LABOUR MUST BE A COMPETENT AGENCY OF PROGRESS FOR 21ST CENTURY IRELAND – KELLY
- Party has failed to seize key moments and opportunities recently
- Rebuild has to be based on constructive honesty with members
- Being relevant is the starting point to growth
- We need to align our policies and our presentations with our instincts
- We must campaign for a new social contract between the state and the people
Dear Friends & Comrades
It is an honour to stand here before you as a candidate to lead our great party. I am greatly privileged to have had Deputies Sean Sherlock & Duncan Smith nominate and second me, and I’d like to thank you all for attending. I’d also like to wish my good friend and colleague Deputy Aodhan O’Riordain the very best as we start out on these hustings. I sat beside Aodhan on his first day back in the Dáil and I know how much it meant to him and I was delighted for him to be back with us.
Friends, In the early 1990s I moved to Cork to begin my studies. I hope I learned somethings during my time at UCC but what I know for certain is that I learned an awful lot during my time as a member of the Party here in the city. It’s where I really cut my political teeth. I got involved in restarting the Labour branch in UCC and having it named after the late Jim Kemmy. I was elected as Constituency Organiser in Cork North Central. But most of all I learned about the importance of working together with fellow party members, in friendship and solidarity, to ensure that the local community had a Labour Party which would speak up for them. I learned a lot from my time here in the city and made a lot of lifelong friends.
While I am here to set out my stall and plans for party leadership, equally, I see tonight as the start of a wider listening process.
We have been at our best as a party when our members were setting the agenda, that hasn’t always been the case recently, so in that guise, I would ask that tonight is the beginning of an honest and forthright conversation with you and I look forward to your questions and opinions from the floor. There needs to be a constructive honesty across the party if we are to properly rebuild and it has to be based on people in this room feeling confident and proud of what the Labour Party is and can be in the future. If I am to become leader, the days of choreographed national conferences will be over as well.
Labour is different; it is different because we believe in empowerment over protest, improving the system instead of destroying it and unifying society over dividing it.
I’ve often said Labour is in my DNA and on occasion people have questioned and even poked fun at what that means. To me, being in Labour is really a feeling, a feeling of belonging to a party that promotes decency. As my parents, who are sitting here tonight with over 120 years’ service to the party will testify, being part of Labour’s DNA is something to be very proud of and is something I am very proud of.
I think for too long though we as a party have been telling ourselves things will be ok when they clearly won’t. In the last six years, we have experienced three of the worst elections in our history. We haven’t been relevant to the national conversation; we haven’t connected with people outside of our own circle and we assumed that opposition alone would give us a natural bounce after Government. We are not viewed right now as a competent agent of change, a party ready to solve society’s problems and not culturally relevant. That’s what we must change. But we can’t just speak about change. We need to make change!
But many of the old rules of politics have been torn up in this age of activism. It used to be that economic growth lead to political success, that is no longer true. It used to be that 70% of the Irish electorate could be classified as ‘conservative’, that is no longer true. It used to be that one’s politics would be defined by their views on social issues, that is no longer true. It used to be that sections of the electorate automatically understood our values and our integrity. In the crowded environment of opposition of the left, many people simply no longer know what we stand for and don’t factor us in.
However, while we need to honestly recognise where we are; that is a small party with an incredible history; we can also equally recognise that the changing landscape creates opportunities for us.
We have a very discerning electorate that is changing its habits and realigning its politics. Many social causes have become mainstream because of the great work of this party. This is the same electorate that only nine months ago, solidly rejected Sinn Fein. The last two elections showed us that many more voters are open to changing their minds and many did so only in the last fifteen days of the last election. Can we be the party to make those gains in future? I believe that, with the collective leadership of the parliamentary party, supported by the members, that answer is a firm ‘yes’.
We have failed as a party to seize those key moments because we failed to present clear and coherent solutions to the issues that society is feeling most anxiety about; housing, health, education and public services. These are the moments when the electorate is open to persuasion and you have to be in there with passionate spokespeople presenting solutions that are supported by Councillors and party representatives on the ground.
In order to be in a position to capture those moments, we have to be relevant. Currently we simply are not.
In order to be relevant, you have to be able to have your voice heard. You have to be able to connect.
If we connect, people will be interested. Interest comes from strong party policies driven by energy.
We must ensure our policies are clear and aligned with our instincts and values. And then – we campaign with the fire and passion for social justice that I know we all have. If we are to win back people who used to vote for us, we have to be a campaigning organisation that acts with confidence, compassion and energy.
I know all about campaigning and I know all about delivering electoral success.
I believe, over the last four years in both the public accounts committee and as party health spokesperson, I have demonstrated the ability to connect; to be relevant, to be organised and be passionate about the delivery of public services that are aligned with our values. I took every opportunity to make sure our party was being pushed forward and relevant; in the media, on the streets and on the floor of the Dáil. I think it’s fair to say that in a crowded space with a lot of voices – I ensured we as a party were heard; whether it was National Children’s Hospital overspend, the issues going on in the Department of Justice; the HSE recruitment fiasco or the fight I took on after I met Vicky Phelan for women and their families during the Cervical Cancer Scandal.
We also need electoral confidence. We need to approach elections organised, focussed, prepared and, again, with that clear coherent message. I have succeeded in three elections in Tipperary doing just that and by reaching those who would not view themselves as Labour voters. Prior to that I won a seat for Ireland South as a member of the European Parliament. And prior to that, in my first election, I was elected to Seanad Eireann. Five elections and five victories and achieved by connecting with our own and with many beyond our traditional base.
If we have a future, we have to be organised, we have to be passionate and we have to maximise our small resources to achieve optimum impact.
As leader, one of the first things I would do is engage in a root and branch review of every aspect of our party’s operations and get the organisation, as a whole, working towards campaigning goals and presenting ourselves as the vehicle for delivering the change required for tomorrow.
The days of just printing a few leaflets and sending them out to people and calling that a campaign would be over. We will work smarter, adopt technology more and go to where the people are – online and offline, in the cities, in the countryside. Wherever people need Labour, we will be there.
In my view, we as a party do not need to reset our values, but we very much need to refine how we campaign. We must break away from this view that we are part of the establishment. The Labour Party must be the party of work, that supports those who work. If we are to present ourselves as the people who can solve the problems that people are feeling most anxious about, then I believe our future lies in repairing the social contract that exists between workers and society.
What do I mean by that?
Labour, as one of the architects of the welfare state in Ireland, always sought to reward and put a premium on work. If you worked hard, paid your taxes, contributed to society, the state would assist you with housing, healthcare, education and a system of decent public services on which you could rely on. The social contract between the people and the state should be a given.
But right now it is not. Too many working people have too many worries. Too many people are running to stand still.
When I say the social contract has broken down, what I mean is that when people work and pay their taxes, they deserve to be able to afford a home. They also deserve to know that their children will be provided with a good education, equality across all education services. And, also, they need to know that if they are sick or a loved one is sick, that the State will look after them. They need to also know that public services will always be there for them and that our environment will be protected. That is not the case in the Ireland of 2020.
Friends, if you elect me as the leader of this great party, I will make the party relevant again. I will make it connect again and restore confidence to our members. I will increase our membership, bring more young people into our party and promote women across key roles.
I will ensure we fight on the issues that are most relevant in Irish society, we will go back to what we are strong at, connecting with the people, engaging them because our message and campaigning will be strong.
I don’t think leadership is something you can just turn on and off like a light switch. It’s something you build up to, it’s something you must have demonstrated you are ready for. All good leaders lead by example and the best form of example is results.
My record electorally, my record of campaigning, my record on the floor of the Dáil shows I deliver and now I want to take those leadership skills, energy and work ethic and together with you, use them for our great party. I ask for your support in doing so.