Labour must become relevant to rebuild

Alan Kelly TD
05 March 2020

Speech by Alan Kelly to Labour Party Leadership Hustings, Clayton Hotel Dublin Airport, Thursday 6th March 2020

  • Sinn Fein in opposition makes the challenge harder
  • Party must campaign for ‘workers who worry’
  • Kelly has track record as Health spokesperson of leading national conversation

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 our newly minted TD for Fingal Duncan Smith nominate me. Everyone in this room knows how much Duncan cares for the Labour Party, and this is a passion we equally share. I’d also like to wish my good friend and colleague Deputy Aodhan O’Riordain the very best of luck. I know you as members of this party have a choice to make but I think you are choosing between two people who both care passionately about the future of this party and the future of this country. I know it’s my job to set out my stall as to why you should elect me, but I also know that no matter who is the next Leader of the Party then both Aodhan and I will be working closely together to ensure that Labour will be central in shaping the future of the country. 

In the late 1990s I moved to Dublin from Cork after graduating from University College Cork. I continued my education at University College Dublin and entered the workforce with Bord Failte. I come from a Labour Party family in Tipperary, and continued my activism in Cork and then on to Dublin. I was a shop steward for SIPTU in Bord Failte and I worked on campaigns for TD’s and councillors across three different constituencies including Director of Election for Mary Upton.

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 need a constructive, but honest and forthright conversation to reset the party and restore our own confidence. If we are to properly rebuild, it has to based on the people in this room feeling confident and proud of the Labour party and its future.

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.

However, I think over the past four years, 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 therefore we are not culturally relevant. That’s what we must change. But we can’t just speak about change. We need to make change!

Why, because right now, 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.  At the same time, the electorate has actually moved closer to our value set. 

However, while we need to honestly recognise where we are; 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’.

Politics is about seizing those key moments. I believe we failed to do that because we weren’t present in people’s minds. I believe we failed to communicate powerfully and consistently  our  solutions to the issues that society is feeling the most anxious about: housing, health, education, public services and climate change.

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 our Councillors and party representatives on the ground.

In order to be in a position to capture those moments, we have to be relevant to the national conversation. 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’d like to do the same as leader.

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.

Creating a national presence of relevance is the starting point. With Sinn Fein as the lead opposition party, that only gets more difficult. But if we don’t have a starting point of relevance, we have nothing.

We also need electoral confidence. We need to approach elections organised, focussed, prepared and, again, with that clear coherent message. That is why if made party leader, I intend to reintroduce the role of regional organisers within the party. Our future candidates must be provided with the necessary supports to assist them in getting elected.

I have succeeded in three elections in Tipperary through having a strong organisation on the ground and by reaching to 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 limited 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, something I believe did successfully as health spokesperson. 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.

People deserve to be able to afford a home. They also deserve to know that their children will be provided with a good education. 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.

That needs to be the focus of our platform in the future. Campaigning zealously to ease social anxieties. Campaigning for the provision of Universal Basic Services. Access to key public services that are so central to the quality of our lives such as health, education, childcare and transport can no longer be determined by an individuals ability to pay.

But in order to achieve any of this, we must be seen as a credible agency of delivery that can connect with people. Friends, if you elect me as the leader of this party, I will give the party a national presence on which our TDs, councillors and spokespeople can build.

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.

Thank You

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