Tuesday 25 October 2016

This is what Labour must do next, according to Alan Kelly

The party needs to be even-handed towards Fianna Fail and kill off the expectation that it will always go into government with Fine Gael, writes the former Environment Minister

Alan Kelly

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Future: Alan Kelly, pictured third from left, with members of the Labour party outside Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke
Future: Alan Kelly, pictured third from left, with members of the Labour party outside Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke

A few months ago Labour emerged from five years in a coalition government. We lost heavily in the General Election. We have just concluded a leadership selection. One thing all those events have in common is that they are in the past. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

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Instead, I want to look to Labour's present and future - to outline a roadmap that our elected representatives, members and supporters can rally to and work for.

The short-term context is that of a powerless please-everyone, populist government, remotely controlled by Fianna Fáil. The longer term political future is in a society that is profoundly disillusioned by politics and where old certainties of class politics - once a reliable guide to party allegiances - are blurred or gone completely.

I am not jettisoning the past completely. It is still a source of inspiration and, sometimes, of political lessons for Labour. It is a source of pride to me that our party was founded in the town of Clonmel, in my own county, in 1912. I am proud of Labour's distinctive contribution to the Decade of Freedom 1913-23 and of our many achievements in government over decades.

But the past is not a basis for a progressive political party to prosper on. We must rapidly develop realistic, concrete policies that will benefit significant groups of people now and in the future. Historians can judge the past. Politicians must deal with the present and the future.

In the end, all political decisions are based on economic interest. The Celtic Tiger years shrouded that fundamental truth. In a market-driven, liberal, EU economy such as Ireland, there are still 'Haves' and 'Have Nots'. There are economic winners and losers. The people who are losing out in our society are easy to identify - those who cannot afford to buy a modest home or those who have no home at all; the ill people waiting interminably in our A&Es only to end up on trolleys; those who barely get by in our small towns, villages and rural communities; those hard-working families who struggle day in and day out to meet their bills.

The Haves we know too. They include the bankers unscathed by the economic collapse, the vulture funds, rack-renting landlords, employers who exploit workers on 'zero hour' contracts and low pay, and those who deny workers trade union rights.

It is no big deal to figure out where Labour needs to be in that perennial contest. Labour must stand - and work - on the side of the Have Nots against the Haves. Labour cannot be a catch-all party that pretends to represent everyone equally. This distinctive stance must be the strategic template through which we devise our policies for the future, as well as evaluating Government policies and the stances of other political parties. In five years of government, spent struggling to fix an economy and lives shattered by Fianna Fáil, we lost sight of that political touchstone.

Labour must respond, too, to the legitimate right and aspiration of the Have Nots to a better way of life. We will develop practical policies that help them to do this - new policies of equality in education, work, pay, taxation (a progressive system that rewards work and enterprise but where those who are rich enough to pay more, do so). We need to expand the tax base away from its over-reliance on taxes on work. We need to tackle the hidden taxes on workers and their families, like the excessive cost of childcare. We need to make it worthwhile for people to choose work over welfare, maintaining their earnings above a minimum threshold of decency. Working people and their families need to be got back - and soon - to a space where they can afford a family meal out, a good summer holiday, where they have equality of access to education and health care and can afford to change the car every few years instead of hanging on to a clapped out banger. These are small, simple things that transform lives. There must be a premium on work. Work must pay and in a currency that is a better standard of living and greater opportunity. Workers should again be ambitious for a better future.

The key change for us now must be not only to stand, and fight, for these new, progressive policies but not to compromise on them either - even for the sake of gaining political office. Nor should we repeat the past error of trading economic objectives in government for the sake of gains on a liberal agenda, important though that is. Politics is about making decisions on competing priorities. For Labour, though, and into the foreseeable future, the priorities must now be economic. Bread on the table first, that is what the Have Nots want.

Ultimately, Labour needs to be in government if we are to implement our policies. However, we must break with the old pattern of getting into government by diluting our policies down to a common dominator with our larger, right wing partners - resulting in a programme for government that fails to meet the needs of the Have Nots. It is not worth going into government unless a large, distinctive section of Labour policies is implemented in full and visibly. We achieved much in the last government - a higher minimum wage, stronger bargaining rights for workers, taking USC off the backs of 330,000 low paid workers - but were these policies visible enough?

We need to bargain harder with prospective partners based on our mandate. If we are needed to form a government then it cannot be formed without us and should not be unless we get clear, distinctive policies agreed that favour the Have Nots over the Haves. We also need to be even-handed in our stance towards Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It is not enough to just write them off as Civil War parties that should amalgamate. We need to look for the subtle, nuanced differences in their economic policies and exploit these to the advantage of the people we represent. We need to kill off the expectation that it will always be coalition with Fine Gael. It may not always be.

Working on these lines, we can overcome the past and build a better future for the Have Nots. That is what I am committed to.

Sunday Independent

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