Irish Times OpEd: Labour must win argument for social democratic values in government

imageCAP2R9JMALEX WHITE: We must now look to harness the talents of all our parliamentarians, so as to present a more rounded view of the modern Labour Party

On the face of it what the Labour Party believes in is what most people believe in. We share a vision of society, a vision characterised by values of fairness, community, justice and equality of opportunity. We believe in the regulation of markets in the public interest. We believe in the provision of good, shared public services from our pooled resources. We believe that all of our citizens, old or young, healthy or disabled, gay or straight, people of all religions or none, are entitled to equality before the law and the best possible opportunity to live life to the fullest.

That’s what Labour and all social democrats believe in. Most others on the political stage don’t. Those to our right look to minimise regulation and cut public services when possible.

The down-with- all-taxes brigade and the flag-waving populists who claim to be on our left offer no workable programme, just slogans, soundbites and headline-seeking guff. So while social democratic values – Labour values – sound pretty mainstream, if our party is weakened further there will be no force in Irish politics advocating them and seeking to implement them. The political choice will be between conservatism and populism.

This Labour Party leadership election is therefore not just about Labour: it is about restoring the damaged health of the social democratic voice in Irish politics. Our ideas are not new and they are not exclusive to Labour. What is different about us is that our party, and the trade union movement, see it as our mission to make that vision a reality. We are not a party of protest. We are not hurlers on the ditch. We are a party of activists, people who want to do more than protest about the state of the country or write cranky articles in newspapers.

We do not seek power simply in order to hold office: when we take power we do so in the hope of changing society for the better by implementing policies that the public and the Labour Party believe in. That is what drove us to enter Government three years ago. We could have stood aside and left the business of Government to an unstable Fine Gael minority government hell bent on cutting services to a far greater extent than has transpired since. In that event, Labour would have been the primary party of opposition and very likely in a different place now in terms of public affection. We knew that but we didn’t take that option and we were right not to.

We decided instead to work to save the country from total collapse and to do so in a way that was as fair as possible. Three years since we entered Government the economy is far from right; but all of the economic indicators, including, most recently, this week’s exchequer returns for April, point to accelerating progress. But, to paraphrase my colleague Pat Rabbitte, economic indicators don’t butter parsnips; and, in fairness, nor do visionary words.

The RTÉ exit poll taken on the day of the European and local elections captured the current position perfectly.

A large number of people accepted when asked that the state of the country was getting better. However, only a fraction of those same people thought that their personal affairs were getting any better and many thought they were getting worse. In short, many people believe the country is doing better but they themselves are not. Until this mismatch is resolved there can be little prospect of a political dividend to the Labour Party.

The first thing we must do is to make it clear that the period of getting the country’s house in order by virtue of cuts in public services and tax rises on people on average incomes is over. We must still aim to meet the deficit target next year but this must be achieved by stimulus and growth, as the European Central Bank implicitly acknowledged this week. Certainly there can be no question of a €2 billion adjustment as previously envisaged.

I am acutely aware that the cuts of recent years have put our public services and those who work in them under severe pressure. Public servants have done a fine job in doing more with less but there is a limit to what we can expect. In many instances, in the health service for example, that limit has been reached.

In 2011 the public returned 37 Labour TDs to Dáil Éireann. After the election we formed a Government that included 11 of our TDs who had proven ability and experience.

At a time of national emergency this was certainly the right thing to do. It is now time to change the picture.

We must now look to harness the talents of all our parliamentarians, so as to present a more rounded view of the modern Labour Party. I have 10 years’ experience as a public representative, and 30 years’ experience in other jobs. As party leader I would bring a fresh voice to the microphone. But the most important thing is what that voice says. That voice must win the argument over what kind of society we need to build after the catastrophe visited upon us by an opposing ideology. Labour’s voice must motivate and inspire, stand up for our values in government, and lead us into the next general election with confidence. I have that voice.

This article first appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday June 7th 2014: