Together we can build an Equal Society

09 November 2019

Address by Party Leader Brendan Howlin TD to Labour Party Annual Conference 2019.

Our country is at a crossroads again.

Labour wants everyone to share our country’s wealth, but others do not.

The choice at the next election is as simple as that.

You all know streets with boarded-up shops.

You all know communities where people still need jobs; and where drugs wreck people’s lives.

* * *

Labour wants everyone to be included.

Labour restored the minimum wage and introduced stronger protection for the most vulnerable workers, who are often young people, migrants and women.

Labour brought in the equality laws and outlawed discrimination at work.

And Labour will ensure that modern laws are enacted; to protect people against hate crimes, including on social media.

* * *

Labour was the driving force in government that brought about marriage equality and the repeal of the Eighth amendment.

* * *

It is worth reflecting, in the week that Gay Byrne passed away, that in his lifetime on air, Ireland went from a country dominated by Catholicism, nationalism and conservatism,

to becoming a society at ease with diversity, internationalism and liberal social values.

Gay Byrne talked about how The Late Late Showwas criticised well into the 1990s.

Bishops and County Councillors wrote in calling for him to be fired, or even jailed.

How things have changed.

* * *

Labour played a central role leading that change.

Labour politicians got those letters too, and the threats.

But Labour kept pushing on equality issues, and Ireland is the better society because of it.

* * *

Ireland is now at a genuine crossroads.

Economic inequality is growing.

The number of multi-millionaires and billionaires is growing all the time.

Yet generations of young people can’t get a permanent job, don’t have pensions, and will never own their own homes.

* * *

The current economic model is delivering less shared prosperity every year.

The next big change has to be economic equality.

* * *

Alongside that, there is another issue I want to address.

That is the new toxic racism that has entered our politics.

Let’s call it what it is.

From protests against asylum seekers,

through to a presidential candidate making disparaging comments about Travellers.

Longstanding taboos have been broken.

* * *

We’ve seen it happen elsewhere.

But it doesn’t have to happen here.

We will stand for equality and against hate speech poisoning our society.

Leadership is needed on this issue,

but the Taoiseach has sent mixed messages, at best.

* * *

One in eight people living in Ireland today was born in another country, and they are now part of our society.

One in seven of our children and young people has one or both parents from another country, and one in 20 are visibly different, from an African or Asian background.

These are our children, our people, our equals.

* * *

But they won’t have the same quality of life unless we end the inequality in our economy.

Many of those working for low wages are foreign nationals.

Everyone should be paid a living wage.

We must end the exploitation of migrant workers.

* * *

Labour has a vision of an equal society.

Leo Varadkar talks about a “republic of opportunity”. What does that even mean?

* * *

There is no real opportunity when one in four jobs is “low paid” by international standards.

There is no real opportunity when rents are still allowed to go up 4% every year, while wages fall behind.

There is no real opportunity when childcare costs more than you could earn working full-time.

* * *

For three and a half long years, we have endured Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’spartnership government, propped up by independents.

The result has been record levels of child homelessness, massive over-spending on major state building projects, and the appalling treatment of women in the Cervical Check scandal.

Above all, they have completely failed to share the economic recovery across all of society.

* * *

Fianna Fáil has sat on the opposition benches,

where to be honest they’ve just been taking up space.

They haven’t provided any real opposition.

They take the high moral ground,

but abstain at crucial votes.

This allows Fine Gael to limp on.

* * *

There is nothing new in saying that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil share the same ideology

and propose the same policies.

But I hope the last four years have shown everybody that they are the same.

Only Labour will deliver a massive programme of state-led home-building.

Only Labour will invest in local primary healthcare based on medical need, not ability to pay.

Only Labour will challenge the top earners, corporations or banks to pay their fair share of taxes.

* * *

Labour offers a real alternative.

Our movement is European democratic socialism.

If you like what you see in Finland, Sweden or the Netherlands, that is what building an equal society looks like.

* * *

It is Labour’s duty to work seriously with other parties, to explain what our policies can deliver, and to champion our vision for equality in Ireland.

* * *

That is why I ask anyone voting for a Labour candidate to continue their preferences for other progressive candidates, I ncluding from the Green Party and the Social Democrats, as well as progressive independents.

It is long overdue that we build a progressive alternative to the two right-wing parties.

* * *

Fewer than half the people voted for the right-wing parties in 2016.

People want something else.

* * *

People across the island have demanded equality and social progress.

The referendums on marriage equality and repealing the Eighth showed that the majority in nearly every constituency want social progress.

The Presidential election showed huge support for the values of Michael D Higgins

in every constituency.

We need to harness that support again.

* * *

Labour wants an equal society in Northern Ireland too.

We will support genuine Labour politics that crossesthe sectarian divide.

We will work with Labour-minded politicians from all communities to help bring this about.

We’ll support politicians who will turn up for workin Stormont or Westminster,

to fight for Northern Ireland’s interests.

I welcome colleagues from Northern Ireland who are here with us tonight.  

* * *

It was Labour politicians who delivered abortion rights and marriage equality for Northern Ireland too.

And I want to thank the Labour MPs,

Stella Creasy and Armagh-born Conor McGinn,

whose amendments made it happen.

* * *

The next challenge for Labour in Ireland is the four bye-elections.

In less than three weeks’ time, people will vote in Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West, and my own constituency of Wexford.

* * *

In these bye-elections,

you’d wonder why Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are bothering to run separate candidates.

Because they are not offering anything different from each other.

* * *

The real choice is between progressive candidateswho will deliver real change,

versus conservative candidates who defend the way things are.

* * *

For those who can vote in the bye-elections,

I ask you to give your first preference to Labour’s John Maher in Cork North-Central, Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal, Joanna Tuffy in Dublin Mid-West, and George Lawlor in Wexford.

* * *

Let’s send a clear message that the current partnership government is a failure.

Vote for real change on Friday 29th November.

* * *

The change I would dearly love to see is a government led by a progressive block of TDs committed to equality, and committed to rooting out the causes of inequality.

* * *

If we can’t have that,

progressives always have to weigh up whether we can best serve the people from inside government or from opposition.

* * *

The personalities involved in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are irrelevant.

What matters is delivering real change.

Labour will not support any party to form a government, including from opposition,

unless they agree to implement our core policies.

We will negotiate our full manifesto based on our strength in the next Dáil,

but we will not negotiate our core demands.

* * *

We have five of them, on work, housing, healthcare, children and climate.

* * *

Labour wants a living wage for all workers.

That’s at least two-thirds of the average wage, for everyone.

We created the Low Pay Commission,

for minimum wages to be based on hard evidence, not political goodwill.

Labour will also legislate for strong trade union recognition,

a right to flexible work

and binding collective bargaining rights.

* * *

Labour wants a cap on rents.

And a rent freeze until we build enough homes.

We have a truly ambitious plan to build 80,000 homes.

We froze rents for two years, showing that it can be done,

while this government partnership has allowed annual increases of at least 4%.

* * *

Labour will redirect health funding into local communities.

We will deliver quality primary care and GP services,

based on medical need, not ability to pay.

This will take the pressure off hospitals,

And reduce overcrowding and waiting lists.

In the worst of times,

it was Labour that insisted on free-of-charge GP care for the under-sixes.

And we found the money to build primary healthcare centres.

From home help and carers,

through to disability and mental health,

we can meet people’s needs without the agony of long waiting times.

* * *

Labour wants to create a new Childcare for Working Parents’ Scheme.

To allow parents to work full-time who otherwise could not afford to do so.

Childcare should not cost more than a person’s take home pay.

Yet that is the reality for thousands of parents.

Labour would make sure that parents,

especially women and lone parents,

don’t have to choose between their families and their jobs.

* * *

On the critical issue of climate,

Labour will create a €2 billion fund,

to drive the necessary economic change using the power of our state enterprises.

We need to invest in Bord na Móna, ESB and Coillte,

especially here in the Midlands where Fine Gael has let good jobs fall away, most recently in Longford and West Offaly.

State enterprises will be the engine that powers anew industrial revolution to halt climate change.

And Labour will fund local authorities to deliver amassive retrofitting programme to reduce people’s energy costs.

We can create thousands of sustainable jobs for the next generation.

* * *

Labour’s five key demands will form the foundation of our manifesto at the next election.

They clearly distinguish Labour from the other parties.

* * *

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not progressiveparties.

Leo Varadkar has talked about warmer winters being a “benefit” of climate change.

This shows either incredible ignorance

or else serious contempt for science.

It’s certainly an insult for those already sufferingacross the globe.

We have one generation to fix this problem.

It’s time to get real.

The Government’s current plans are simply inadequate.

* * *

You can’t trust Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil on wages.

The only reason that this government has raised the minimum wage is because of Labour’s Low Pay Commission.

Regina Doherty is prepared to postpone the minimum wage increase due next January;

using Brexit as the excuse.

And in case anyone has forgotten, Fianna Fáil cut €1 off the minimum wage.

This took €2,000 a year from the lowest paidworkers just after the crash.

Labour restored it to them.

Raising the wages of the lowest paid does not cost jobs.

* * *

You can’t trust Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil on housing.

This government has built a rack-renting system rather than rent-control.

They allow “controlled” rents to go up 4% every year,

which is far more than wages grow.

This makes no sense except to pretend to care about renters,

while forcing adults to live with their parents

or to commute long distance to work every day.  

Fianna Fáil created the housing boom;

they also created the bust.

There is no evidence that they’ve learned any lessons.

* * *

On childcare, this government prefers a private model propped up by state subsidies.

But childcare in Ireland still costs three or four times the EU average,

which stops many parents working full-time.

That won’t change until government policy changes.

* * *

For all these reasons,

I have no confidence in the current “partnership” government.

* * *

Brexit is not going away.

We will still be talking about it for years to come.

But Brexit cannot continue to be an excuse for a do-nothing Dáil and a fix-nothing government.

At the first opportunity, we need a general electionand a real change of direction.

* * *

People see the value of political parties who don’t just want to protest,

but who want to be in government to change thingsfor the better.

Our new team of fantastic Councillors is doing just that at local level across the country.

* * *

We also need to revisit some of the decisions forcedon Ireland during the economic collapse.

The age for the State pension is due to increase to 67in 2021.

There is no need for Ireland to have a higher pension age than other European countries.

The Social Insurance Fund that pays for pensions will have a surplus of nearly €4 billion by the end of this year.

That is why Labour will campaign to stop the rise of the pension age to 67 for the lifetime of the next government.

That is a pledge I make tonight.

* * *

We have admitted when we got things wrong,

but Labour is the only party who is determined to put things right.

* * *

We also need to protect our democracy in this era of fake news.

We need to update our laws,

because money spend on online ads does manipulate elections.

Our democracy is not for sale.

Twitter has stopped political advertising.

And Labour would ban political advertising during elections on all social media platforms,

including on Facebook and Instagram.

* * *

It is also important to properly fund public service broadcasting.

We need to maintain a vibrant, independent RTÉ.

* * *

Labour is ambitious for Ireland.

But we can only build an equal society if we build a fair, dynamic economy.

There are real challenges facing us.

Protectionism in world trade.

Overdue reforms in international taxation.


Climate change.

* * *

These challenges will force Ireland’s economicmodel to change.

* * *

It’s thirty years since Labour led the last substantial review of our national economic strategy.

Let’s do it again, to create the jobs of the future.

* * *

Let’s take carbon out of our economy, 

Reduce our dependence on foreign investment,

And harness the potential of technology for the public good.

* * *

Let’s create an economy that delivers for everyone.

Labour is committed to an economic model that creates enough wealth to be shared by all.

European social democracy offers a real alternative.

It works best in the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.

Let’s add Ireland to that list.

* * *

Let’s restore the promise that each generation will do better than the one who came before.

* * *

Labour has a vision of an equal society.

We have the policies and the people to make it happen.

If you want real change at the bye-elections, vote Labour.

If you want real change at the next general election, vote Labour.

* * *

This is your society.

This is your future.

Together, we can build an equal society.

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