A new democratic programme for a new generation
Address by Brendan Howlin, T.D. Leader of the Labour Party at the Labour Youth National Conference, Portlaoise, 10th November, 2017
It’s an honour to be back at Labour Youth conference, for my second time as party leader.
I hope that we get to welcome you to Wexford one of these years!
Over the last few weeks, I have set out our agenda for the coming months.
I have made clear that we will continue to oppose the tax cutting agenda being pursued by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Instead, we will argue for investing in our people.
To build public and affordable homes;
To create a publicly funded healthcare system of the highest quality;
And to eliminate the costs of education and childcare.
We will argue for these, not because we believe in such investment purely as a matter of principle;
But because we believe that these are the mechanisms that can best deliver equality in our society.
But diverting resources is not enough to achieve that ambition.
We must also change rules, laws, and our constitution where required.
That is why we will continue to work on our future of work project – an ambitious effort to preserve decency and dignity in every workplace.
And it is absolutely why we will continue to campaign for repeal of the eighth amendment;
Because this is an issue of equality that impacts on the lives and health of women in Ireland.
At one level, that’s our agenda.
It is straight-forward, social democratic policy.
But over recent months, I’ve also been considering how we might look at things a little differently.
And in particular at whether we should be considering the different actions needed for different generations.
Cycles of crisis
There was a cohort of American people who grew up during the great depression in that country, who then thrived after the implementation of the new deal.
They endured terrible hardships; but also had the chance to benefit from enormous prosperity during their lifetimes.
Some commentators still refer to them as the greatest generation.
Which is a bit glib, I know, though perhaps with a tinge of truth to it.
Every generation experiences a different set of realities.
We should be wary of sepia-tinted histories.
But it is certainly the case that, every once in a while, a generation comes of age in a time of particular hardship;
And for those within that group, it can be very hard to see any light emerging from the darkness.
The trauma of your generation
There is also a group of people who grew up during the lost decade of austerity which engulfed our country and some of our neighbours.
The hardships they felt had echoes of those felt on the other side of the Atlantic 90 years ago.
Struggles with unemployment;
Migration forced through economic hardship;
Attacks on decency and dignity in the workplace.
These things impact on people across society.
But they also impact unequally – they hit your generation much harder than they hit mine.
So there was a double impact on people like you – the harsh impact of austerity itself; but also the injustice of the inequality of it all.
An injustice that is deepened by the scandals of the Panama and Paradise papers.
We can react to that with ceaseless anger, or we can plan to do something about it.
I think each of you is in this room because you want to do something about it.
So do I.
A manifesto for millennials
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last few months.
On the policy side, I think we have taken some steps in the right direction.
Our campaign for the end of college fees;
Our commitment to the restoration of weekly welfare payments no matter your age;
Our ongoing battle for a living wage for everyone in work;
Our enduring commitment that repeal means repeal.
We have taken each of these stances because they are right:
Because they are the types of policies that social democrats and democratic socialists should be uniting around.
We have also taken them because of the efforts of Labour Youth members –
When you tabled motions at Party Conference, I listened.
When Kevin fought on your behalf at Executive Board meetings, I respected that.
And when you got stuck in campaigning in colleges and communities across Ireland, I tried to stand with you.
We’ve done a lot over the last year or so.
But we will do more.
The issues I have mentioned do not amount to a manifesto for the millennial generation.
These few issues are no ‘new deal’.
They lack the promise to a generation that I think we urgently need.
That promise should be visionary, and long-term.
It should persuade each of you that the essence of the intergenerational contract remains valid:
That your lives can and will be measurably better than those of your parents.
That we can build over the years ahead the republic that Labour has always imagined.
That is already the case when it comes to your education.
You are more literate and numerate;
More likely to have accessed higher education;
And less likely to spend your lifetimes engaged in manual labour than your parents.
Though it doesn’t always feel like it, it is the case in relation to healthcare too.
You are less likely to smoke;
Cancer rates are down;
And you are more likely to access healthcare regularly than your parents were.
And you are a bit freer too.
Women are always allowed to work, even for Ministers of State;
LGBT couples can marry;
Couples of all forms can divorce;
And I believe women of your generation will soon have much greater control over your own reproductive rights.
Why we need Labour Youth
But what of the rest?
Are you more likely to have sustained, dependable employment?
Are you more likely to be able to rent or buy a home that you can live in for the rest of your life?
Are you going to be able to choose to form a family without consideration of economic factors?
Do we know how your pensions will be funded, and whether they will be enough to live on?
Have we truly figured out how your generation will subsidise the costs and social impacts of what will be the largest generation of older people we have ever seen by 2040?
Clearly the answer to these questions is no.
As if that weren’t enough, you will be saddled with the reality of a changed climate.
I haven’t come here with answers to all of these;
Instead, I have come with a request.
Work with me.
Work with our TDs, Senators and Councillors.
Work with our branches, our constituencies, and ultimately our party conference.
And together, let’s figure this out.
Each year, you host the Tom Johnson Summer School.
Just as he serves as the inspiration for that event, the Democratic Programme he wrote in 1919 provides us with ongoing political inspiration to this day.
“We desire our country to be ruled with the principles of liberty, equality and justice for all”, he wrote.
Words that are still filled with the meaning of our politics.
As we approach the centenary of the publication of that document, it is worthwhile considering what a democratic programme for the next century might look like.
I will be proposing a project to do just that over the coming weeks – and I want you to be at the centre of it.
If we can do this work together, I will pledge to you that your concerns will be at the forefront of what Labour argues for in the next election.
Your generation can be, and must be, an optimistic, ambitious one.
It’s our job to give you the tools to do just that.
It is a traditional part of my role at Youth Conference to thank a few people.
Your outgoing executive has done remarkable work over the last year.
The recruitment of 1,000 new young people, and the creation of more college branches is just the tip of that.
Your contribution to the new party constitution will last for many years to come.
Your policy and campaigns focus I have already referred to.
And the energy and motivation you continue to bring to every aspect of Labour’s work deserves ongoing appreciation.
To Kevin and all of the outgoing NYE, my thanks for everything you have done.
To Caroline Winston, I hope you know that your work is appreciated as much by me as I know it is by the members of Labour Youth.
To those contesting for positions on the executive for next year, the best of luck, and I look forward to working with all of you.
To each and every member of Labour Youth – enjoy this weekend.
Fill yourselves up with ideas, and with a renewed commitment.
Come Monday, the work of rebuilding Labour will continue!