Date Released: 28 February 2015
Address by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, to a meeting on the restatement of Labour values Saturday 28th February, at the Labour Party Conference, Killarney, Co. Kerry.
How did the only political party which opposed the ill-fated Bank Guarantee in the Oireachtas on 30th September 2008, end up getting blamed for it all and how does Connolly’s party progress the building of an egalitarian society from this point on?
The current prevailing narrative portrays Labour as having broken its promises to the electorate, entered into government with Fine Gael and collaborated in the implementation of a cruel one sided austerity agenda. Tragically, this simplistic misrepresentation of the truth, which also conveniently ignores the fact that Labour was the only political party which opposed the ill-fated bank guarantee on the morning of 30th September 2008, even seems to be accepted by some of our own members and public representatives.
I cannot understand why we simply cannot say it as it happened. Labour sought a mandate to preserve key elements of public provision. Not only did we do that, but we also outlined clearly in our manifesto as to how we would do it. We argued for a longer adjustment period to achieve the 3% deficit target - to Budget 2016 - levying a greater contribution on wealth and those on top incomes and creating a strategic investment bank to leverage the resources to generate thousands of jobs.
The inconvenient truth is that we didn’t get the mandate because 60% of the people who went out to vote in the general election of 2011 endorsed the candidature of those who had guaranteed the better off that they would be required to contribute little or nothing and committed to achieve the adjustment by 2014, as well.
We were faced with the choice of opting to go into opposition and grow our electoral support while the most draconian austerity agenda ever inflicted in Ireland was implemented by Fine Gael and its political allies on the right, (who would almost inevitably have won any immediate general election) or going into government as a minority party outnumbered by more than two to one to try to mitigate the damage to working people and civil society in general.
The results can be best analysed in the context of the recent victory of the Syriza movement in Greece, which I and many others in the Labour Party enthusiastically welcomed. They committed to:
Reinstate the minimum wage
Rebuild the core infrastructure of the social welfare system
End the divestiture of state assets
Re-employ people who had been compulsorily dismissed from the public service and
Achieve an accommodation on at least one third of their country’s national debt.
Despite the fact that when we entered government in 2011 the country had a higher budget deficit than Greece, we succeeded in:
Reinstating the minimum wage.
Winning government agreement to reinstate the basic legal mechanisms which protect the threshold of decency in pay and conditions in the workplace (the ERO and REA infrastructure).
Persuading Fine Gael to legislate to strengthen the collective bargaining rights of workers.
Preventing cuts of more than €2 billion more than those which would have been effected.
Preserving the basic infrastructure of the social welfare system.
Preventing compulsory redundancies in the public service.
Limiting the privatisation agenda, thus far, to the energy generating part of Bord Gáis.
Maintaining the pupil / teacher ratio
while simultaneously helping to bring about the highest level of growth in job creation in the Eurozone.
Yet, we have allowed a narrative which portrays us as having collaborated with austerity instead of mitigating it. This perception even extends to the belief among many that we actually embrace the austerity recipe as a solution to the economic difficulties of Ireland and of Europe. Yet, I know no one from the party leader and all of the Labour Ministers and previous Ministers or others in all ranks of the Party who remotely believe any such thing.
Moreover, we should never have lent ourselves to the view that the adjustment agenda imposed since the government came into office in 2011, is actually fair. It is clearly and transparently unfair, reflecting as it does a brutal troika imposed perception reinforced by the overwhelming dominance of Fine Gael’s centre right outlook in the numerical composition of the government and the inescapable fact that majority of those voting in the general election of that year, unwittingly or otherwise, endorsed the 2014 deficit reduction deadline. We were unable to render it fair - only to make it a great deal fairer than it otherwise would have been.
It was always going to be difficult to retain support among the public irrespective of the degree of success that was being achieved in mitigation one way or the other. But it certainly wasn’t going to be retained through a strategy that appeared to accept the anti-Labour analysis and abandoned the struggle to highlight Labour’s identity in the current administration. I never joined a political party called “the Government” and until these last four years, I didn’t realise that such a party existed. Our opposite numbers in Fine Gael clearly don’t believe that such a party exists either and, if they do, they certainly don’t regard themselves as being members of it.
Our task is not just to get candidates elected. That is simply one of the things we have to do to promote Connolly’s egalitarian project in the Ireland of the 21st century. Increasingly, I grow concerned that too many of our comrades have confused it with our core project. Our core project was and remains the attainment of an Ireland that is true to the vision envisaged in O’Casey’s Constitution of the Citizen Army which was reflected in the Proclamation of 1916 and subsequently in the Democratic Programme on which the War of Independence was fought - i.e. an egalitarian society which would cherish all the children of the nation equally.
Our society has been deeply divided by the water charges controversy. These have become a totemic manifestation of the entire one sided austerity agenda and they’re serving as the catalyst around which tens of thousands of justifiably angered and alienated citizens are mobilising. Are we really content to go on allowing ourselves to be seen as the enforcers of an austerity project which represents a repudiation of the very essence of the social democratic project since its inception? Instead of allowing the continuing expansion of this great societal cleavage and the alienation of so many of our fellow citizens, I assert that we should be using the limited degree of influence that we have to open up an engagement with the various trade unions, civil society and social movements that are emerging in the context of the campaign. We should be urging dialogue and a healing process. Instead of standing by helplessly while citizens are cast in jail for over exuberantly protesting their rights, we should be instrumental in seeking to bring about an agreeable solution through dialogue. In any event, the only rational solution is to increase the conservation allowance so that it is sufficient to defray the cost of all the water that everyone needs to meet their normal domestic household requirements in the short term, while committing in the longer term, when the economic circumstances allow, for the re-designation of Irish Water as a non-commercial semi-state or democratically controlled water authority that will be able to supply every household with their normal needs free of charge while levying a tariff on wasting water as a conservation measure.
In outlining our manifesto for the next general election we should say it as it is. We should stand as an independent, democratic, socialist party which will never allow its character to be defined by its relationships or its attitude to any other party or political movement. We should unashamedly campaign for a society which prioritises the interests of the common good, in which all the services that are essential for the maintenance of a decent life, from healthcare to eldercare to childcare, through education, training, housing and the quality of the environment are available to citizens free at the point of use and funded through collective endeavour. As democratic socialists we recognise the critical role of high quality public services in the attainment of social equality and the elimination of poverty. We should not be afraid to say that we recognise as well that these can only be provided through properly levied fair taxation and the development of a dynamic innovative economy.
We should lay out a progressive agenda for gradually building western European style health, education and social services. We should acknowledge as well that we cannot have western European style social services without western European levels of taxation.
We should recognise the primacy of wealth generation as distinct from wealth redistribution as key to the enhancement of living standards by championing the development of a dynamic, innovative, mixed social market economy acknowledging the critical role of continuing foreign direct investment and gradually building a powerful state owned Strategic Development Bank. In this context, we should reiterate our commitment to preserving our public enterprises in public ownership and optimising their potential as key strategic elements in the development of a dynamic economy and as vehicles for generating employment. We should also commit to a referendum to change the constitution so as to prohibit the privatisation of the public water supply.
We should also campaign for the abolition of the Universal Social Charge and its replacement by a new Progressive Social Solidarity Contribution which would preserve all the progressive aspects of the current charge as a mechanism for collecting revenue from the wealthy and those on high incomes while greatly alleviating the burden on people with low to middle incomes. This Social Solidarity Contribution should be dedicated to a few key elements of public provision such as re-building the health service, providing for eldercare and childcare and perhaps providing the template for the State’s component of a new tri-partite second pillar pension system. Each year, the Government should be required to publish separately a statement outlining the progress that had been made on this agenda so as to gradually build public confidence in the project enabling the contribution to be increased with the passage of time as the contribution gains public acceptance.
We should recommit to free tuition fees at third level and re-introduce tax relief for third level courses in the context of an agenda which would expand the range of apprenticeships to underpin skills development and facilitate innovation.
We should reiterate our commitment to the recently announced Housing Programme, promising to expand and accelerate it through exploring the use of off balance sheet investment mechanisms.
We should commit to a ‘fairness at work’ agenda promising new legislation on fair employment rules to overcome the veto of those who refuse to participate in the Joint Labour Committee infrastructure as well as optimising the potential of public procurement as a mechanism for driving a decent standards of employment.
We should commit to a Tax Justice Programme envisaging a re-distribution of the burden to the order of €1 to €1.5 billion from those on low to middle incomes to the wealthy and those at the top who can afford to pay more through the use of the new progressive Social Solidarity Contribution and the gradual elimination of tax reliefs and tax shelters.
All these concepts should be worked out and presented in forensic and comprehensive detail. I believe that work should be undertaken with others who genuinely believe themselves to be of the Left and who consider themselves to be as committed to the ideal of egalitarian society envisaged by James Connolly and James Larkin. We should not be sectarian about it. We should keep our options to work with progressive people and parties who are left of centre in order to achieve the ultimate ambition envisaged by the founders of the Labour Party for a government of, and for, the mass of working people and dispossessed of our country.