They should make a meaningful contribution through work, through engagement in their communities, through supporting their families.

And in return the state will make some basic guarantees – to individual liberty, to the provision of high quality public services, to a promise that each generation will have a better, brighter future than those who went before.

The long, long sacrifices our people have made over the last decade have eroded this notion.

But we surrender the idea of a social contract at our peril.

Liberty and the right to live a life free of injustice has long been a focus for the Irish Labour Party.

We are Ireland’s social democratic party, but in many ways we are Ireland’s liberal party too.

Labour in Government legalised contraception in Ireland.

We gave people the right to divorce and to remarry.

We decriminalised homosexuality and fought for the referendum that delivered marriage equality.

We legislated for workplace equality in the 1970s and again in the 1990s.

Just last year we continued this work by removing discriminations against gay and lesbian teachers.

Some argue that this work is now done. I don’t.

Last month, we published a bill to make local schools prioritise local children regardless of whether they were baptised.

As an editorial in the Irish Times noted:

“The fact that many parents of no faith feel compelled to baptise their children to secure a school place for their children is not good enough in a pluralist society.”

The Government couldn’t beat that bill, but they worked with Fianna Fáil to kick it to touch for 12 months.

Just another example of their determination to make this a do-nothing Dáil.

They might have delayed it, but they haven’t won.

And we’ll be back in 12 months, making sure it happens.

We will campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which should never have been inserted into our constitution.

We will fight for the funding needed to combat domestic violence.

We will argue that eradicating child poverty must become settled Government policy.

And we will argue that hatred must find no succour in Irish society, and that crimes motivated by hate should be punished accordingly.

Wherever and whenever we see attacks on individual liberty, we will name them.

And we will propose solutions to rectify them.

A shared prosperity, a renewed social contract and the pursuit of individual liberty – these are three themes you will hear a lot more from me on during the months ahead.

There are others – privacy, and the need to strike the right balance between individual privacy, our capacity to use data to improve services for all of our people and our need for security;

Internationalism, and a recognition that humanity demands that we are concerned about the plight of those in Damascus and not only those in Dublin.

All of these areas are the heart of Labour’s identity, and of Ireland’s identity.

I believe in a real republicanism.

Not one identified by the border between Lifford and Strabane – a republicanism that stands against things.

I believe in a republicanism that recognises that sovereignty lies with an engaged and empowered citizenry.

That those of us who are given the privilege of representing the people, should speak loudest for those who are furthest away from power.

That engaging our citizens is a task for all of us, and one that cannot be shied away from.

My task is to rebuild the Labour Party, and in doing so to help to build a better Ireland.

To turn once more towards aspiration, hope and ambition.

And to put apprehension, fear and frustration behind us.

This terrible beauty can once more be born.

Thank you.

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