These are challenging times for social democracy. Last year, my party took a beating in the general election. We lost many good TDs, and saw our share of the vote fall to 6.6%. Unfortunately, this result was in some ways a foretelling of what was to follow elsewhere.
Over the last six weeks, we have seen the Dutch Labour Party drop to just 5.7% of the vote following a period in Government, while Benoit Hamon, the candidate of the French Socialist party secured just 6.4% of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election.
Across the developed world, social democracy is facing a crisis. Populist movements on the right and left have been gaining support – much of it at the expense of traditional parties of the centre-left.
There are plenty of commentators now writing obituaries for social democracy. But we have seen times like these before. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were constructing a new economic doctrine. And social democracy was in crisis. The Irish Labour Party struggled during that decade. As did many social democratic parties across the continent.
What was needed then is what is needed again now. A representation of our values; a reinvigoration of our organisation; and a radical restatement of who and what we are fighting for.
We have no given right to exist as a political force. People will not vote for Labour because we are the oldest party in the state. They will not vote for us because of things we have done in the past. They will only vote for us when we show them that we are the party that wants to shape our future; to put decency, justice and equality at the heart of our republic, and indeed at the heart of our international order.
Labour has always been the party of work. And casualisation of work is one of the great causes of insecurity of our age. Globalisation has changed things, and the automation of work might well accelerate that change. Casual employment and the gig economy are growing, while the idea job for life is gone in most sectors.
In Ireland, job insecurity and involuntary temporary employment have increased substantially over recent years. While creating jobs is the most important factor to put this right, we need other levers too.
The Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farren said recently that the old battle between capital and labour is over. Undoubtedly he was having a dig at Jeremy Corbyn’s party but I suspect that he thinks it’s genuinely true too. He’s wrong. In fact he’s very wrong.
The truth is that capital or the political right constantly finds new ways to exploit working people of all kinds. And they are clever at it too. Again to take an English example, you have the owners of zero-contact Sports Direct doubling as the owners of Newcastle United Football club.
So battles that were won for workplace rights over the last hundred years now have to be won again. Young people in particular bear the brunt of the new ‘flexibility’ at work – in many cases a concept of flexibility solely owned by the employer.
And that is where the Labour Party comes in. Our biggest project over the coming months is to examine the future of work. Because we are not powerless in the face of these changes.
It is possible to allow freelance workers to come together and negotiate with their bosses – our legislation to do exactly that is the only opposition bill to have passed either chamber since the last election. It is possible to tell the low pay commission to make sure that everybody earns a living wage – we have been calling for exactly that. And it is possible to say that the gender pay gap must be closed – our legislation to do just that will be debated in the Seanad on May 23rd.
We need to build a broad agenda around the future of work. We are going to look in detail at the idea of a universal basic income, at new forms of workplace democracy, and at radical new ways of facilitating collective bargaining. And when I say we, I don’t just mean a couple of TDs or researchers in Leinster House. I want to reach out – to trade unions and academics, to civil society groups and to other political parties. And I want to build coalitions that can take this defining area of insecurity, and resolve it.
A lot of this work might not grab headlines. But it does make a difference. The legislation that allowed for the creation of sectoral employment orders was seen as a technical measure. But the resulting deal between employers and people who work in contract cleaning has seen pay across that sector rise from €9.75 an hour to €10.80 an hour by December next year. Almost 34,000 people will benefit. That’s not technical – it’s meaningful progress.
The Labour Party and work have always been inextricably linked. We were formed from the trade union movement, and our links to that movement are deep and enduring. But our agenda for our future is not limited to the workplace. We will grapple with every major cause of uncertainty in our society – insecurity of employment; poverty and lack of opportunity; costs of living; climate change – all of these are factors that have broken the long cherished social contract that made clear that we would hand to our children a world better than the one we inherited. That contract must now be rewritten.
At one level, I think the Irish people are generally convinced of the facts of climate change. But we have yet to incorporate into our thinking what adjustments we in Ireland might have to make to truly take our role as leaders in this area seriously. I have been arguing that there are hard choices we face – reducing emissions while our agriculture sector thrives is one; managing a just transition for those working in peat or coal stations another. We need to grapple with these better than we are currently doing – certainly better than the pitiful draft climate mitigation plan our Government has produced.
In the meantime, there is so much other work we could be getting on with. Our Bill to ban micro-beads passed second stage in the Dáil on 4th May, and could be law by the summer if the Government prioritised it. Giving Dublin Bus the €800,000 they have asked for to trial electric buses wouldn’t be much of a stretch, nor would the €900,000 it would cost to give a 20c per ride subsidy to the councils running public bike schemes – these are doable, and doable now. Installing solar panels on the roofs of every single school in Ireland would cost €25m a year for four years – think of the energy that could produce, and the learning experience it would offer to every child in Ireland.
Without any controversy, we could take these steps while we grapple with the knottier issues. That’s the approach the Labour Party will be agitating for.
The purpose of social democracy has always been clear – to champion equality and justice in every sphere. In some ways, our mission is an idea even more simple – to remove the causes of insecurity, and to point towards a hopeful future. That’s what I want the Labour Party to be a beacon for. Over the weeks and months ahead, we will focus relentlessly on shaping our future, and imagining an Ireland and a world synonymous with decency, justice and equality.
I’d be honoured if you’d come and join me.
Brendan Howlin is leader of the Labour Party.