Beyond Compassion

Extract from Chairman of the Labour Party, Michael D. Higgins' speech at the Labour Party Conference in Galway last October.

One of the more perceptive group of new historians that are interested in Labour history, Emmet O'Connor, points out that while we are the oldest party in some respects we are also very young. He instances the period from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties when the party moved from a composition of activist trade union and wage negotiation politicians to a loose grouping of clientelist politicians grouped under one or two flags of convenience. From 1965 our party had a new constitution but still has to build a cohesion around an explicit social vision and strategy.


If it is no time for distorting our history to absolve us from responsibility, neither is it a time for repeating old mistakes or old strategies that have made us weak or that have, by our blindness to the long-term effects, revived, given new life or indeed strengthened our conservative opponents. On every occasion Labour has silenced its critique of conservatism or any part of it, that conservatism, often in a liberal disguise, has grown. By our silence while in Government with the bogus liberal end of the conservative spectrum we have not been able to criticize them.


What participation has given us in my experience in the Labour Party as a member, as a TD, as Chairman, is silence in the matters that our conservative allies believe but that we reject; suspension of our own policy development; alienation of many of our natural allies and supporters; suspicion of each other; the virtual demolition of our independent party administration; and the nightmarish prospect that Coalition can never end even when the preceding election is over, and one is headed for Opposition, without the bitterest most personalized attacks on those whom you the Conference elected to office.


Our Party has come under an immense media scrutiny. Would that we had as many invitations or opportunities to explain our philosophy or policies. We are presented as a tedious irritant. Those whom you elect to our Administrative Council have been presented as an unrepresentative group who meet in smoke-filled rooms. Commentators rightly suggest that the Irish electorate are entitled to a change. The political change however is usually constructed in the media as a change of individuals never of policy or strategy.


Can anybody in truth say that there is a real difference between the economic and social strategies of the two larger parties? There is unfortunately a horrific similarity in their common acceptance of high levels of poverty that must wait for economic recovery, or the attention of the voluntary agencies, of the acceptance of high levels of unemployment of cuts in services, in demands that ordinary men and women pay for the recession. Their difference lies rather in the apportionment of blame for what is called the mismanagement of an economy the basic elements of which are left unquestioned, even unanalysed. Added to this is the apalling reductionism that this mismanagement is simply a function of which personality leads the dominant party in the Dail. A modern expression of the old literary theme of the strong man. Labour's role is presented then as simply one of assisting in the resolution of personality or management problems in an economy we are not allowed to question. I reject this fictional view of political choice, and I know that all those who want to reject the assumptions of our existing economic thinking want Labour to pledge itself to establishing new and alternative economic principles.


The fallacy that the economy is independent of political and social values needs to be refuted. I will give but two examples. The misuse of our great resource of land in rural and urban areas is made possible by values that are even included in the Constitution, values that put so-called private rights to speculate and stagnate before the need to plan the use of resources for the common good. In industry the hierarchy of ownership rights has stood in the way of any genuine industrial democracy or participation. Behind the economic policies of any party lie fundamental social and political values. You believe in the present economic structures or you don't. You believe in redistribution or you don't. It is a social vision that defines the purposes of economic strategy.


The artificiality of the division between the major parties is being questioned today from within their own ranks. Is it to be Labour's contribution in its seventeen years to stop this process of questioning? I hope not.

Today the media vie with each other in taking on attacks of fiscal rectitude. Gone apparently is the once fashionable and daring talk of redistribution. If poverty is being abandoned to the voluntary agencies by the once compassionate alternative Taoiseach the media are back to writing about social welfare abuses and the black economy. Isn't it time we had some real economics instead of the daily moan for rectitude. It is important that Labour oppose not only those hastily constructed policies of cuts and charges that in the short term threaten working people, that it develop strategies of defence on jobs, : for example. These must quickly be converted into the first significant steps towards a socialist strategy on employment. Employment must be the major aim of our economic strategy. This will call for investment strategies funded by new taxation extended into the unproductive capital area, by controls on financial institutions that will divert resources from speculative to productive purposes. The suggestion that anything other than State led development will make any imprint on rising unemployment or give the public accountability that the expenditure of vast sums of public monies require is a nonsense. What we have had in the name of economic planning are pious platitudes.


Labour needs to challenge all the conservative social and political values that have propped up this slum economy that visits misery on an unprecedented scale on our people. More importantly Labour must be free, must make a commitment and must create the capacity to explain the alternative socialist values. We have won neither respect nor votes for being apologetic in the past or silent. Of course fine people have, with compassion, softened the blows of many an uncaring administration. They have sought to protect the vulnerable in our society since our party was founded. To-day that is not enough. A New Departure in Irish politics is necessary and possible. We have to move beyond compassion and protection and take steps to build the real alternative to our present society a Socialist society.


Take all the areas of social and economic policies and indeed international policy and ask what we share with the other parties. Our published policies show for example that we see poverty as a function of an inequality. That requires redistribution. They offer charity. We believe in planning which includes a dynamic state sector. They see the state as providing priming assistance for the private sector. We believe in reviewing every impediment to woo men's full participation in Irish society. They believe in implementing what the conservative power points of the society will allow.


We believe in neutrality as a coherent principle of foreign policy, an active policy on neutrality that includes non-alignment and support for Disarmament. One of the conservative parties makes Neutrality conditional on re-unification and states that we are not ideologically neutral. The other conservative party has the same view on ideological neutrality, whatever it may mean, and adds on for good measure that you should soft peddle on the lot if it affects the tourist industry. What high moral political principles! Our people, I assert, must have available to them a genuine political alternative which is based upon the belief that problems created by human agency can be set right by human action. No economic or social problem is beyond the capacity of rational response.


There may have been times when the political climate would have permitted us to be equivocal and to leave some convenient options open. The reality of the Irish scene today - with 200,000 out of work, no growth, unimaginable national debt and a million living in poverty - is not the setting for equivocation or for opposing new ideas. Either Labour can emerge as an independent, socialist party capable of delivering a clear political message and of sticking to that message whatever the pressure, the media scorn or the temptations - or, it will remain, at once, an acceptable sideline commentator and promoter of fringe causes and an occasional electoral convenience to either parties.


There are many people in this country who like to have Labour around, in manageable proportions, to raise issues which are slightly difficult or uncomforta ble. Once raised, they can be quietly taken over and politically adapted as conservative answers to contemporary problems. In the adoption they can be stripped of radical content and aligned to the accepted structure of Irish society, e.g. the National Development Corporation and our Combat Poverty programme have been taken over for purposes for which they were never intended. There are others who look upon Labour as occasionally useful, for example, in shifting a slightly tired or too obviously corrupt Fianna Fail govern. ment. Fifteen Labour votes to shift Charlie Haughey is fine, fifteen or twenty or thirty socialists in Dail Eireann is something else altogether.


Every assumption in politics is now being questioned. The fictional division of the major parties is being questioned from within their own ranks. The public are telling them both that the warring ghosts of the Civil War is an insufficient basis for political division and that they should combine. All of the old moulds in Irish politics are cracking I believe we should reject any role of stopping that process.