Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pat throws down the gauntlet-thinking time begins.


Labour leader Pat Rabbitte has launched the first part of the party's serious election review tonight with a keynote speech at the Labour Party'sT om Johnson summer school in Galway.I was due to be there but my enforced silence ruled it out.

I have put Pat's speech in full here, as it's not on the Labour site yet. They say that recognising a problem is the first part of solving it. If that's the case then Pat's presentation tonight might represent 'Tús maith, leath na h-oibre'.

Colleagues and Friends

It is a pleasure once again to give the annual Lecture in honour of Jim Kemmy. It is fitting that we pay tribute in this way to a giant of the Left, who was a man of both action and ideas.

The theme of my lecture will hopefully fit with that of your summer school – 'Where next for Labour?' It is essential that, in the aftermath of the election, the Party now takes a long look at itself, and examine its place in Irish politics and Irish society. In a very changed Ireland it is imperative anyway that Labour continues to examine its political positioning and organisational effectiveness.

The debate which we must have is really about the future direction of the Labour Party. I believe we must embark on a root and branch examination of the role and function of the Labour Party in modern Ireland. Some of you will have attended the meeting in Dublin on June 16th of candidates and directors of election, when a good start was made.

However, not to put the cart before the horse, we cannot avoid – nor should we attempt to avoid – an analysis of the campaign, the electoral strategy and where Labour is now positioned.

The results of the election are disappointing. We set out to win more seats for Labour and to change the Government. We offered the people a clear alternative – Fianna Fáil and the PDs on one hand, and Labour and Fine Gael on the other, with the possibility of Green involvement if required. For much of the campaign, it looked as though we might succeed. Fianna Fáil were at or below 38% in a series of polls, and the PDs were clearly facing extinction. Fine Gael were polling at or above 26%-27%, and we had a number of polls which put us in the region of 12%-13%. It was always going to be tight. In the event, we narrowly missed out. In our multi-seat system of P.R., the margin between success and failure can be wafer thin.

There was a shift in the last week back to Fianna Fáil, at our expense, but not only at our expense. Why did this shift occur? Conventional wisdom has it that, in the end, fear about a weakening economy overcame the desire for positive change. Fianna Fáil and the PDs were certainly pumping out the message that the Alternative Government would wreck the economy. Did the tag of 'slump coalition', particularly when applied to a possible three-party line-up including the Greens have an impact? Probably. Up to the last week people wanted change in order to get improvement in public services and quality of life issues but in the end they didn't want to risk change. It is ironical that Fianna Fail's partner in government should be the Green Party, given how liberally Fianna Fail and the PDs used the possible inclusion of the Greens in a Fine Gael/Labour government to scare off people from voting for the Alliance for Change.

Perhaps the easiest explanation to fall back on is that the electoral strategy was wrong. The fact that Fine Gael bounced back almost to its traditional position is taken as giving credence to this argument.

Electoral strategy, although only tactical, is always important and the strategy adopted for Election 2007 should be fully discussed and analysed.

Taking a long term view, however, it is not at all clear that Labour's difficulty in breaking out of its traditional niche (Election 1992 excepted) has much to do with electoral strategy at all.

Different electoral strategies were pursued in 2002 and 2007 with amazingly similar outcomes. In 2002 we won 20 seats with an independent strategy and in 2007 we won 20 seats in an Alliance for Change with Fine Gael. It is argued, and perhaps correctly, that Fine Gael benefited from the strategy pursued in 2007. Yet when Fine Gael lost 22 seats in 2002 and Labour pursued a different strategy we did not harvest any of the fallen Fine Gael seats. And is it clear that Fine Gael's revival in 2007 is due in part or whole to the Mullingar Accord? There was no Mullingar Accord in 2004 when Fine Gael for the first time in its history came within 5 seats of Fianna Fail on local authorities and won 5 seats in the European Parliament to 4 for Fianna Fail. There was no voting pact between Fine Gael and Labour for the 2004 Elections.

Would breakfast roll man have supported Labour if the Party had a different electoral strategy? Maybe s/he would – but there is no evidence for such a conclusion.

If fighting Election 2007 on an independent strategy was the secret for success, it must be asked why then did the Greens not make the expected breakthrough? They could not have entered the contest in more favourable circumstances. After the Northern Ireland settlement, the same can be said about Sinn Finn. And the Socialist Party was unrestrained by any alliance with "an establishment Party". Similarly, those independents who espoused fashionable so-called left-wing causes were virtually wiped out. In a country pre-occupied with the state of the health services, Hospital candidates fell like ninepins.

Did the Leaders' Debate influence the outcome of the Election? Did the Late Late Show Benefit for Bertie contribute to the outcome? Did Fianna Fail's campaign to denigrate the capacity of the Fine Gael Leader for the office of Taoiseach succeed in putting off would-be Labour voters? The answer to all 3 questions is probably yes. I also believe that a lot of the damage was done as long ago as last October. Bertiegate cost us in the polls. One explanation eloquently summed up by Eoghan Harris on the Late Late on the Friday before polling, was that it was a class thing. The working class and those who have made good, were disinterested in revelations about Mr. Ahern's unusual banking arrangements and were not impressed by the assault on a man who presents himself as a working class boy made good. Whatever the truth of that argument, it is evident that Mr. Ahern did not suffer electorally from the controversy.

As I say, those are all factors. So too is the financial resources available to the other parties, most notably Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who blanketed the country with outdoor advertising before the campaign began. It was not without impact that Fine Gael were able to poster the country, sometimes with Labour policies.
Equally, one has to question a Constituency Commission that draws up a set of constituencies that can translate 42% of the vote into 47% of the seats. Traditionally Labour has struggled to overcome relative scarcity of financial resources through organizational effort on the ground. In modern conditions it is proving ever more difficult to match the financial firepower of the two conservative parties.

Important though those factors are, they cannot distract us from the main issue, which is us. All of those concerns, including electoral strategy, lead us to look at others, rather than at ourselves, and it is with ourselves that the problem most definitely lies. With ourselves, and how we are seen by modern Irish society.

In marketing parlance, there is a problem with the Labour 'brand'. In using that term, I am not referring to something superficial, such as the way that we package the party.

I am referring to the spontaneous associations and reactions that voters have when they see the words 'Labour Party'. The way we are seen in modern Ireland

What does that mean – that there is a problem with the brand? It means that the Labour Party does not conjure up in people's minds, much less inspire, a definite sense of what the party stands for and how it relates to their day to day lives.

As a party, we tend to think of ourselves as having a core working class vote. According to the RTE exit poll, more people in the ABC1 category vote for us than do the C2Des. Its not that we are loosing our traditional base – its that our traditional base is being eroded and has changed. Affluence has changed the way people think about themselves. If we ever did, we do not reflect the aspirations of most of the new middle class – people in working class occupations trying to live middle class lives. People whose parents in some cases voted Labour, but who themselves do not vote Labour.

We have not persuaded them that we will improve their lives, and certainly we have not persuaded them that we are worth the risk, as they see it, of changing horses mid-stream.

Labour preformed well among young people, and among first-time voters, getting 16% of first preferences from the latter.

There is, however, no escaping our own flatlining.
The word Labour should summon up a positive association in people's minds of a party that 'gets' them, and their lives, that has economic competence, and that has a positive message to sell.

But of course, we must be more than that. Much more. Labour is a party founded on the timeless values of liberty, equality and fraternity. On the idea that the common good is best served by common action. That working together, we can bridge the gap between where we find ourselves, and what is within all of us to become.

As a party, we have plenty of policies. Our election manifesto was a fine document, which, if implemented, would radically transform and improve the lives of our citizens, and our life as a country. But a party needs more than policies – it needs a project. The people need to know that Labour exists, not just to seek public office and a place in Government, but to change the face of Irish society.

Every generation on the Left must confront this task – the task as Crosland described it, of taking the values of the left and applying them to the context in which we live; of communicating those values anew in a language that people will understand, and of doing all of this in a way which will inspire others to be part of the project.

There are those who would seek to persuade us that we are now living in the best of times, in the best of all possible words.

In 2004, a study of the lives of children living in one part of my own constituency, West Tallaght, found one in three households headed up by a lone parent. One in three children were bullied at school. 90% of children were living in fear of anti-social behaviour perpetrated by organised gangs of young thugs. Almost 60% of households were living in rented local authority housing, compared with a national average of 10%. A quarter of all these families living with damp and heating problems, and every second child living in a home in need of improvement.

Almost half, or 10,431 people in the estates surveyed, had ceased education – of that number 27% had completed primary education only, 34% had completed lower secondary education and only 11% had any form of third level education.

And all too many of the children are condemned to repeat the vicious cycle of disadvantage in their own lives. One in seven in chronically poor health, more than half of them suffering some form of deprivation, from the relatively mild to the extremely serious.

One child in every six has special educational needs – which are not being met. The majority of the children surveyed live with parents who were early school leavers, and all too many of them have no incentive to stay in school themselves.

Figures like these would be shocking, I suggest, if they were confined to one small and disadvantaged area of Dublin. I know, as I think we all know, other areas of Dublin, and of Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and many of our smaller towns, where similar studies would throw up directly comparable results. We know, for example, that there are schools in this country where one in three has a reading difficulty. The target set by this Government, for 2016, is to reduce that to one in six. So much for cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

Yes, of course, the rising tide has lifted a lot of boats. It would be unimaginable that it would have done otherwise. For my part, I have never sought to deny that the boom has improved the living standards of many people living in disadvantaged communities. But the idea, that Ireland has somehow achieved a social and economic nirvana is nonsense, and it reflects poorly on the ESRI that they would engage in that spin in a recent publication.

The reality is that Ireland entered the Celtic Tiger era as one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, and today Ireland remains a very unequal society. Yes, there are more opportunities for more people, but it remains true that the life chances of children born in Ireland this year, vary enormously, depending on the social position of their parents.
That is why one of my commitments for Government was to provide universal free pre-school education. A simple idea, but one which would have profound egalitarian implications. You will find no mention of that idea in the FF/Green programme for Government.

That is but one example. I do not have time here to go into the many other areas where there is an urgency to bring about change. Labour's historic mission remains unfulfilled, and for as long as it does, there is not just a role for Labour, but an imperative on Labour.

There is an opportunity for everyone in this room to be part of the movement which will bring about social change, but, more than that, there is a duty. A duty to hard and disciplined work in the cause of Labour.

We have much to build on. We have 20 seats in Dail Eireann. We should have no less than five and we have the potential to have seven Labour members of Seanad Eireann when university senators are included. Taken together with three new deputies that is a significant injection of new blood into the Parliamentary Party.

The Green Party did not make the breakthrough that the conventional wisdom believed it would, the Socialist Party has been removed from the Dail and Sinn Fein's march has been firmly arrested. Labour dominates the Left space in Irish politics

BUT. If Labour is to win, the people must know that Labour has a project. A project to build an Ireland founded on those values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which are as relevant to the new Ireland as they ever were.

Sean O Casey said of Jim Larkin that he was a man as committed to putting a rose in a vase, as bread on the table. O'Casey could have been writing about Jim Kemmy, who believed that material improvements in peoples' lives were not in themselves sufficient. The Labour vision too is bigger than an economy. We have established in the past our capacity to run a prosperous enterprising economy and we need not be defensive about it. Of course, people will naturally vote to protect their livelihoods. But most people also want a successful society where citizenship matters and a society that cherishes a public realm.

Until the last week of the campaign it seemed that a considerable majority of people were going to assert their entitlement to better delivery of quality services – to equality of opportunity in education, to affordable childcare, to improved public transport, to better policing, to affordable housing and to a flourishing public realm. To persuade them that we can have a strong economy and successful society remains the challenge for Labour.

It is a challenge that requires us to inspire in our fellow citizens a new hope and new expectations. As a country, we must expect more from Government, and more from our democracy, than the society in which we now find ourselves. The generation that is now coming of age does not look back to the 1980s and thank God for small mercies. They look to the future and ask: what's next? Our answer must inspire and it must persuade.

There is work to be done. Be a part of it.

1 comment:

Heno said...

Thanks for posting that Sean. Very interesting in light of Pat R's recent resignation.