Speech by Brendan Howlin TD to Labour Youth Conference
I’d like to start by telling you an old story that illustrates the Labour perspective:
A young girl asks her father, “Why is it so cold in the house?”
“We don’t have any coal”, he says.
“But why is there no coal?” she wants to know.
“Because I lost my job”, he replies.
Still unsatisfied, she asks one more time—”And why did you lose your job?”
To which he answers, “Because there is too much coal”.
This is a classic example of how a so-called “free” market system does not always work to meet people’s basic needs.
Forty or fifty years ago, the question of how to meet everyone’s needs was answered by Labour through the solution of the State rather than the market:
Public ownership of industries.
Public jobs, with decent pay and conditions.
But that solution is no longer sufficient in a globalised economy.
We are committed today to a mixed economy, where State enterprises and public bodies co-exist alongside private enterprise and not-for-profit bodies.
The combination of both has driven greater prosperity than either the market or the State could have achieved on its own.
As a result, it is less obvious today how we organise a distinctly Labour response to meeting people’s needs.
The differences between all the major political parties are less obvious.
But there are very real differences.
What I want to do this evening is to try to clarify what is distinct about Labour’s perspective.
Brendan Corish’s 1969 Conference speech – entitled The New Republic – was truly a milestone, as Brendan Halligan wrote at the time.
In 1967, Corish said “There is serious doubt and concern about our present rate of progress. It is widely believed that we are unable to solve any of the major problems confronting us. Disquiet and apathy, cynicism and indifference are not healthy attitudes in a democracy, but they are widely prevalent in ours.”
Every single word could be said about the state of Irish politics fifty years later.
But what Corish said next was that “Many people are looking for a new approach.”
That was and is the challenge for Labour, and the challenge of Labour to the political system.
While conservatives argue that we are better off without change, progressives argue that we can change things for the better.
Corish’s speech was and remains “a statement of socialist intent” and “outlined the philosophy and purpose” of Labour.
And that in a nutshell is what is so distinct about us.
We are a party with a distinct, socialist philosophy that believes that we can achieve real social progress – a better life for everyone – through our policies and actions.
That leads to two simple questions:
What do we want to change?
How do we do it?
The answers are not so simple.
To answer the question of “how” first, one way is revolution and another way is reform.
We are all familiar with that dividing line down the Left of politics.
As I said at Conference in Dublin, Labour is a party of doers.
We in Labour have unambiguously set ourselves on the path of social progress and the progressive reform of the role of the State in meeting people’s needs and reducing inequalities.
People will always need progressive parties, who will work hard to make their lives better.
And we are good at making change happen.
Labour has advanced workers rights through establishing and reinforcing laws and institutions from the minimum wage through to the Joint Labour Committees’ pay rates and all of the institutions of the labour relations bodies and Labour Court.
We want to go further and eliminate unjustifiable gender pay gaps, and to provide further protection for all workers, especially those on irregular and precarious contracts, under our plans for Decent Work for All.
Labour built houses for the people in the 1940s and 50s… and again in the 1970s. Our Labour Councillors have been steadily delivering on social housing to this day. And I know many of you would be at the housing demonstration this weekend, if you weren’t here in Wexford.
We have a vision for affordable, secure rents as well as a plan to build 80,000 new affordable homes over five years. We know where we’d access €16 billion to achieve that, without raising taxes.
Labour has delivered on equality issues, from women’s equality and marriage equality through to the laws that protect people from discrimination and those bodies that uphold equality and human rights.
And where we got things wrong, like cutting youth welfare rates or allowing Town Councils to be abolished, we have said so, and we have set out how we would reverse these mistakes.
But it is not just a question of good policy ideas.
Labour has been effective in government.
Under Dick Spring we developed the concept of Programme Managers: special advisers who were placed into Government Departments to put the civil servants under pressure to deliver on our pledges in the Programme for Government.
One of plans is to create an Economic Equality Agency, to replace the Combat Poverty Agency that Fianna Fáil abolished. It would identify the roots of poverty, to allow us to build an economy that truly ends the cycle of inequality.
In the last government, according to independent analysis, we delivered on more of our election pledges than Fine Gael.
We delivered 43% of our pledges in full and another 19% in part.
And we did it in the most difficult of times, with one third of the membership of Government.
We achieved a jobs fund, a higher minimum wage, over 40,000 training places, a strategic investment bank, transparency laws and whistle-blower protection, and much more.
I could list you 80 policy pledges that were fully delivered and another 36 pledges that were partially delivered.
Fine Gael under Leo Varadkar is more interested in tax cuts for the top 20% of income earners, as a distraction from their inability to solve the real problems in housing and health care.
Being doers is what makes Labour and other progressive parties different from those who posture as the ‘hard left’.
But just because we get involved in the detail of policy, and just because we deliver on our policies does not mean we cannot also be radical.
On the contrary, the delivery of Labour policies has been a radical, transformative force in Irish society.
And what have the self-styled revolutionaries actually achieved?
What do we want to change?
That’s the other question.
We want to change a lot of fundamental inequalities in our society, and to offer people a better quality of life.
We want the achievement of decency, justice and equality: core Labour values.
The concept of ‘a New Republic’ captures Labour’s spirit of optimism.
It is the promise not only of economic and social progress, but the promise of a new social order where the benefits of progress will be shared more equally.
It is, quite simply, a choice that our people are entitled to make.
How much do we want to keep what we have, and keep things as they are.
And how much do we want change, and to improve the situation of others.
… No one is suggesting that we vote for some utopia of perfect equality.
But we do have real power over how equal or unequal we make our country.
And we do that in very simple ways:
through wages policy and worker protections,
through tax policy,
through social protection,
through regulating private enterprise,
and through the provision of public services and infrastructure that even-out life chances and provide everyone with a better standard of living.
Another quote from Brendan Corish’s New Republic speech:
“Labour unreservedly commits itself to the concept of a classless society in which each child will have the same educational facilities, in which each sick person will receive the same expert treatment, and in which each young couple will have an equal chance of securing a home.
“Labour commits itself to a society which permits no class differences, in which great disparities in wealth are eliminated and in which the resources of the nation are devoted in the first place to the needs of all the people.”
… What more can I say?
Corish’s legacy lives on in the Labour party.
And I am proud to lead a diverse collection of people who are determined to improve the lives of people, not least the activists of Labour Youth.
And what would a New Republic look like?
Corish gets to the heart of it when he talks about ‘a society which permits no class differences’.
We know Ireland has a class system.
People are categorised on the basis of their jobs, how they speak and what streets they live on.
Ultimately, people are judged on the basis of their wealth.
How can we get to a situation where Ireland is truly a classless society?
I return to the three core values I mentioned earlier: equality, justice and decency.
An equal society is one where everyone can hold their head up with dignity, where no one treats others with distain because of how they dress, how they speak or the colour of their skin.
Government cannot bring about a classless society.
It is up to each of us how we treat others.
A just society is one where the law protects people, especially vulnerable people, from exploitation and abuse.
Labour introduced the laws that ban discrimination and offer people redress.
Labour also championed freedom of information and other laws to enhance transparency and accountability of those with power to those subject to their power.
Above all, Labour has pushed for laws that protect workers, to end exploitation in the economy.
The bottom line in creating a classless society in Ireland is that everyone should be able to enjoy a decent standard of living.
Not an identical standard of living, but a decent minimum standard for all.
Not based on handouts, but on the guarantee of a good job with decent pay and conditions.
And a decent lifestyle should be available to those who cannot work due to illness or disability, and for pensioners.
A decent minimum standard of living means that everyone should have a home that is secure and affordable.
Everyone should be able to afford to keep their home warm and lit.
Everyone should have food in the cupboard and clothes in the wardrobe.
But decency is more than just basic survival.
People are entitled to small comforts.
And everyone should be able to participate fully in society and the economy.
Everyone should be able to meet a friend for coffee and to enjoy a simple meal out.
Decency includes having a basic mobile phone and access to the Internet.
These are not luxurious standards. They are frugal.
But we don’t meet them.
Our country can afford to ensure everyone has enough for a decent life.
But as a society, we don’t meet these standards.
Far too many people at work are not paid a Living Wage that would allow them to meet the kind of basic standard of living that I have outlined.
There are still far too many people, especially here in the South East, who can’t get a good job.
Or who can’t get full-time hours, even if they have a job.
Labour would raise the statutory minimum wage to a Living Wage based on a real understanding of the cost of living.
The bottom line is that we all have to work to achieve a decent life for ourselves, our families and our communities.
Which is why, at the end of the day, it is all about the economy.
A classless society, based on decent, justice and equality, will only be achieved if we have a model of the economy that is based on trying to achieve a decent life for everyone.
That means a market economy, but a well-regulated, environmentally sustainable market economy, with a strong role for the State and strong protections for workers and consumers.
That is the model that works well in Demark, Sweden and the Netherlands.
What some have not recognised is that we are at a decisive point in our history.
In the coming months and years, we have to make serious choices about the future of our country and our place in the world.
Now that Ireland has emerged from the last economic crisis, we have to ensure our economy is sufficiently different so that such a crisis cannot occur again.
Now that the UK is leaving the EU, we have to align our economy more to the European continent and less to the Anglo-Saxon world.
Now that worldwide Corporation Tax rules are changing, we need another engine to drive the Irish economy forward.
Most importantly, as I said in Dublin, we have only 12 years left to prevent extreme climate change, according to the world’s greatest experts.
That is going to require truly massive changes to our economy and our way of life.
The post-war social democratic economy was based on decency, justice and equality.
The European social democratic economies have also become truly environmentally conscious, and they have make sustainability part of what drives their economic development.
It is an economic model that has adapted well to the test of time.
And it is the type of economy we should aspire to as part of our vision of a New Republic.
To conclude, I want to return to one thing I said at Conference in Dublin.
We need to take back the State.
The way in which we can achieve our vision of a New Republic, and our vision of a social and ecological economy, is through using the State and public agencies as the means of social progress.
We need a stronger State to regulate the private sector economy, for example, to enforce worker’s rights and to regulate private rents.
We need a stronger State to provide comprehensive, high quality public services to meet people’s needs and to allow them to have a decent minimum standard of living so that they can flourish as human beings.
And above all, we need the State to lead on climate action.
We can take back the State.
It will be challenging.
We will meet opposition from some public sector managers and workers, as well as from private vested interests.
But it is through using the State to advance the public good that we can continue to achieve radical, transformation of our society and our economy.
It is only through robust State action that we can take sufficient action on climate.
That’s the radical nature of Labour’s goal of progressive reform.
Real revolution is leading on change that makes people’s lives immeasurably better.
We want other progressive parties and individuals to join with us as we present a picture of a better, fairer New Republic.
We want Labour to be the home of everyone who sees the need to take control of the State as the instrument of radical, progressive change.
I look forward to hearing your ideas on how we can achieve a New Republic.