From top: Leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin (centre) following his keynote address at the Labour Conference in the Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin 4 on Saturday night; Bryan Wall
Over the weekend the Labour Party held its annual conference in Dublin. As is standard, a number of motions were put forward to be debated, amended on occasion, and voted on. Brendan Howlin, their current leader, opened the proceedings.
Asking whether the current government’s record was worse on housing or health, he described them as “‘conservative’ in every sense of the word.” But “Labour”, he said, “is different.”
The theme for the conference being “A New Republic”, it demonstrated “Labour’s vision of a better Ireland”, with Labour themselves being the “party that always strives for a better future for all our people.”
Mr Howlin went on to say that “Michael D [Higgins] represents so much that is good about the Labour tradition” with his “Unflinching commitment to his principles”.
Apparently not being bothered about the monetary cost of such “Unflinching commitment”, Higgins has “genuine concern for the welfare of others, [e]specially the most vulnerable.”
Not wanting to rest on their laurels though, Mr Howlin also declared that the success of the Yes vote in the 8th amendment referendum meant that Labour was “vindicated”.
In the vaunted “New Republic”, “People will be able to afford to buy or rent a decent home”, with Labour “tighten[ing] regulation of private landlords” instead of introducing tax breaks and incentives for them. “Labour”, he says, “has a lot to offer.”
His party “has done so much to advance decent jobs and decent living standards for ordinary people”, and he is “proud of our long-time members who are the backbone of the party”.
These same members “kept Labour going through the hard times”, the only reference he makes towards Labour’s time in coalition with Fine Gael and the disastrous aftermath for the party.
During his keynote speech on Saturday, Mr Howlin reiterated Labour’s principles of fighting for equality and justice.
Labour “will not allow people to suffer homelessness, depression or chronic pain because the services they need are not made available” and that “Labour has consistently championed decency, justice and equality.”
They have “always delivered real social progress” in the areas of greater workers’ rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Labour also reduced poverty and introduced free education. Labour intends to “take back the State” and use it, amongst other things, to “regulate private rents”.
Ending with the rhetorical flourish that Labour offers “Unity, Not division [sic]”, and they will therefore “build a new Republic”, Howlin’s vision is astoundingly, yet unsurprisingly, ahistorical.
Their current policies, out of the appropriate and recent historical context, sound enticing yet Labour’s record when in government was downright appalling. With a functioning memory it becomes difficult for Labour to justify their posturing given the policies they enacted and supported when in power.
Hence they rely on an ahistorical frame of reference to engender success at the polls. Of particular importance, given the current housing and homelessness crisis, is their record on housing when they were in government.
Joan Burton at the time said she was “proud” of her party’s record on housing. At the same time the Simon Community reported “a 20% increase in the number of people seeking help from its services since this time last year .”
In 2015 the Irish Examiner reported that the previous year Alan Kelly, then Labour’s deputy leader, was against the introduction of rent controls.
He believed that such regulation “would run the risk of encouraging a large number of so-called accidental landlords to leave the sector, thus exacerbating the supply problem and leading to yet higher rent levels.”
Kelly also pushed for a tax reliefs that “should help landlords, including relief on borrowings and capital gains tax relief”. In an irony that only politics can provide, the proposals were “shot down” by the then Finance Minister, Michael Noonan.
Almost identical proposals were introduced by Noonan’s successor in Fine Gael just last month. Landlords can now “write off 100% of their mortgage interest repayments on loans used to buy rental property”, along with a four per cent capital gains tax relief. Such background was obviously lacking at the conference over the weekend.
But the history of Labour’s time in government does on occasion pop up. One delegate vociferously told his fellow delegates that Labour “did our best to save the working people from the harm of the neo-liberal policies of Fine Gael”.
Happy to become Christ-like martyrs, the delegate declared “we would do that one more time if we went in to coalition”. Labour, he said, “would sacrifice our movement just to achieve small little crumbs on the table.”
On the other hand, they “would be taking part in the harm” that would be inflicted on ordinary people, which would therefore also result in the further erosion of the Labour Party in Ireland. The party “need to survive in order to defend” the working class.
What the delegate did not ask, nor presumably did any of the other delegates, was does Ireland need the Labour Party? Are they even wanted?
Despite all the self-aggrandising over the weekend, Labour’s recent history is replete with broken promises, contempt for the working class, and an ability to use the language of the Left in order to undermine it.
Labour are political chameleons, who will change their appearance on a whim in order to increase their share of the vote and therefore get back into government. Given the current crises in Ireland, their most obvious political tactic is to set themselves aside from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Here they can pretend they will fix things; if only they had the power to do so.
Their actions when in government a few years ago are to be forgotten about as otherwise their proposed solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis would be seen as deeply hypocritical. And when they bring up their time in government with Fine Gael, they portray themselves as martyrs for the working class.
This cross was theirs to bear alone. By attempting to set themselves up as the only “Left-Wing” alternative to the dominant parties of the Right in Ireland, they are trying to undermine and pre-empt the policies of parties who are genuinely of the Left.
Councillor Dermot Lacey unintentionally verbalised this when he said that “the Extreme-Left… don’t want to achieve things.” What they want, he said, is “to condemn people to poverty so that they can build their campaigns.”
But it is Labour who have condemned people to poverty. And it is now they who are trying to use this to build on their campaign.
And it was not Mick Wallace whose recommendations regarding housing were identical to those implemented by a party supposedly further to the Right than himself. Labour’s call for unity is nothing more than an attempt at rehabilitation via association with genuinely morally upright and consistent movements of the Left.
Seeking power for power’s sake, they are attempting to realign themselves by also using the language of the Left.
For Labour to call for a “New Republic” is obscene. Labour’s policies when in government ensured that equality and justice have become even more difficult to obtain. Besides, they already gifted us a “New Republic” in the form of a society where inequality and injustice are rampant.
Labour have clearly nothing but contempt for actual parties of the Left in Ireland. Any calls for unity emanating from them are nothing but cynical political exercises in trying to regain some semblance of power. Brendan Howlin can quote Karl Marx as much as he wants.
His party showed their true colours in 2011 when they were happy to enter government with the neo-liberal Fine Gael. They may attempt to downplay this but the people should not forget it any time soon.