Address to the Labour Leadership Hustings – Cork

Cork Hustings Photo

I once wrote to Brendan Corish, leader of the Labour Party, looking for a signed copy of the 1969 election manifesto. That was in 1971 when I was 12. It arrived shortly afterwards and I still have it.

It was from my father that I got my Labour values…the ideals and the principles that shaped my life, and my perspective on the world. Like his father before him, my Dad was a railway worker, a trade unionist, and a Labour man.

In common with many people of my generation, I was the first in my family to go to university, and it was an opportunity I grasped with huge enthusiasm and a sense of great promise for the future. I studied in TCD, became a student activist, a campaigner, and a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment. In those years we campaigned not just on student issues but also for contraceptive rights, civil rights, community action, and democratic rights in Eastern Europe.

Later I spent ten years as a producer in RTE, and became quickly immersed in trade union activity – the old FWUI, and was very much involved then in the early years of SIPTU. After RTE I worked for almost 20 years as an employment lawyer.

I joined the party in 1998 in Dublin South. I’ve been a public representative for ten years, elected to Dail Eireann for the first time in 2011.

As a junior Minister in the Department of Health I negotiated and delivered on Labour’s commitment to legislate for the X case. I secured government agreement on the alcohol strategy – the first time in this country that alcohol misuse is being addressed in public health legislation. Just this morning the Committee Stage of the Free GP Care Bill – the Under 6s legislation – was completed in the Dail. This is the first step in delivering Universal Primary Care and I am honoured to be the Minister responsible.

It is a great pleasure to be here in Cork for these hustings. It is a City and a County which has contributed a huge amount to the Labour Party and the Labour movement over the decades. I am thinking of people like Gerry O’Sullivan, Toddy O’Sullivan and Joe Sherlock, all of whom served in Government in one capacity or another. I am thinking of Michael Pat Murphy, Paddy Kerrigan and of course, the Desmond family through the generations. At least fourteen members of our Party have been Lord Mayor of this City in our one hundred years of existence.

We are right to be proud of our record, and of our history. But however great our history, however inspiring it may be to younger members of the Party, the past cannot guarantee us a future. The fact that we have been around for a hundred years does not in itself guarantee that we will still be around in a hundred years’ time, or even in twenty years’ time.

We suffered a bruising defeat a few weeks ago. We lost many good comrades, some of them here in Cork. Since then, I have heard it said more than once that we have been here before – most recently in 1985 and that within a few years, we were back on track.

There is some truth in this. We are resilient. We have been in tight corners before and we have pulled through.

But, and this is my message here this evening, the recovery of this Party is not guaranteed. There is no certainty that the pendulum of history will swing back in our direction. There is no certainty that this Party will survive as a major political force into the future – unless we act.

We cannot simply assume that the voters who deserted us in such numbers on May 23rd will come back sooner or later.

The stark truth is that they will only come back if we respond to the message which they sent us on that day in May. And that message was stark, very stark. Quite simply they told us to change or move off the stage.

We need to change our message; we need to change the way we do things; we need to change the image we present to the electorate. That process of change will take time. It will not happen overnight. We have the opportunity to start that process of change when we elect a new leader on July 4th next.

In simple terms (and I appreciate it is often dangerous to reduce something complex to “simple terms”) our message to the electorate over the last while has been this. The country was broke in 2011. We couldn’t borrow money. We had no choice but to raise taxes and cut spending. We faced up to economic reality unlike Sinn Fein and the extreme left, and we did it in a fairer way than either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil did, or ever would do.

In essence what we are saying is that things would have been worse if Labour were not in Government, possibly much worse. And I believe that. I do believe that we have saved the country. I do believe we did a job that needed to be done.

That said, colleagues, simple, clear and true as our message may be, it clearly cut little ice with the electorate on May 23rd last, and there is little reason to believe that it will fare any better in eighteen months’ time.

We need to change the message.

When we go to the electorate in two years’ time it will not be enough for us to point to our record and ask them to imagine how much worse things might have been. We will need to tell them that the lost decade is over. We will need to present them with a vision of the future that is relevant to them and their families. We will need to offer them policies on health, on pensions, on taxes, on social change; policies that will make life better for them and their children. It needs to be a positive forward-looking message that speaks to the lives of the people we look to represent. We cannot rely on a core vote, our record in Government, or constituency work to get us over the line.

Getting that message right will be my main task over the next year. And make no mistake: that will entail a shift in our priorities as a Party. We need to strike a balance between doing our best in Government and developing the Party for the future. All too often we get this wrong. All too often (and for understandable reasons) we get sucked in to the day to day business of Government and fail to pay enough attention to the Party, our message and our organisation. If I am elected leader that will not happen.

We also need to do great deal to reinvigorate our organisation, to help the members of the Party to work better together, to use Information Technology to better effect. For any of this to be effective we need to get the message – the mission if you like – right in the first place.

Fourteen men and women, members of our Party, served as Ministers or Ministers of State when Labour and Democratic Left were last in Government – in 1997. Of those, eight have since left the Dail. One of those eight is now President; another, Toddy, is with us here this evening. Of the remaining six, three have since been Party Leader, one (Emmet) last expressed an interest in being Party Leader a quarter of a century ago, and one, Brendan, decided not to seek the leadership a few weeks ago. The “last man standing”, or rather the last woman standing, is the person I have the honour of sharing the stage with in these election hustings.

Sooner or later we will have to look outside that class of ’97. There will simply be nobody left. The question for all of us, now, is whether to return for one last time to that generation, or whether to move on now.

In ten years’ time, this Party will be led by a new generation of men and women, people in their forties or perhaps even younger. We can start the transition now or we can wait a few more years. The timing of that transition is crucial. We have seen how some of our sister parties have suffered badly by delaying change for a few years too many. We cannot afford the same mistake.

I believe the change we need must start now, and I want to lead that change – to be a bridge to the new generation of our party.

I am asking for your support on July 4th to make it happen.