A country cannot just be about its economy: it must be about community too

JOAN BURTON: ‘I want to phase out remaining tax shelters that indiscriminately favour the wealthy and concentrate tax relief on low-income and middle-income families’

Joan Burton announcing her bid for leadership of the Labour Party. Photograph:  Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Joan Burton announcing her bid for leadership of the Labour Party. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 00:01

The recent elections proved incredibly difficult for the Labour Party, leading some people to question whether the party even has a future. I have no such fears, because Labour has recovered from difficult positions before and will do so again, provided we take the right steps now. But the first step is recognising this is not just about the party, but the people of this country. They are unhappy with our performance in Government and we need to acknowledge the reasons for this and then seek to address them.

Up to now, out of necessity, Labour in Government had to concentrate on rescuing the country from economic ruin and laying the foundation for recovery, which meant asking an awful lot of the public. Now, a modest recovery is under way and it’s time for an equal emphasis on social repair – seeking to restore living standards and make good the losses that people have suffered. A country cannot just be about its economy; it must be about community too.

I see a number of elements to this. As leader, I would work to restore the living standards of working families by seeking a further deal on the legacy bank debt, prioritising jobs and growth, improving incomes, reducing the tax burden, protecting the social safety net and increasing the provision of affordable homes. This is how we will help families to prosper and communities to flourish again.

As Labour finance spokesperson in opposition, I vigorously opposed the disastrous bank guarantee. But the government of the day saddled us with it and Labour has been doing its best to ameliorate the consequences. We have already significantly reduced the cost of the legacy bank debt by getting lower interest rates and extensions on our loans. However, it is essential to get a further deal on the debt, and as Labour leader, I would pursue all avenues to achieve this.

To be clear, this is about skilled negotiation rather than careless confrontation, and following the recent European elections and the marked swing to extremes across the continent, I firmly believe the European institutions will be more receptive to our message. In the same vein, I believe the EU will now recognise that a grand plan for growth – that prioritises getting people back to work – is absolutely necessary to revive the European project.

We are already focusing relentlessly in Ireland on getting people back to work, and we are making steady progress. As Minister for Social Protection, I have focused on transforming the department from a passive benefits provider to an effective public employment service, and figures this week show there are almost 33,000 fewer people on the Live Register now than this time last year – a 7.8 per cent annual reduction. But we need to increase the pace of that progress, because this is central to building the social recovery.

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