Mansion House Hustings Speech
Speech at the Mansion House, Dublin
Thursday, June 26th 2014
Comrades and Friends,
These four weeks have been immensely energising for me as a candidate for the Leadership of this great Party. It has been an extraordinary experience. The debates have been wide-ranging and often inspirational. People have phoned me out of the blue to share their views. I have travelled all over the country to meet and listen to Party members, and I have come back with two simple messages:
-firstly, the new leader of our Party must fight our corner, holding true to our values and principles; and
-secondly, the new leader must renew our organisation, so that we can carry the fight to our opponents.
This election has also been an opportunity for us all to reflect on what the Labour Party means to us, and what we need to do now in order to restore our standing in the eyes of the people.
When I reflect on that question –what does the Labour Party mean to me –three insights come to mind. From three different people, at different times, saying different things.
Frank McGuinness is one of our greatest playwrights, author of the extraordinary “Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme”. Frank gave an address to the party’s 21st century Commission after the 2007 election. He spoke movinglyabout coming to Dublin in the 1970s as a young, gay man. He was lost in a strange, somewhat forbidding city. It was the members and activists of the Labour Party who befriended him, and who accepted him when he couldn’t get a welcome anywhere else. Frank McGuinness never forgot us for that.
The wonderful Betty Dowling was a member of this Party for something like seventy years. Betty died a couple of years ago. She was an active, loyal member of the Party in Dublin South –an absolute inspiration –so knowledgeable about the history of the party, its characters and its folklore. She was always so encouraging to me personally. I still have some of her good-wish cards that would arrive at critical moments at election time, always with a little contribution towards the campaign. I feel her spirit in the room here tonight and that of so many others who built and sustained this Party.
Thirdly, I had the privilege to be at the Tom Johnson Summer School last Saturday night and to hear Labour Youth’s Jack Eustace deliver a real tour de force on the Party, its potential, its future. Amongst much else he said this:
“Government is opportunity, even in these difficult times. We have done good, we have done bad, we can do better. But that message must go out beyond the leadership, beyond the cabinet, beyond the parliamentary party and must be taken up by the party membership. Hopeless anger gets us nowhere. Decrying the choice to go into government gets us nowhere. The only thing that can bring this party to its best is you –you as a member, you as a voter, you as a voice for those outside of our tent.”
So, we know we have a past, and we can be confident that with people like Jack and the young women and men of Labour Youth we have a bright future as well.
But we have to win that future; it won’t fall into our laps.
And after our recent electoral reverses we have to face some very stark truths.
Some of these truths relate to the very message we are giving to the electorate.
I said in Cork that we can’t fight the next general election on our record alone. It will not be enough to say that we saved the country from bankruptcy, however important we think that was. We will need to present a progressive social democratic agenda to our people setting out what we propose to do in the second part of this decade, and beyond, on the key issues that matter to us all –public services, tax reform, jobs, and civil and democratic rights.
But colleagues this is a time to be frank with each other. The stark truth is that we will find it difficult to get a hearing for anything we say in 2016 if we allow the impression to stand that we misled people before the last elections, and that since then we have broken every promise we ever made.
We need to take this argument head on and we need to do so with confidence and clarity.
Much of what we said before the election made it into the Programme for Government but not everything did. We can’t expect that a Fine Gael/Labour Government would deliver on each and every commitment made by the Labour Party before the last election. Yet this seems to be exactly what our opponents and many in the media are suggesting.
We all know what happened after the last election. We did a deal with Fine Gael to save the country. To save people from what would have happened if Fine Gael had free rein. That is what happened.
We are entitled to be judged on the Programme for Government and not on the basis of what we would have done if the people had voted for us in greater numbers than they actually did.
We are a Party of good, honest, talented people who share a set of beliefs. We are a Party of principled activists and determined fighters: we are a Party of people who step up when our country demands it: of people who get involved in politics, not to fill our pockets, but to make our country a better, more equal place.
Of course there will always be those who sneer at us. Who deplore the fact that we are willing to get stuck in to the messy business of government and getting the country out of recession. Many of these people think of themselves as being on our Left, whether they be Sinn Feiners, Me Feiners or the far left. This is the left that uniquely in all the western world is opposed to taxes on property. This is the left that forced the privatisation of bin collections by telling people not to pay their bills. This is the left that is undermining our public services daily by peddling the nonsense that public services can be paid for by taxing Tony O’Reilly, Sean Quinn and pretty well nobody else.
As a Party we need to stand up to the so-called left. We also need to stand up to Fine Gael and if you elect me on July 4th I promise you that we will. Labour must be more visible in Government if you elect me and I promise you we will.
I think most of us in this room accept we need to change. The question you need to answer is which of the two people before you best represents the change we all know needs to happen.
I believe that our presentation to the electorate must be clear, concise and honest. I believe that we should not shirk, or avoid difficult questions, or shy away from the difficult challenges of today or tomorrow. I believe we must lay out the choices that face our people – whether on tax, on public services, or climate change.
The Leader must be someone who can deal effectively and convincingly with our opponents. I believe that I have those skills – the skills necessary to address what Mick Duff earlier referred to as our “communications deficit” – and to bring others with me in doing so.
Most of all, the Leader must be someone who will take the Party with confidence into the next election and beyond – in a project of renewal for Labour and for Ireland.
I ask for your support.