Sunday, 25 April 2010

Reflections on Labour Conference 2010

As someone who identifies with the left in the Labour Party, last week's Party Conference in NUI Galway was one of the more positive I have attended. It certainly ranked above soul-less "TV Conferences" held in DCU and the RDS, and Leader's speeches in the Mullingar Accord-era where you'd wince at the fops to FG and tax promises. The 2010 Conference was still worrying, but more for the lack of significant debate than for a 'shift to the right,' as some on the left outside of Labour would allege.

The coverage of the Conference focussed, as you'd expect, on the Leader's speech and PLP, but the lack of mention of some more significant motions in any of the press outlets was curious.
I was the only person to speak against a Motion on the Friday evening session. There were two contrasting motions on Seanad Éireann - the first, a composite from the Clondalkin Branch in Dublin Mid-West and the UCC Branch in Cork South-Central, which called for Seanad reform, and a motion from the Duleek Gate Branch in Louth calling for Seanad abolition (you can see all three motions here.)
I had intended to speak in favour of abolition but, as it happened, there was no-one present to move the motion from the Duleek Gate Branch - as happened with far too many motions over the weekend. I therefore spoke against the UCC/Clondalkin composite - opposing old friends in the process. I rose to speak after a number of well-received speeches in support of reforming, not abolishing, the Seanad. It seemed as if I was entering an atmosphere unfriendly to my stance. Hardly Daniel in the lions' den stuff, but I was somewhat nervous. My speech is below - I was happy with its reception and felt I swung the debate in part at least.

The ensuing procedural farce stymied the chance for the delegates present to decide for themselves. Pat Rabbitte TD spoke after the motions in an attempt to 'wrap up.' Deputising for Brendan Howlin as the relevant spokesperson, Pat was clearly awkward, praising my own speech but not going so far as to call for outright abolition. Instead, he urged a referral back to the party's Executive, a common procedural tool to avoid the 'hard' questions. This was not accepted by the motion's proposers, and so the Chair, Brian O'Shea TD, moved to take a vote on the motion.

The standard show-of-hands showed a significant split in the Conference Hall - it looked to me as if the motion to reform was defeated, and my opposition was successful, but the Chair, who was aiming towards a card count, then claimed that we needed a vote on the motion to refer back - which itself passed, meaning no straight vote for the members. A pity, but by no means a defeat for those on the left who advocate, as I did, the abolition of the Seanad on democratic grounds.

There was no coverage of this somewhat-important motion in the papers or on TV.

Nor was there of the internal party elections - not that you'd expect much, although the Times previously covered these - but again there was a strong showing for the broad left. Gary Honer's magnificent campaign for Party Chairperson secured 40% of the vote - a stunning achievement for a 24 year old grassroots candidate with little or no backing in the PLP or upper echelons. Essentially, the union bloc vote went with the incumbent Brian O'Shea TD, so it would seem that Gary tied or even won the vote of branch, section and constituency delegates. Myself and Gary enjoyed a few smiles afterward, as he rightly celebrated his excellent showing.

The poll-topping performance of Rory Geraghty in the male panel of the new Executive Board shows the ability of Gary's successor as LY Chair to build a broad base of support, again amongst grassroots members.

Nor did we hear or read mention of my own branch's motion on running a candidate in the Presidential election. As I refer to in my speech below, the debate about running a candidate has now been agreed on - and with no small thanks to an outgoing member of the Executive and friend of this blog, Paul Dillon. So I used the chance to speak to Conference to highlight the kind of candidacy and candidate I believe will best represent Labour and our values. It'll be no surprise, then, that I promoted Michael D Higgins as the candidate in my speech.

Another composite motion, proposed by Emmet Stagg TD of the Kildare North Constituency Council and Cllr Patrick Nulty of the Mulhuddart Branch in Dublin West, advocated outright opposition to water charges and Labour to abolish any charges introduced when next in Government. It's no secret that there are those in the party who are are either ambivalent on water tax, or downright supportive. I believe they're in a small minority but, given that we're often told that there are environmentalist and even progressive reasons for water charges, it would have been an opportunity for them to speak out. None did and the motion was passed unanimously.

But, again, there was no coverage.

Strange then, when John Gormley made another announcement last Monday about introducing water charges, we had two distinctly different press releases from the party. The first, from our relevant spokesperson, Joanna Tuffy TD, argued that "The Labour Party remains opposed to the reintroduction of domestic water charges and believes that the cost of providing an EU standard of water to every home in the state should be funded through a reformed tax system." But the second, issued in the name of Dublin City Cllr Aodhán Ó Riordáin, made no such reference.

I'm not sure if either got much coverage, although I just saw Joanna Tuffy, who I believe is very solid on the issue, on The Week in Politics making the Labour case against water charges. But I do know that a letter (see below) from 24 Labour Councillors in all four provinces, including myself, was sent to all national papers but, to my knowledge, was published in none. The signatories were sourced by email in a couple of hours, so I would take the cross-section, rather than the numbers, as an indication of support.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of political spin would worry about the lack of coverage for any of these matters. The media consensus seems to be rallying behind water charges, so I've no doubt that it would hardly be in the interests of Madam or others to publish our stance, but bizarre that there does not seem to have been any paper to publish the letter. Let me know if you've seen it off the beaten track!
As Labour Party Councilors, we wish to state our opposition to Minister John Gormley's plan to introduce water charges.

Labour reaffirmed our opposition to water charges at our Party Conference in Galway last weekend. We believe in the provision of water as a fundamental human right and that the cost of providing an EU standard of water to every home in the state should be funded through a reformed and progressive tax system.

Labour also confirmed at our Conference that we are committed to abolishing these regressive water charges if in Government. In the meantime, we as Councilors will continue to lead the opposition to water charges and privatisation in our communities and in Council Chambers across the country in the months ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr. Gearóid Buckley, (Bandon Town Council) Cllr. Kevin Byrne, (Kildare County Council) Cllr. Shaun Cunniffe, (Tuam Town Council) Cllr. Marie Corr, (South Dublin County Council) Cllr. Peter Coyle, (Fingal County Council) Cllr. Donie Daly, (Youghal Town Council) Cllr Paula Desmond, (Cork County Council) Cllr Ger Dunne, (Naas Town Council) Cllr. Leonard Hatrick, (Ardee Town Council) Cllr. Dermot Looney, (South Dublin County Council) Cllr. John Lyons, (Dublin City Council) Cllr. Eamonn Maloney, (South Dublin County Council) Cllr. Marie Moloney (Kerry County Council) Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jnr, (Donegal County Council) Cllr. John McGinley, (Kildare County Council) Cllr. Patrick Nulty, (Fingal County Council) Cllr. Sean O' Brien, (Tullamore Town Council) Cllr. Tomas O’Brien, (Kinsale Town Council) Cllr. Cian O’Callaghan, (Fingal County Council) Cllr. Michael O’Donovan, (Fingal County Council) Cllr Paul O'Shea (Ennis Town Council) Cllr. Seamus Ryan, (Waterford City Council) Cllr. Eamon Tuffy, (South Dublin County Council) Cllr. Mark Wall, (Kildare County Council)
By now you'll probably have seen Eamon Gilmore's well-received Leader's speech and Michael D Higgins' articulation of a republican ideal of citizenship. And I don't think I was the only one to appreciate the irony of the centrally-produced Gilmore for Taoiseach placards given the history of that particular idea. But the real story of Conference 2010 was at the grassroots - typical, then, that it seems to have been buried.