Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has said a "new toxic racism" has entered Irish politics.

Addressing his party's annual conference in Mullingar, Mr Howlin called for leadership on the issue and accused the Taoiseach of "sending out mixed messages at best". 

There was an optimistic mood amongst members who attended the Labour conference.

Small gains in the local elections earlier this year have given members hopes of doubling their seats in the next general election.

However the party has vowed it will not join the next government just to make up numbers.

Mr Howlin said Labour would need guarantees on workers' rights, housing, health, climate action and childcare.

In his speech, he said the party wanted to freeze rents and build 80,000 homes over the next five years.

He accused the Taoiseach of being ignorant or of having a contempt for science in relation to climate change, calling the Government's current plans "inadequate".

Mr Howlin pledged to campaign to prevent the age for the State pension from rising from 66 to 67 in 2021.

He also said Labour would ban political ads on social media during an election campaign to prevent bought votes and elections from being manipulated online.

The party leader said the next challenge for Labour is the four by-elections in less than three weeks' time.

He urged people to vote for progressive candidates rather than conservative Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil candidates, who, he said, have the same offering.

Mr Howlin also said it is important to properly fund public service broadcasting. He said a vibrant, independent RTÉ needs to be maintained.

Earlier, Mr Howlin said the by-elections will test the popularity of those in control of what he described as the "do nothing Dáil." 

Mr Howlin insisted that Labour would challenge the view that the bigger parties are better placed going into these electoral contests.

The party said it wants essential infrastructure, but will not be signing blank cheques like the National Children's Hospital.

The party's health spokesperson told the conference that the Minister for Finance was asleep at the wheel when it came to spending on that hospital.

Alan Kelly said there is a crisis in the health service that continues to worsen.

He said public investment and support for health workers is the only way to improve the service and predicted that in the meantime the numbers of people on hospital trolleys will increase.

Labour said it wants a tax system which stimulates employment but does not starve essential government services.