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.

Getting people back to work is how we grow tax revenue without increasing tax rates, reduce welfare spending without cutting supports and create room for new investment in essential public services. But full employment would mean little unless workers have a living wage. Low wages and exploitative zero-hour contracts are growing features of the work environment. I believe we should establish an independent low pay commission to advise the Government on the minimum wage and related issues. It would report annually, making evidence-based recommendations, for example, on the appropriate level for the minimum wage. Unions and employers would be included in its membership so as to ensure constructive social dialogue. Ensuring a just taxation system is also essential.

Again as party finance spokesperson, I highlighted the scandal of tax shelters that allowed millionaires avoid tax and fuelled the calamitous building boom. I want to phase out any remaining tax shelters that indiscriminately favour the wealthy, so we can concentrate tax relief on where it’s needed most – for low- and middle-income families. All of this must be accompanied by a strong safety net to protect people when they need it. We pay child benefit for all children, we have a strong support system for those unfortunate enough to lose their job, and the State pension has dramatically reduced pensioner poverty.

As Minister for Social Protection, I have fought to protect that welfare safety net, because it has been crucial in safeguarding against poverty and maintaining social cohesion through the crisis. People at work pay taxes to fund this system knowing it will be there when they need it. That is an essential element of the social contract, and I will continue to protect it against the never-ending assault from right-wing critics.

Finally, we must tackle the issue of housing supply by rapidly increasing the construction of social housing and supporting the development of affordable housing in the private sector, while working at the same time to strengthen tenants’ rights for those renting.

Delivering the above would be crucial steps towards ensuring both an economic and a social recovery. Building that recovery will in turn help the Labour Party win back the trust and support of voters. None of this will be easily achieved, and it will have to be fought for. I want to drive that economic and social recovery, I will fight for it, and that is why I want to be leader of the Labour Party.

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