Rebuilding Labour-Speech by Brendan Howlin to Labour Think-In
22 September 2016
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
Good evening, and welcome back after what I hope was a relaxing summer break.
My job is a simple one – to rebuild the Labour Party.
To do so, I will rely on the talents of all those gathered here this evening.
Tonight, speaking in this historic room, I want to talk about how we will rebuild the Labour Party.
It won’t be easy.
But it will be done.
Through hard work;
Through progressive, principled policies;
Through parliamentary procedure, allied with grassroots campaigning;
We can, and we will rebuild this historic party of ours.
First though, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the challenges currently facing progressive politics in Ireland.
There are two kinds of approaches to politics.
There are those who like to talk about problems;
And there are those who look to solve them.
Labour is in the second of those categories;
And we are good at it.
In the nineties we entered Government with an economy in chaos and returned it to growth.
In 2011 we were handed an economy that had hit an iceberg, and we steered it back to safety.
Over 40 years we have been the parliamentary vanguard of a change that has seen Ireland transformed from a narrow intolerant society to one which is more pluralist and liberal.
And we will continue to lead that change.
There are many in Ireland who only see problems as opportunities for political gain.
They will always have a certain advantage over those of us that seek to solve such problems.
As soon as we make progress in one area, they shift the goalposts elsewhere.
And the new problem is always made out to be more significant than the last.
Had Sinn Fein or the anarchists entered Government in 2011 Ireland would now have no economy to speak of.
We wouldn’t have been talking about health and housing at the election just gone.
We’d have been talking about our economic implosion, the collapse in foreign direct investment, soaring joblessness and unimaginable hardship.
There would have been no debate about the scale of the recovery, because things would still be getting worse.
210 days have now passed since the election that saw so many Labour candidates fall short of election.
And during those 210 days, the temptation has been for a party like ours to follow the cynics – surely that’s where electoral reward lies?
But it’s not in our DNA because, frankly, politics is too important for that – politics for us is not a game.
You don’t play politics with people’s lives.
Every family experiencing unemployment is a family experiencing hardship.
Every child in poverty is one too many.
A housing shortfall is not a statistical problem, it is a human tragedy.
These hardships and tragedies deserve solutions, not soundbites.
I still believe that the policy platform we presented at the last election was a principled, progressive one.
I believe that we had already laid the foundations, and that we could have gone on to tackle the challenge of rebuilding a fair society after the crash.
But frankly, I think many Irish people had stopped listening to Labour.
We are proud of what we achieved over the last five years – rightly so.
As a nation, our recovery from our crisis is as significant achievement as the ignominy involved in our descent.
And more importantly to our people, our achievements included a halving of the unemployment rate, the first improvements to reading and maths levels in a generation, and two increases to the minimum wage.
These aren’t esoteric achievements divorced from people’s lives.
These are genuinely progressive steps, each of which will have moved people away from hardship or disadvantage, and towards a better future.
But when it came to the election, none of these achievements of which we are so proud mattered very much.
And let’s be honest enough to recognise why.
By the time the election came around, we faced an enormous challenge in having any of our messages heard.
I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it – we recognise that we made plenty of mistakes along the way;
That there is a gap between what people heard us say and what they saw us do.
Some of this is because governing, particularly during a crisis, is messy and distracting, and stopped us from being clear about some of the things we were achieving.
But partly also because we made some particularly high profile promises in areas such as third level fees.
And we didn’t always deliver.
We are rightly proud of the many things we did in office.
But we’re also honest enough to recognise that we didn’t get everything right.
As we rebuild the Labour Party, we have to recognise that modern news reporting can be a dangerous animal.
It goes from one crisis to the next.
Each as great and significant as the other.
Each elevated to new planes by social media – I’m learning more about this since I joined twitter a week ago!
Taken together they can appear a poor reflection on our society.
A country that lurches from one crisis to the next.
A country endemically incapable of achievement.
But that is not what we are as a people.
Let’s not undersell our achievements in this the centenary year of 1916.
We are one of the most successful societies in the world.
And we have the capacity to solve our problems and tomake progress when we put our mind to it.
Look at our position in the world.
Tomorrow morning, we will hear more about the recently published Social Progress Index, which measures living standards instead of economic numbers.
In that index, we come in 12th of 133 countries.
In the top 10%.
But we could do better.
Why don’t we aspire to make the top three in the next ten years?
Why not aim for Gold.
Wouldn’t topping this chart be better than being the best little country in the world to do business?!
I’ve nothing against growing GDP.
God knows, I know too well what declining GDP means.
But I didn’t enter politics to grow a number that for a small open economy like ours has little to say about our living standards;
And the meaning of which has been completely underminedby the global flow of capital.
I entered politics to make life better for our people;
To improve our health and education systems;
To increase living standards;
To expand individual freedoms.
And those are the things I think we should spend more time measuring.
The report we’ll hear about tomorrow identifies some of our strengths.
For example, a public school system that delivers access to third level education; high levels of tolerance and inclusion.
But, it identifies problems and challenges too.
Water is right up there, whether people like it or not.
Environmental care, a related issue, is up there too.
So is broadband.
We need to make sure that everyone has the chance to work;
Not just to work, but to have decent work that provides a decent standard of living.
And we need to do better on personal freedoms.
For forty years, this party has been the champion of personal freedoms and the kind of secularism that seeks to respect people of all faiths and none.
But by the Social Progress Indicators, we still have some way to go.
Housing is there as an issue too.
And for me this is the biggest issue.
It is representative of people’s ambition and sense of well-being - one of the key things parents want for their children.
Being able to afford a home, not just a house, has been a totemic freedom in our society since the land was returned to us over 100 years ago.
And for the record it is a bigger problem than social housing too.
It includes those who wish to buy or rent their properties.
If the last forty years have taught us anything, it is that a mix matters.
There is little point in central bankers from other European countries, or our own, lecturing about this issue and conjuring up pseudo threats.
You will not persuade me or the Irish people of the dangers of a housing bubble in an era when no houses are being built.
But, none of these problems are outside our capacity to address.
We began the work in Government.
We’ll double down on them as we rebuild the Labour Party.
Because we think it’s a nonsense to simply declare an ambition to become the best small country in the world to do business.
We believe that our ambition should be to make Ireland the most well-rounded, balanced, fair and equal country in the world in which to live.
Labour is a social democratic party.
To many, that is just political terminology.
But in my eyes that places us in the proudest, most liberating political tradition the world has known.
The imperfect but idealistic meeting point of socialism and liberalism.
We believe in the power of the state as a liberating and empowering force.
Its many weaknesses are set to nought by its strengths.
It is the only bulwark between the citizen and the anarchy of the market.
And the state can still deliver like no other force.
I have no doubt, for example, that if we wanted a better placing on the Olympic medals table, we could do it.
That is what our near neighbours did when they decided that their one gold return from the Atlanta games was insufficient.
And the state set about changing that.
Our ambitions are intrinsically linked to the idea of a strong and functioning state.
We have come through the darkest economic period of our independent republic.
Our people have survived an existential crisis by making sacrifices.
What was that for if we do not wish to be ambitious now about the kind of society we can become.
But at a time when we need ambition, we have chaos.
A government for whom existence is an end in itself.
A do-nothing Dáil.
If the Government survives at all, these will be known as the lost years.
But if nothing else, there is a lesson in this.
If new politics is only about process or the dreams of false consensus it is no politics at all.
Politics is about the resolution of differences in a peaceful and civilised manner – not pretending they don’t exist.
It is comforting, not dispiriting for me to realise that the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a winner takes all;
As long as the lady wins!
For us in Labour there is no easy road back.
But let there be no doubt – we will rebuild this party.
As Churchill put it, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
I’m hoping not too much blood will be required!
We will win back our support in workplaces, in community centres, at doorsteps and in the local pub.
We will win it back by running campaigns once more, and by proposing genuinely progressive solutions.
We will win it back, not by me making statements in the Dáil or elsewhere, but by building an inclusive leadership that means we all put our shoulders to the wheel.
Whether someone is a TD, a Senator, a Councillor, a member, an activist or a supporter – we need their help.
The rebuilding is already underway.
At the start of last week, over 400 new members had joined Labour in the last few months.
Since then, 200 young people signed up in UCC, with hundreds more signing up in UCD and Trinity this week.
As I said to Labour Women last weekend, our work won’t be done - not nearly done - when the stalls in colleges are put away.
The rebuilding of the Labour Party will depend on us creating a genuinely inclusive culture.
The members of the Parliamentary Labour Party will work day and night to advance progressive policies and legislation.
But our work does not, and must not, stop at the gates of Leinster House.
We’re not interested in signing people up just for the sake of numbers.
The days of valuing members only in terms of how many doors they knock on during elections must come to an end.
We want people who are involved in devising new and radical policies.
We want people to lead vibrant campaigns at local and national levels.
We want people who will persuade others – in their workplaces, around the dinner table, at community events, and even in the pub – that Labour is the party that will strive for the achievement of social and economic justice and community solidarity.
If we do this right, we will become a movement as much as a political party.
We believe in the authenticity of our politics.
A politics that is about solving problems and creating opportunities.
A politics that is about how people live their lives.
As a party of the Left we do not believe in ceding political power to the forces of conservatism – locally, nationally or internationally.
Staying out of Government, particularly at a time of crisis, because you might do better next time is not politics, it is surrender.
Neil Kinnock once said about his own party - and it is what Connolly wanted for ours – that it was founded to represent working people in parliament including the aspiration to take office.
And what is the point in being in parliament if you don’t aspire to being in Government.
As it was in Government, our focus will remain on the things that impact on the lives of the people we represent.
A people for whom we are ambitious.
Who we believe can get ahead and who should be entitled to aspire to better lives for their children.
That is what Labour is at its best and it is the basis on which our political recovery will be based.
Affording people control of their lives is both an economic and political project.
And it is at the heart of what we stand for.