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All over our country people are worried… Yeah, it’s that Labour Party Conference spreading good cheer… December 2, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Left.

Not being a member of the Labour Party, and not having a Labour Party member contributing to the CLR on any sort of regular basis – a significant omission and we welcome contributions – can be problematic when reviewing its conferences. As with anything a step or two away from one the nuances may be missed.

But that said it is possible to make some assessments. Broadly speaking the Labour Party appears pretty chipper, which is surprising in one respect in that power appears at least three years away, and unsurprising in another in that following the Mullingar Accord debacle (ponder that… the Mullingar Accord. I’d have gone for Athlone, or perhaps no town name at all and simply called it an Accord) it has found that being itself – albeit in the ill-defined way that the Labour Party is itself – is vastly more attractive as a state of affairs than being the second violin in a Fine Gael/Labour Party lash up.

Some thoughts first. The Labour Party has a good website, but as of 7 am yesterday morning they still hadn’t posted up a text of Gilmore’s speech. One can sit through the video (and I did – find it here), but how much time do they think we all have? Then there was the blue background. A neutral message – eh? Not too ideological.

That said, it was a fairly positive speech and cleverly pitched in that it didn’t accentuate the negative but was pragmatic. He had some good lines about the centrality of government to recession (although the slogan A New Deal for Ireland… hmmmm… not too gone on that…).

I am not here tonight to tell you how bad things are, or that they might even get worse. I want to talk with you about how things can get better.

There is a way out of these tough times. There is a way to save jobs and to get business moving again; a way to get people back to work; a way to reboot and stimulate the economy.

We are in a recession. And for many, that is a new and frightening experience. But there is one thing we know for sure about recessions. They always come to an end. Or to be more accurate, they are brought to an end.

By the actions of good government, by wise political leadership, but above all, by bold and imaginative new thinking.

Some nice linkages making points about the welfare state during the 20th century.

And good to hear a strong individual stance taken…

No, Fianna Fáil does not have the answer now.

And neither does Fine Gael.

Scapegoating public sector workers will not put a single unemployed person back to work. And making the cuts even deeper will only prolong the recession.

And the digs at FG didn’t stop there…

Right-wing economics and cautious conservative economics cannot adjust now to a global economic scene that has utterly changed.

This sure ain’t Mullingar. Or anywhere close to it.

Quoting Paul Krugman he noted that government in a depression has to increase public expenditure. ‘That is the very opposite to what the conservative commentators are recommending and the opposite to what Fianna Fáil is doing….this crisis may have started on Wall Street but it was made much worse when it got to Kildare Street’.

The key to getting out of this economic crisis is not how much the Government can cut but what it can create.

And fascinating to hear him talk about recycling and ‘green’ issues. Labour is publishing a climate change bill, but only one mention of the Green Party at the end of the speech. Clever that too. Unlike Fine Gael whose attacks were relentless. But they were implicit in the talk of the broadband ‘roll-out’.

It is time to end this sequence of rip-offs. Buy back Eircom if necessary.

Rebuild this asset for the Irish people. And create high-tech jobs.

And the argument for state interventions in reconstruction of schools and other areas through funding from the National Pension Reserve Fund.

Gilmore and Labour seem sanguine about borrowing, noting that the national debt is low.

[the] Government should set a borrowing ceiling – a limit that must not be crossed.

The National Pension Reserve Fund contains over €18 billion. A full seven years ago, Labour argued that part of this money would be better put to work investing in our own infrastructure, rather than playing the market abroad.

No harm either to point up their divergence from the economic consensus during the height of the bank crisis (well, height of so far) – a divergence that set them to the left of Sinn Féin. A place they seemed surprised to be.

…we were right two months ago when Labour stood alone to challenge the blanket guarantee for the banks.

A guarantee which exposed the taxpayer to enormous risks and did nothing to reform bank practices or replace bankers or give small business the credit it needs.

Government cannot stand by and watch small businesses – the backbone of our economy – go to the wall for want of a normal loan.

It must set up a dedicated national fund to extend credit to small business.

And hard not to agree with the following in light of the bizarre machinations by the government over bank recapitalisation…

Fianna Fáil are willing to bring the worst form of vulture capitalist into Ireland, so they can do to the banks what they did to Eircom. Extract more profit, eliminate more jobs and disappear as quickly as they came.

And an obvious but no less useful point:

If the taxpayer can go guarantor for the banks, then we must have a guarantee for families. A guarantee that, for the duration of this recession, no family will lose their home.
There are many ways that that can be done. But the principle is simple…If we can bail out the bankers and protect the property developers, then for two years at least, foreclosure and repossession should be off limits.

The one thing we all fear, even more than losing our job, is losing our home. And we will not rebuild this economy on a foundation of fear. We will rebuild it on trust. Because from trust, comes hope. From hope comes confidence. And confidence is the most powerful economic stimulus of all.

[As an aside, let’s not – and let not the Labour Party – forget that there remain many people even after fifteen years of ‘boom’ without their own homes]

Some good words about the public service, particularly the following.

The public service can never be reformed by parties who do not believe in the concept of public service in the first place. Who, in good times, see public servants as fodder for decentralisation and privatisation. And, in bad times, make them the scapegoats for their own political failures.

They teach our children. They put themselves at risk policing our streets, and fighting our fires.

Inevitably it wasn’t all plaudits…

But they are sometimes let down by the practices of a minority. The top executive who doesn’t know the limit to a junket. The time-server, who is forever sick on Monday mornings.

But the public service will only be reformed by a Government which believes in, and values, public service. Respects public servants. And therefore has the authority to do what is needed to get quality public services, and value for money. That knows the difference between the baby and the bathwater.

And a few very sensible words about the pay agreement.

Social partnership helped get this country out of bad times in the 1980s, and it can help again. If Government makes a pay agreement one week, it can’t unilaterally cancel it the next. And especially can’t change it if VHI premiums are going up that week.

But the context is rapidly changing. Any sensible Government would reconvene the social partners, and seek agreement on a new social and economic plan, to see Ireland through the full recession.

All told an impressive outing with a newly toughened rhetoric and a strong support for the public good. Got to say, he’s a surprisingly good speaker and his somewhat dowdy appearance oddly serves to strengthen it.

A fine balance on the Lisbon Treaty. For a party which was so emphatic in the wake of the Treaty defeat/victory (delete as applicable 😉 ) he was very very even-handed and a little vague on where we go next.

I was disappointed with the result, but I respect it. The Lisbon Treaty cannot be ratified as a result of our referendum. And we can leave it like that if we wish.

But there are consequences. Europe, at the very moment it should be concentrating on the big economic issues affecting our jobs and livelihoods, is obliged to return to institutional bargaining.

We won’t lose any of our rights by holding up institutional change. But let there be no doubt about it: we are already losing influence, and at the very time we most need it.

So… er… what are you recommending there Eamon?

A very forceful section, underpinned by his own personal experience, argued that:

We can get through this recession. If we have to endure some pain, let us make sure it has a purpose. What matters is where we will be when it is over, in three or four year’s time. That we will have, at least, the schools, the better educated workforce, the broadband.

That’s not looking very rosy…

If Irish people know what their sacrifices are for; if they can be confident that there is a better place at the end of the recession; then no politician need call on them to be patriotic.

What the country needs now is leadership. And I believe that Labour can provide that lead.

People sometimes say to me – ‘Aren’t you lucky you’re not in government now’ But now is the time when Labour should be in government. Because people tonight who have lost their job or about to…

Labour is the party of the common good.” We are neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, we are Labour. I wish we could have a general election now, but FF and their Green poodles are not going to allow our wish…Ireland today needs a fresh start driven by Labour ideas and values…

And close with a paragraph in Irish, which was good to hear.

So. Neutral blue background, but a fairly strong restatement of an independent-ish Labour Party message. One has the impression that the LP is a bit amazed at selecting Gilmore for the job and that he appears so – well – suited for it.

Parsing out the detail on finance…

The national debt currently stands at just under €49 billion, or 36 per cent of gross domestic product. Responding to questions yesterday, the Labour leader set the target at 60 per cent of gross domestic product, limit laid down under the European Union Maastricht Treaty.

Phew… exciting stuff.

Still, isn’t it interesting how the much-lauded (by political commentators) new recruits on the Fine Gael right have had unintended consequence as regards the relationship with Labour. As Mark Hennessy noted in yesterday’s IT…

This time, however, the depth of Labour’s feelings is different in scale and tone, particularly at Fine Gael’s increasingly vocal criticisms of public service workers – especially from Leo Varadkar, who enjoys the distinction of being loathed in equal measure by both Fianna Fáil and Labour.

The plague on all your houses approach to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil offers Labour the opportunity to emphasise its distinctiveness from the two of them, and, for now, deflect questions about which it would ally with in coalition after the next Dáil elections, should the numb

And his following paragraph is one I hadn’t expected to read…

The happy memories held by senior Labour figures of the time of the 1992/1994 coalition with Fianna Fáil, bar the events which led to its collapse, are still strong, though that has much to do with the fact that Fianna Fáil allowed Labour to dominate the policy agenda.

It’s trueish, and there has always been a component of Labour willing to deal with FF. How this all pans out though is going to provide us all with a great spectator sport.

And let’s not forget that party reform is still on the agenda. The commission led by Greg Sparks remains in the undergrowth and the proposals that have been released so far indicate that centralisation is the order of the day (although, for those from a DL/WP background that can hardly the most unfamiliar direction).

Under the proposals, the party’s 34-strong National Executive Council (NEC), which represents all strands in the party, would be abolished and replaced by a small executive committee and a larger national council representing each constituency.

Meanwhile, the powers of constituency organisations to decide on candidates would be reduced, with party headquarters assuming new powers to vet prospective candidates and decide on a short-list of names to go before constituency conventions.

A straw in the wind? Brendan Ryan implicitly supporting such a process.

And that’s only one part of the ‘reform’ package. The Union/Party linkup still exercises Labour. What to make of a press release by Cllr. Emer Costello supporting this motion:

That Conference agrees to establish a Centenary Commission consisting of members of the Labour party and the Trade Union Movement to draw up plans to commemorate the role of organised labour in the founding of the Labour party in 1912, in the Great Lock Out of 1913 and in the Easter Rising of 1916.

The press release reads:

The Labour Party is indeed the child of the Trade Union movement, and while it has been argued that perhaps the Party has come “of age” and should break the umbilical cord there is no way that we can ever or should ever lose sight of our trade union origins and roots.

In 2006 under the excellent stewardship of Liz McManus the Labour Party and SIPTU joined forces to celebrate the role of the Labour Movement around the events leading up to the 1916 rising in the very successful Liberty Project.

This motion seeks to build on the success of the Liberty Project and calls on the Party to establish a centenary commission to celebrate the inextricable links between the Trade Union Movement and the Labour Party.

I’m sure the unions will consider that a nice consolation prize should the links be detached. Maybe.

It may seem odd or counterintuitive, but coming from a political background where there was no ‘organic’ link between party and Unions the idea of a rupture – at least on the part of ex-WP or DL people – might well seem less difficult than otherwise expected. And in fairness to Labour one might readily accept that the Unions (and perhaps reasonably from their point of view) have always tended to cosy up to Fianna Fáil. And vice versa.

So. This isn’t the socialist millennium. This is mild reformism. At best. But, let’s not in a context where the media and the political establishment, including the Green Party, have departed for the centre-right, look a gift horse in the mouth while that gift horse is actually making the case for the public sector, for something better than the current diet of supposed ‘realism’ and the necessity for ‘pain’ put about by those who can best avoid it while pushing it onto those who can least bear it.

Sure, Labour is fighting its own corner for once and eschewing – at least rhetorically – link-ups with FG, so it would appear to be a more favourable period than any in long while for the party. That it is essentially, when one cuts through the verbiage, saying much as it ever said is no great surprise. That it is being feted as saying something new – as in yesterday’s Irish Times editorial – indicates the distorted focus of our media and its inability to engage with political discourse.

But in a time when there is so little in terms of weight in the forces arrayed against the mainstream bien-pensant economic and social critiques that prevail in this society and the voice of any countervailing narrative is so soft, this intervention – flawed as it is – is not merely welcome, but entirely necessary.

Now if it were couched in more explicit social democrat and democratic socialist language and terms I might be more impressed again. Not because I’m in thrall to ideology but because it would indicate a genuine desire on the part of the Labour Party to cleave to an individual course. Maybe next time.


1. Damian O'Broin - December 2, 2008

I thought it was a very good speech. I wouldn’t be as concerned as you about the need for explicitly social democrat / democratic socialist language. He still managed to begin to chart a distinctive, left position. He laid into FG – always a good thing 😉 And he began to weave a strong personal story as well.

My one concern – a big one – is the electoral strategy that needs to accompany the political one. Michael Taft has mentioned this as well, and the media continue to obsess about whether we’ll be joining FG or FF. I would have liked to see Gilmore, and the party, stake a stronger claim to leadership of the opposition. He’s more popular than Kenny, a man who the voters have already considered and rejected. And a better media and Dail performer to boot. So all the ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ placards cheered me no end.

And to finish with some pedantry – the full text of the speech is up on the conference website and I have it on good authority that it was up about 10 minutes after the speech ended.


2. WorldbyStorm - December 2, 2008

Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty impressed too.

You are of course correct re the full text. Blame my pesky eyesight.


3. Wednesday - December 4, 2008

Well, so much for their distinctive left position. Yesterday they abstained from an SF amendment to abolish the PRSI ceiling. I guess they still get cold feet at doing too much to upset their middle class support.


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