Building a shared prosperity – speech by Brendan Howlin at the Dublin Economic Workshop

23 September 2016

Welcome to Wexford!

It is a clear sign of progress to see the Dublin economic workshop leave the august surroundings of Kenmare to visit the Sunny South East.

As Dublin prepare for their second effort at defending the Sam Maguire, it is good to see their economic counterparts move from one of the two counties that have won four All Ireland’s in a row, Kerry, to the other, Wexford.That our run began over a hundred years ago is, of course, neither here, nor there.

As most of you will know I’ve had the honour of serving in Government for the last five years.

I say honour because I am not one of those lefties who believes that the holding of office should be confined to Tories.

In fact, that, to me, is the opposite of being what left wing is primarily about.

Advancing our causes in good times, and sometimes, when called for, defending those advances in bad times.

I don’t think anybody could suggest that the last eight years have been good times. Quite the contrary. Often the choice facing us in Government was between the unpalatable and the worse. It wasn’t easy and we got some calls wrong.

As the Labour Party rebuilds, I am very clear that we will be proud of what we achieved.And we will be humble and honest enough to recognise the mistakes we made.Overall, it is my firm view that we acted in the national interest.Electoral consequences aside, that is how history will judge us.

Of course I now lead a party of opposition.Let me say at the outset that I believe opposition to be a noble pursuit as essential to democracy and government as supply is to demand for people like yourselves.

Our job is to oppose this Government vigorously when they get things wrong, because democracy requires a vigorous holding to account.

Opposition is not the same as opportunism however.

Indeed, it is weaker in my view, if it is deployed persistently and permanently.

Unfortunately, over recent years we have seen a growth in the number of opportunists in Leinster House.For this cohort, politics is not about choices about the rational distribution of resources; rather it is a permanent critique of the system. A system that has, over the arc of time, delivered reasonably well for our people.

Labour will not go down that road.

It would have been easy and popular for me, for example, to oppose the Government’s position on Apple.But I genuinely believe, regardless of the merits of the argument, that if Europe wants to control taxation policy of member states it should seek a mandate to do so. And if and when it does so that that mandate cannot apply retrospectively.

It would be easy too to oppose the Government’s budgetary stance. To argue that uncertainty should lead us to retrench, to hide under the bed for fear of bad things happen.But I genuinely believe that the fiscal correction we engaged in over the last eight years was not the rejection of counter cyclical Keynesianism;It was a fight to restore our capacity to engage in it.

All that said, neither do I believe in the negation of politics.

Politics is about the reconciliation of differences and the will of majorities however constructed.

It is about organising to win those majorities, both within parties and without, and the construction of coalitions on issues.

As I said in a few words I delivered to my parliamentary party colleagues last night, it is comforting, not dispiriting for me to realise that the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a winner takes all; as long as the lady wins!

So I’m no fan of new politics then. I’m into debate and decisions, but not phoney consensus. I’m into taking responsibility for decisions; not spreading that responsibility so thin that decisions aren’t made.

Ireland may survive this experiment in No Government for a while.But in the long term, I believe it will be damaging to our nation’s future.

There are some that believe that my tenure in Government should preclude me from critiquing and opposing the current Government. I disagree. In fact my recent experience in Government allows me to critique and oppose from a particularly informed viewpoint.And being in opposition allows me to make a more blunt and honest critique than is sometimes possible for a Minister.

I believe that the European Union has had a bad recession.

I believe now that that might not have been the case had Mario Draghi led the central bank at the beginning, instead of Jean-Claude Trichet.

I believe that it is ironic that the response to the global crisis from the United States, the home of capitalism, has been different and broadly superior to that of contemporary German-led christian or social democratic Europe.

I have argued with our German friends that it is employment and not deficits that caused their and Europe’s crisis of the thirties.

History teaches us that the world is a complex place and not amendable to simple nostrums.

I believe too, for what it’s worth, that the election of Francois Hollande in France made a difference, as did the election of Matteo Renzi in Italy.And I believe that Britain’s experience of austerity would have been markedly different under a Government led by Gordon Brown than that led by David Cameron.

Rather than just focussing on those working beyond our shores, let me say too that one of the professions most impacted by the global crisis was the economics profession.

In my estimation the profession has spent some considerable time reflecting the kind of economics that might have prevented the great depression Europe;But I don’t think you have spent sufficient time considering the appropriate policy response to get us out of the depression.

Your position is now even more important than heretofore.

There used to be some obvious transparency for example around economic targets. We all, even us politicians, understand deficits and debt ratios. Hardly anyone understands structural balances and expenditure benchmarks.And this causes problems.

Take the last election for example.

What was in effect a debate about the allocation of a conservatively estimated fiscal space was presented in media circles as politicians attempting to bribe the electorate with giveaways. That was an unfair charge against all of the major political parties.And that further serves to erode public trust in responsible politicians.

Such a fundamental difference is not good for democracy.

Ultimately, as a politician, I focus on political economics.

In my view, academic economists getting uptight about supplementary estimates to keep the health service going are people not living in the real world.And the real world now, is one under strain, far away from the pedantics of rules based fiscal policy.

You’ve got Brexit, Le Pen, Trump and a centre ground that is struggling to hold its ground against the clarion cries of those who pretend its easy. And anybody who applies reason and judgement is by definition a member of the establishment.

I am a son of a trade union official, and a parliamentary radical all my life.But I am part of the establishment.

On the other hand someone raised in privilege, committed to anarchy as only those of privilege can afford to be, is not. Go figure.

The threat posed to the political centre is of course a threat posed to European democracy.

It is time that policy makers, including economists, got to grips with it.

Most of what you learn as economists and propagate as opinion formers, is predicated on free markets and democratic politics.

Both are under threat, because rightly or wrongly they are perceived as not delivering to all of the electorate.I have to say that is a view I have some sympathy with.

I recognise that globalisation has brought many benefits.

As someone with a long-term interest in Africa, I welcome the growth that globalisation has brought to developing countries.And in the West our people have benefitted hugely from, for example the availability of consumer goods – anyone for an iPhone?!

But the downsides of globalisation have been felt particularly sharply in some communities.

I support the welfare state, and my party was the only party to advocate welfare indexing in the election.

But I know too that it is a poor alternative to having people economically active in their local economy and communities. We have many achievements to be proud of after the last five years.

But one stands out above all – the halving of unemployment.

I am pleased that this momentum has carried over into the lifetime of this Government, though I know it has little to do with them.

The maintenance of full employment remains, in my view, the defining cornerstone of any class based approach to politics and Labour advanced it considerably.

While we were at it, we legislated for collective bargaining and increased the minimum wage twice.Because work in and of itself is not enough – it must bring people dignity as well as purpose.

My sense of equality and solidarity cannot be reduced to an equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity; it is driven by a notion of an equality of participation.

As our President has put it many times, it is about the quality of the public space.

Services define solidarity so they matter. The education system as a leveller matters, the health system matters. And solidarity requires ambition.

James Larkin and Connolly talked about people rising up not levelling down.

It is with these ideas in mind that I set about my current task.

It is a simple one, if not an easy one.My job is to rebuild the Labour Party.

I have come from two days with my parliamentary colleagues, planning that rebuilding work.

We are focussed on attracting new members; on building a movement that can inspire another generation of Labour supporters, activists and politicians.

And we are focussed on the policy platform that will advance a shared prosperity for our people.

This week, we discussed Deloitte’s Social Progress Indicators, as a more rounded measurement of progress in our society. A measure of quality of life as opposed to economic transfers.

I know both are important.

But I would say to you as a profession, that a successful future for our country, indeed for our continent, lies more in this vision than that of the fiscal rules.

By all means keep our balance of public and private provision, of free market and state driven activity but at least let the purpose be clear: the advance of the human condition rather than the value free accumulation of more.

Or as FDR once put it ‘the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’

Thank you.

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