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Tag Archives: fairness

Well, it’s happened before so it’s hardly surprising that we’re returning to consideration of “hard choices” and “austerity”. All the signs are that the established left will again play a part in ensuring that debate and courses of action will be limited, and will help to guarantee “austerity” while striking an “anti-austerity” pose.

What they most assuredly will not do is ask, “Are there other hard choices that we might consider, choices that might be unthinkable outside of a crisis?” or agree, “Of course public spending will have to be cut in order to preserve a functioning state.” and then ask, “How can public spending be cut in such a way that it primarily affects the rich?”

The rich? Deciding who is rich will always be controversial but something blunt can be said.

The majority of the rich work a neat trick. They exclude themselves by defining the rich as belonging to the 1%. Then for the majority of the rich the obvious way to preserve their privileged position is to say, take from the 1%. That’s fine but their corollary, that nothing must change until the 1% are tackled, is not fine. It’s evasive nonsense of course but oddly enough it is generally supported by the left.

Ordinary people – those on low incomes or the average industrial wage or the median income or even a fair bit above that—would not come to an easy agreement on what constitutes rich but it’s safe to suggest that all would regard as rich someone having an income of 150k p.a. The majority would regard an income of 100k as qualifying. Many would go lower. The point is that ordinary people think that rich reaches far lower than that 1%.

The established left disagrees. They will not interrogate the terms “hard choices” and “austerity”. Why? Because exploring, then listing, an expanded range of hard choices would draw anti-austerity activists into a real assault on a structure of inequality which is within reach of change. It’s much more agreeable to target the 1%, the banks, corporations, tax exiles etc. Indeed any curse of God thing can be targeted as long as the structure of relative advantage is maintained.

It’s likely that there are many hard choices beyond the conservative ritual but how about this for just ONE extra hard choice: let’s choose to place a ceiling on public service pay such as would achieve a required saving in public expenditure. Howls! Why the howls? Because it wouldn’t be … wait for it … fair. Ah, “fairness”, a notion most suited to operating within an established set of rules. It’s the word used to maintain relative advantage. It’s a refuge for conservatism.

There is too a variation on fairness and it is expressed in a self-absorbed take on equality. It defends inequality in public sector pay by saying that change cannot be applied to public sector workers in isolation, that nothing should happen until incomes in the private sector can be similarly treated. As a form of argument this is often encountered in a very different realm; it is used against putting war criminals on trial. In this regard it goes like this: no war criminal should face charges unless all face charges because to do otherwise would be …yes, unfair. Whether it is used against reforming income inequality or protecting monsters, it is a bizarre, conservative argument, deployed to prevent progress.

Then there’s what might be termed, decile defence. It has become routine to segment the range of income into deciles. The implication is that a top income ten times the bottom is normal, established. Moreover, not everyone in that top segment is a mere ten times; it includes much greater multiples. Uncritical discussion is how normalisation works. When a leftist deals with – discusses in any way – a ten tier ordering of income and does so without a word of criticism, they aid its normalisation; they take up a conservative position.

There is no question of saying that the establishment of decent or sane multiples is a panacea. What is odd is the degree to which anti-austerity by opposing all cuts has become conservative; it defends the incomes of people who are among the top earners in the country.

In Ireland there is a problem at the very core of the legislation and guidelines that govern broadcast coverage of public controversy. Despite their public service objectives, the Irish regulations are not overtly concerned with what citizens require. For that reason reform will have to involve a basic change, overturning the familiar practices of decades.

The difficulty with regulation as it stands now is that it serves those who appear on radio and TV and helps keep producers and journalists out of conflict with these contributors. In brief it could be put like this: if a broadcaster is fair to public figures and institutions, and is balanced in offering a rival perspective, everyone will be content. That “everyone”, however, does not refer to the audience, to citizens.

Now, broadcasters are highly competitive and commercial, and with on-line media ever increasing in importance, they will become more so. Whether state funded or not, they seek to maximise audience numbers. Their tendency merely to be commercial is constrained by a set of legal public service obligations. One of those obligations ensures that public controversy receives coverage, i.e. that news and current affairs feature strongly in their output. In other words, it is long accepted that coverage of public controversy is a public good which broadcasters must supply.

That coverage in turn has to be commercial, and in two senses. Firstly, public controversy is not the most obvious crowd pleaser. Secondly, there is nothing democratic about a small audience and there is a drive – while staying within the regulations – to attract as large an audience as possible.

The question that arises is who are the audience for public controversy. The easy answer is the Demos, all the citizens of the state. The difficulty of course is that many citizens are not interested while others are very interested and demanding. This reflects a traditional dilemma for public service broadcasters. Going back almost a century there is the requirement to achieve a viable content mix of entertainment, information and education. Much later came the realisation that there was a demand for two very different types of news service: one comprehensive for participative or republican citizens and another mainly entertaining but ringing an alarm bell if anything really serious was happening – for passive or liberal citizens who didn’t want to be bothered by politics.

It might be interesting to speculate how it came about that with everyone so aware that there was a dilemma concerning different audiences, the obligations for the treatment of public controversy came to focus so much on the establishment: the public figures and institutions, and the broadcasting/journalism profession. That, however, will have to be work for another day.

There is no feeble, uncontroversial way to put this: It is certainly undemocratic, if not completely ludicrous, to base public service obligations in relation to public discourse on the requirements of spokespersons and broadcasters. However, reform to make those obligations serve citizen requirements will mean deciding – at least within a part of overall output – to serve one audience rather than another.

Lest there be any confusion something needs emphasis at this point. There is not the slightest intention here to replace familiar, entertaining political coverage in news and interview form with a more serious minded approach. No matter how serious and demanding a citizen might be, without exception they like the entertaining approach and want it to continue.

Nothing is radical or odd in having a typical audience member in mind when broadcasting. It is commonplace to talk of addressing younger, older and all manner of different audiences; existing legislation requires service to minorities. Indeed, it would likely be daft even to consider the possibility that a broadcaster or journalist ever creates output with no one in mind. Occasionally it can go further with management providing a detailed profile of a typical member of a targeted audience.

However, when it comes to politics and public controversy, something strange happens: it is very often assumed that there is an undifferentiated audience, a Demos waiting to be addressed. The character, interests, outlook and political-communication requirements of that audience is assumed to be known.

Certainly an audience is being addressed and well-served but it is not the entire people. It is a part, the part that shares the general political outlook of the broadcasters, an outlook more basic than left-right division. Equally certainly the rest of the people have little choice but to make the best of what’s delivered, and because journalism generally can be poor and partisan, broadcast journalism tends to be recognised as relatively good.

Reform of legislation, therefore, will involve two radical breaks with tradition. Firstly, it will move to address the needs of the audience rather than programme participants. Indeed participants in a broadcast programme will be chosen on the basis of how best to serve an audience rather than the present practice of being fair to potential participants. Secondly – and it must be emphasised that this refers not to the entire service but to the delivery of broadcast politics – it will move to serve the needs of a particular type of audience rather than the entire national audience many of whom might express little or no interest in complex politics. The audience to be served in this case will very likely be a minority: those who are participative or republican citizens, those who want to be part of the public sphere, discussing all matters of political controversy and seeking broadcast coverage that will facilitate them, seeking the full range of perspectives, opinions, arguments and data to enable the republican citizen to explore, discuss, contribute and come to meaningful judgement on all matters affecting the republic.

There is nothing strange or new in seeking to serve the thinking, participative citizen; that’s always been the basic idea. What is new is the explicit recognition that all citizens do not share this participative level of interest and that serving any citizens by looking after the concerns of public figures and media staff is, well, frankly daft.

While republican reforms will replace decades-old rules designed to please – perhaps, appease – politicians, activists and journalists, it will not be necessary to have new complaints procedures to aid compliance; existing staff and processes will be fine as long as everyone involved understands the enormity of the change.

There are essentially just two entwined changes. Firstly, legislation needs to recognise the existence of republican citizens and to oblige the broadcaster to serve their specific political communication needs. Secondly, since the republican citizen is an active and conscious participant in the public sphere and wants to come to judgement on political controversies, legislation will oblige the broadcaster to deliver the necessary range and quality of data and – crucially – arguments.

1. Recognition that two distinct types of political journalism will need management

There are opposing pitfalls which have to be recognised. While no one wants an end to entertaining news and speculation about political celebrities and events, this admits a risk of trivialisation. A sensible approach would be to acknowledge the difficulty and place a formal onus on the broadcaster to deal with it. The stark reality is that there is a difference between the journalism which deals with political news, speculation, personalities and gossip and that which deals with political values, ideologies, theory and outcomes for citizens. The broadcaster can be made explicitly responsible for maintaining and managing the distinction in the interests of citizens.

2. The broadcaster will be obliged to deliver a service to the engaged/participative/republican citizen. This will mean a) an obligation to deliver arguments and to be responsible for their quality; and b) an obligation to have the selection of programme contributors determined by how best to deliver those arguments.

It is important to be clear on the enormity of the change required. The overwhelming majority of journalists see their role as merely reporting and assume little responsibility for the informative quality of what is reported. To burden the broadcaster (and by implication the staff employed) with responsibility for public discourse is a radical departure. This can be said despite the existing obligation to public discourse and journalists’ claims to public service because up to now it has been accepted that news delivery is sufficient.

Explicit Guidelines

* Coverage must address all political controversies and there can be no question of editorial picking and choosing other than that motivated by a commitment to the citizen seeking the fullest engagement. For fear a controversy might be overlooked, citizen initiative/suggestion will be sought and in the event of disputes, the matter can be considered as a Broadcasting Complaint.

* Appearances on politics programmes will be determined by contribution to a debate rather than any affiliation.

* Developed viewpoints which challenge a prevailing orthodoxy will be treated as especially useful.

* Complexity beyond the traditional notion of balance will be assumed and the fullest range of viewpoints will be sought and presented.

* Verifiable truth will be an overriding consideration.

* Interests will be explored, uncovered and made clear. That is to say, it will be assumed that different proposals will have better outcomes for some rather than others and it will be accepted that such information is vital for the citizen. In other words, when a policy or policy suggestion becomes a matter for discussion, the likely winners and losers will have to be made plain.

When discussion involves incomes or incomes policy, a contributor’s income if known will be stated; if not known, that will be stated.

* It would never be satisfactory in a democracy that those charged with nourishing the public sphere would dismiss an enquiry by recourse to simple “editorial judgement”. Excluding the vexatious or frivolous, all requests to explain an editorial decision or policy will be answered fully. Any dispute arising may be referred to the complaints procedure.

* Suggestions (accompanied by data) that a pattern of editorial decisions amount to an effective editorial policy will be similarly treated.

* A very short list of morally repugnant viewpoints will be developed, the purpose being to state that they will never be normalised. On all occasions where a programme contributor holds such a view or is a member of a group/party holding such a view, Broadcasters will be required to make that clear. For example, without a broadcaster’s clarifying comment, a racist will not be permitted to present themselves as normal by contributing to a discussion on, say, health.

* Broadcasters will not allow reliance on authority (e.g. religion) but will demand argument.

* Broadcasters will not permit contributors merely to “call-on” government to take action. In money matters this will demand clarity on priorities and funding either by a corresponding level of cuts to named spending or of new revenues.

* Broadcasters will ensure that mathematical, scientific, economic and other claims are competent.

* Broadcasters will ensure that alternative/complementary therapies are rigorously questioned and that they are not granted equivalence with science or medicine.

* With such a long tradition of politics being regarded predominantly as news and speculation about the activities of politicians, the change to more demanding – perhaps, theoretical – politics will have to be effected without undermining the traditional and frankly entertaining approach. There should, therefore, be two distinct editors: a politics editor charged with taking care of the republican citizen and a political affairs editor looking after news about politicians (leadership challenges, speculation about elections and the like) for a more general audience. (An early draft of this piece referred to the latter post as a “political gossip editor”!) It hardly needs to be said that the broadcaster will be required to indicate which service a programme or programme segment is offering and mixing the two, while inevitable in practice, will not be encouraged.

Something blunt needs to be said before closing.

This change is likely to be shocking for journalists/presenters who have built a career on a kind of anti-establishment. Everyone approves the interviewer who is seen to ask difficult questions but too often this has been a service to those who want to be outraged, who are antagonistic to politics itself, who are poorly informed, who prefer gossip, catch phrases, familiar story frames and an absence of complexity, maths or science. In future an anti-establishment service will have to mean insistence on higher standards of contribution.

In Ireland there are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar right wing parties.

 

1. The conservatives and their rider
The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. In recent times the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that there is nothing actually stupid in a selfish conservatism that defends one’s place in the structure of inequality, while saying that apart from this progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that this is precisely what can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.*

A useful and descriptive term for it is “left conservatism”. It’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment. The structure of inequality is secured.

 

2. Seekers of a plausible alternative
There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them.

What they hear constantly is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by electoral rivals; these rivals compete on the basis of claims to be better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising then that citizens who are amenable to argument vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of thinking people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and wholly incompatible audience.

* http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2019/06/11/the-illusion-of-centrist-ecology/?fbclid=IwAR1XlXe1QORP_DyExSKygowIRvwu7rV6oJPX1U77xYPtB8HphesWwDvavPg

 

There are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar parties.

1. The conservatives and their rider

The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. Lately, as Ireland increased Green representation through local government and European elections, and seemed enthralled by school children raising awareness, the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”. Well, the phenomenon is not confined to Ireland and coincidentally the illustrative issue on this is the environment.

Peter Wilby in a New Statesman article* told how in the run-up to the recent Australian general election much of the talk was about how the two main parties were starkly divided on environmental policies. Moreover, polling revealed that more than 60 per cent of Australians thought that global warming required immediate action even if significant costs were involved. The Australian Labour Party said that if elected, they would aim at a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. By contrast, shortly before the start of the election campaign, the Liberal coalition government approved a new coal mine and promised more, while warning that Labour’s plans would lead to increased energy prices. Yep, you’ve guessed it: against expectations the Liberal coalition was re-elected.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that while it deserves to be opposed, there is nothing stupid in a conservatism that defends one’s place in the hierarchy or structure of inequality while also saying that as long as that is unchanged, progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that it can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.** It’s best termed, left conservatism and it’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment.

2. Seekers of a plausible alternative

There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them. What they hear is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by rivals who claim to be the better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising that they vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of these people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and incompatible audience.

* https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/05/first-thoughts-borisgraph-crisis-and-what-australian-labor-s-shock-defeat-tells

** http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2019/06/11/the-illusion-of-centrist-ecology/?fbclid=IwAR1XlXe1QORP_DyExSKygowIRvwu7rV6oJPX1U77xYPtB8HphesWwDvavPg

Last week a big media story was the crippling cost of childcare in Ireland and there were well-publicised calls for the state to fund it. No mention was made, however, of increased taxation or of less important spending that might be cut in order to fund it. This is the polite, accepted approach but very, very occasionally there’s an inkling of a different, troublesome way.

 

When some years ago a hundred million was spent on building a free-flow structure on the N7 at Newlands Cross, Peter McVerry had a letter published in The Irish Times. He asked what was presumably a rhetorical question but of a type that is normally excluded from public controversy. He asked if the hundred million spent on Newlands Cross might have been better spent on accommodation for homeless people. He said he’d have been happy to wait a few minutes in his car.*


It was unusual in Ireland because discussion of state spending is rigorously confined to “calling on”. That is to say, media promote a procession of advocates calling on the government to start or increase spending on childcare, drug rehabilitation, school overheads, a particular health provision etc. etc. The list is potentially endless. No journalist seems to feel motivated or be allowed to ask the advocate what taxation or cut to existing services they are proposing.

 

It goes on and on and creates a bizarre consensus in which everyone is in favour of everything but nothing much changes. Advocates are presented as heroic because they speak for the people and government is decried for failing to do as the people want.

 

The difference with Peter McVerry’s letter, however, was the suggestion not only that priority existed but that there were consequences to choice. Now, that debate did not progress and he didn’t insist. You see, talking priorities would ruin a perfectly serviceable system, a system which prevents dissent and meaningful controversy.**

Avoiding the issue of priority not only makes public discourse infantile but reinforces the dominant model of Irish politics, and that model is deeply conservative. What passes for public discourse involves rival claims on the public purse. It seems to be unthinkable that anyone calling for more spending in one area would be asked at whose expense it should be funded. Being an advocate – perhaps an activist – in Ireland is a doddle.

There’s a political model in operation here and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists support the belief that we have a “political class” with access to unlimited funds which because of stupidity or meanness, they will not spend on worthy and needy causes – unless they are forced by “pressure” from civil society organisations, activists and media.*** It’s quite like a peasant society in which the ruler concedes a bit here or there in order to keep the structure as it is. It’s also like the child’s misunderstanding of family finance – the little kid who thinks that parents should stop being mean and just get more money.

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change because when a person is “calling on”, it is out of the question to ask about their priorities. The established view is that all spending is equally important and everyone must be treated fairly. Indeed “fairness” has become the watchword of Irish conservatism.†

The left is hideously implicated, many having a romantic view that opposition to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government rather than resisting it. They seem not to give much credence to Nye Bevan’s dictum that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.†† The idea of using priority to effect change – even to assault inequality – can’t get a hearing. Progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that – now the recession has ended – fairness requires the old incomes and inequalities be restored and maintained. Moreover, there can be lots and lots of “calling on”. The only change required is that the rich pay more tax – well, not all of the rich! Conveniently for the majority of rich people, they too can pose on the left and perform their share of “calling on” because the emphasis is invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%. In fairness!

_____________________________________________________

* http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/speedy-aid-for-the-homeless-1.1446630

** It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured. It was decided to create a traffic corps while ignoring constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat. While far more Irish people die by suicide than are killed on our roads, the Road Safety Authority is favoured for funding.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† “We have woven it into the warp and woof of our national life, and we have made the claims of the children come first. What is national planning but the insistence that human beings shall make ethical choices on a national scale?…The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism. We have accepted over the last four years that the first claims upon the national product shall be decided nationally and they have been those of the women, the children and the old people.”

A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

____________

These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

On Sunday morning April 23rd 2017 Joanna Tuffy put a proposal to the Irish Labour Party Conference and it was adopted. If this decision is ignored, the Party can go on as before but if it is implemented, the Party will be changed.

Here’s the text:

“That Labour make measurable reduction of income inequality our basic objective. All policy proposals are then to be at least compatible with this objective and a year-on-year, measurable reduction in income inequality is to become a precondition for any talks on participation in government or on support for minority government. It is accepted that alterations in pay structures within the public service and/or within companies and organisations dependent on the state for finance or contracts may be implemented before more general changes in the wider economy.”

This conference decision has opened up a divide between Labour and all other Irish parties. It signals a refusal any longer to share their support for a meaningless “fairness” and to tolerate the restriction of equality to social concerns. It is a clear decision to move at last against the inequality that offends decent people day in, day out: the extraordinarily stable structure of income inequality – not the safely distant 1% but the gap between those on a minimum wage and those on high salaries.

The decision has three components.

The first changed the position of the Labour Party not to anything revolutionary but nevertheless to the start of something very different and radical: the reduction of income inequality. The reduction will at last become a topic of public controversy because this small party has made it its basic purpose and crucially has linked it to measurable change.

The second component addressed voting and the fraught question of coalition or support for a minority government. It says to potential voters that if you are offended by income inequality, Labour wants to begin reductions, that regardless of other compromises, without a commitment to have a year on year, measurable decrease in inequality of income, there will be no talks on government formation.

The third component is a matter of anticipating the whatabouters, the conservative messers who will try to prevent change by claiming that each and every move is “unfair”, that the whole nasty structure from, say, 15,000 per annum to 300,000 per annum must be maintained because to change any part of it would be – as usual – “unfair”.

So that’s it. It means change. Anyone who has been out talking to citizens knows that it is time to do this. There’s been obfuscation over the degree to which taxation is progressive and over the various methods of calculating inequality but it’s time to stop messing. The Labour Party’s basic aim is now the reduction of income inequality.

Thanks Joanna.

Far too many in the Labour Party are behaving like football supporters whose team has fallen on hard times. They want to revitalise, fund raise, put new structures in place, re-establish rapport with the traditional fan base, put the club firmly under the control of ordinary members etc. The purpose being to return their team to at least a mid-table position in the Big League.

For a smaller group of members this won’t do. They didn’t join the Party to play the game; they wanted to change the game. They still see this as the Party’s very purpose.

 

The game and left conservatism

The Irish structure of wealth, inequality of income and privilege is secured by a vibrant, healthy, system of support. Perhaps uniquely the Irish system has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism which paradoxically allows anyone who so desires to pose as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having governed for the greater part of the state’s history, can pose as anti-establishment.

The conservative mechanism operates firstly by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and secondly – more importantly, here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.

The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.

Political parties within this system tend not to offer a universal argument but vie to represent sectional interests, i.e. to be their voice against the establishment. Much of the left is more than implicated; it is comfortably part of the system. Class, if mentioned at all, is no longer concerned with values, revolution or even reform. The working class no longer has universal significance or a historic role. Having deserted a Marxist perspective in favour of accepting class as a polling category, leftists have reduced working class to a mere pressure group. The working-class as pressure group has interests which can be represented and left parties tussle to be their champion, to lead them in the competition to secure favours from variously the government, establishment or political class. Gino Kenny, a leftist T.D. (member of parliament) for Dublin Mid-West, went so far as to say that his role is that of a union shop steward representing his working class constituents in their dealings with the establishment.

 

The conservative path or the left path

Labour – especially in opposition – can join this and all the indications are that this is the intent; most members seem relieved and pleased to return to campaigning “on the ground”, representing “our natural” support base. Thus Labour can slot comfortably in among all of the other parties and seek to lead/represent groups seeking preferment.

In stark terms, Labour is thoughtlessly sauntering onto the inviting path to left conservatism, joining those who help maintain the structure of economic inequality by representing parts of it in pursuit of concessions.

There is a different path: become the one party of opposition in Ireland – opposition to the generally accepted structure of economic inequality and privilege. This will mean a break with Labour traditions because it will mean a stated intention to lower the height of the economic pyramid rather than defending the relative advantages of all but the distantly safe one percent.

On this path Labour would leave the club of parties who talk in terms of fairness. In contrast Labour would talk in terms of income, of reducing the shameful – no, ludicrous – gap between the minimum (or if preferred, the living or industrial) wage and the top 10%. All policy and reactions to current controversies would be formed with reference to the Party’s objective. Labour’s party spokespersons operating within their remit would know that the party had an overall objective and that their policy development and public comments were to serve it.

Moreover, any liberal or conservative party seeking Labour support in government or participation in coalition would know in advance that the price was measurable structural change.

Taking this path would mean unpopularity and withering attacks from the well off but it would also mean that all actions and statements had to be coherent and plausible – and this would change Irish politics for this reason: It’s essentially about leaving the passive approach to representation and addressing those citizens who demand to be truly republican, i.e. who are amenable to and wish to participate in argument.

Why then would anyone want to go in such a difficult direction? The answer is that there are people within the Party and in society generally who want not revolution but meaningful, measurable, visible change and who see no point in Labour at a crossroads deciding to march with everyone else.

There’s no point in attacking Frank Flannery or indeed Angela Kerins. His argument needs to be addressed. What he is saying is that because Rehab is a private company which sells to the HSE among others, the State has no business looking into its internal affairs. The problem is that the way things are he’s right.

Let’s leave aside the question of supplying citizen services through a private company and consider implementing public policy by way of placing conditions on the awarding of state contracts. We do this already in that companies seeking state contracts have to prove they are tax compliant.

If ludicrous salaries paid within companies working for the state are to be addressed, it will have to be a condition of the contract. A condition of a state contract could be that no employee or director or pensioner of the company has an income in excess of some multiple of the lowest paid employee or perhaps the legal minimum wage or the median wage in Ireland.

It’s really a matter of deciding whether or not we want to do anything about ludicrous salaries. If we do, it will necessarily mean discussing and deciding on an amount above which we do not want our state to facilitate.

Apart from stratospheric incomes like those of the top 1%, rich people tend not to consider themselves rich or to be in receipt of ludicrous salaries. They think their pay is moderate and that they’re worth it. They need to be disabused of that view.**

They also tend to resort to “fairness” to oppose any move to reduce inequality. They argue that it would not be fair to do anything to anyone until all of those similarly situated can be treated equally. Like all forms of “whataboutery” this argument should be vigorously resisted.

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* http://www.irishexaminer.com/analysis/faith-hope-and-clarity–the-rehab-saga-276392.html#.U9DIpmjKHkg.facebook

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/limited-outrage-discussion-of-the-crc-scandal-avoids-the-central-problem/

The labour Party – my party – is in turmoil. Questions are being asked about leadership, management, a revised programme for government and more. However, now more than ever the most useful question that the Labour Party can ask of itself is what is its purpose? Many see its purpose as defending welfare payments, sometimes jokingly referred to as being the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul. In recent years it has become conventional to say that its purpose – like every other party in the state – is to create a fairer society. Since entering government its purpose has become the restoration the economy.

Defending welfare payments and restoring the economy are worthy objectives. “Fairness”, however, has become a weasel word. It has been emptied of meaning. Anyone at all can be comfortably in favour of fairness but essentially it is a conservative position because all significant change – particularly in wealth or income – can be described as unfair. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

It might have been expected that socialism would feature. It certainly is mentioned regularly and is a focus of rows usually of a very technical nature. Open, iconoclastic discussion is rare because of the dominance – across decades – of conflict over socialism versus social democracy. While many seem to enjoy this jousting, it hardly qualifies as a debate. Indeed the Labour Party’s on-line forum, a model of openness and freedom, had to impose a rule that forbade questioning a person’s socialism. The reason was simple and born out of long experience: it was realised that as soon as a person is subjected to the “you’re-not-a-real-socialist” routine he/she would become defensive and discussion would rush down the old, boggy cul de sac of socialism/social democracy.

Many on the left would say that socialism/social democracy is the only debate, that it is fundamental, and that it must be addressed before any progress can be made. Ok then, perhaps it is worth risking a short discussion but it is a risk; it risks losing the attention of many leftists and it risks attracting comments about betrayal, principles, heroes rolling in their graves and the other traditional trappings of socialism reduced to a “faith”.

Socialists who favour a revolution generally treat with disdain those who accept parliamentary democracy and would want to describe them all as Social Democrats. However, the majority of socialists are opposed to revolution and regard the term “social democrat” as an insult. In truth insult is often intended.

One tradition sees a parliamentary route to a socialist society. The idea is that reform would be piled upon reform until capitalism is effectively replaced. This is now seldom discussed among socialists. Indeed, the question of transition to socialism is avoided. Non-revolutionary socialists anxious to avoid being labelled “social democrat” are often unwilling to let go of the term “revolution”. In seeking to redefine revolution to suit their peaceful intent, the term is drained of its meaning. This becomes downright silly when talk turns to a “spiritual revolution”.

There are socialists who are serious about a parliamentary road to socialism. They argue the need for a party or union of parties to win a left majority. This party/alliance then would not need to compromise with a right wing party and could legislate capitalism out of existence. A less ambitious objective is more common: a list of broadly leftist reforms. Again this would be delivered by a left majority. The problem of course is that the left programme itself would be a compromise and that there would be no plan B in the case of failing to achieve a majority. Indeed a plan B could never be developed because avoiding coalition with conservatives and/or liberals is their raison d’être.

So, leaving aside revolution there seems to be two leftist options: a majority left government or a coalition with liberals or conservatives.

It is accepted by many on the left in Ireland that it is coalition with right wing parties that prevents the emergence of a left majority vote. It is said that if the Labour Party eschewed coalition or if the Labour Party disappeared altogether, sufficient numbers of Irish people would in a relatively short period change their political views and elect a socialist government. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to support it. It is a hope in spite of the evidence that a large majority of Irish voters prefer the right.

Another problem is that the left majority project is usually linked to left unity, i.e. bringing all or most of the left parties together on an agreed programme. That is to say, there is acceptance that it will be necessary to maximise support. Now, apart from the fact that these parties tend to despise one another, there is the question of excluding Labour, Labour’s members and crucially the sizeable Labour vote. Until recently it was assumed that Labour’s reliable 10% or so vote would transfer unproblematically to a new force on the left. More recently this vote has been dismissed as right wing and irrelevant to the project of building a left majority. The truth is that this large (by Irish left standards) and curiously reliable vote is unresearched, and no one knows much about it. However, it is reasonable to suggest that dumping or antagonising what is possibly the largest concentration of left votes is not a sensible way to start building towards a left majority.

Consider this scenario: The Labour Party has been destroyed and no longer exists. A left programme for government has been agreed by a group of left parties. All of these parties honour agreements not to oppose one another in an election. Labour’s traditional 10% support base moves to support the left grouping. Huge numbers of traditionally right wing voters are convinced to vote left. With all of these unlikely events coinciding, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer is that the outcome could still fall short – probably considerably short – of a majority.

If no one right wing party had achieved a majority, then the vexed question of coalition arises. Unless this is quickly dismissed the left grouping will very likely disintegrate. However, should it remain united or should a significant portion of it remain united, the whole or part will be confronted by coalition. Because it made no serious plans for this predictable eventuality, it will be in the situation that Labour frequently inhabits: confronted by coalition and with no clear notion what to do. In other words, a left grouping is likely to have worked to eliminate the Labour Party only to find that it has replaced the Labour Party.

It’s long past time the thoughtful elements within the Irish left stopped messing about and started making life difficult for political opponents and for those who do well out of the Irish structure of economic inequality. In other words, if it is not possible to achieve some structural change by way of coalition, it is time to abandon the parliamentary route. That means socialists becoming activists who would join pressure groups in that burgeoning area which accepts rule by a “political class” and progress as achieving favour at the expense of a rival group. Truth be told, many socialists and progressives have already gone there.

That’s a depressing prospect: socialists reduced to a role in managing the system while retaining the trappings of protest and anti-establishment. It’s time to stare coalition with a right wing party straight in the face. State the basic price of coalition as well as the areas of compromise and negotiation. The basic price would have to be modest in socialist terms but exorbitant in right wing terms.

It is highly unlikely that large numbers of anti-coalition socialists will look afresh at coalition. The anti-stance has been held for too long and has been concreted into a principle. That leaves the battered Labour Party. It is not averse to coalition but is very unsure of its purpose. The Labour Party needs to open up a clear space between it and the conservatives who believe that fairness and social justice are meaningful. It needs to state that the Party’s objective is a measurable reduction of inequality of income over each year of the lifetime of a government. For that gain the Labour Party should coalesce with the devil but should not coalesce with a saint for anything less.

Have a look at this article by Gene Kerrigan: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/gene-kerrigan/dirty-little-secret-is-that-those-at-the-top-feel-no-pain-29618475.html Comments on it are now closed. However, while comments were invited I attempted three times to post a comment. Each time a system message appeared to say that the comment had been received but it was never cleared for publication. There’s a small part of my character that is flattered by being censored. Here’s the comment that the Indo wouldn’t permit under the Gene Kerrigan article.
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This article is of a type. It is conservative behind a veneer of leftism. It attempts to limit “rich” to the top 1% and this allows the majority of the rich, say, the top 10% or perhaps the top 20% to hide. They can even pose alongside the poor as fellow victims of austerity and claim to be paying more than their “fair” share.

The article manages to ignore its own data. Have a look at this:
“In the period 2002-2009, the top 10 per cent of earners took 35 per cent of the income.

In 2010, according to the Central Statistics Office, the lowest-earning 10 per cent took a 26 per cent cut in disposable income. Middle earners were cut by 12 per cent. The top earners got an 8 per cent increase. This isn’t because they work harder.

Among the top 1 per cent, just over a quarter of their income comes from work, the rest comes from capital. Over the past 30 years there’s been a shift, with a higher and higher income share going to capital – rents, shares and bonds – and an ever-decreasing amount going to labour.”

Notice some features here which are typical of this type of writing: i) The top 10% with 35% of the income who are mentioned first, suddenly disappear. ii) “Middle earners” appear and they are presented as hard done by. (“Middle” is the hidey hole of the majority of rich people: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/ ) iii) The trick is completed not simply by reducing “rich” to the top 1% but by saying that their income is suspect in contrast to hard-working rich people who choose to label themselves “middle”.

What’s going on here is that a conservative argument is masquerading as progressive. Essentially what it is saying is that if we could just soak the elusive 1%, the rest of our structure of inequality could be adequately financed in a “fair” way (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/ ) and the vast majority of rich people on multiples of the minimum wage or indeed multiples of the average wage could continue to enjoy their relative advantage. Indeed, if the top 1% manage to evade controls, nothing at all should be done about income inequality because it wouldn’t be “fair” to take from some rich people unless all similarly rich or richer people were tackled at the same time! (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/how-concerned-are-you-about-horizontal-fairness/ )

Anyone active in collective bargaining over the past few decades will be well aware of the offer and acceptance of “allowances” when the demand was for a pay increase. It is therefore ridiculous to categorise all allowances as some kind of luxury extra that can be cut without touching basic pay.

Any restructuring of the public service which fails significantly and very obviously to reduce inequality of income in the public service is a failure for the Labour Party.*

The final details have yet to emerge but all of the indications particularly over the past week suggest that the Croke Park 2 agreement has been poisoned by the conservative doctrine of “fairness”.**

It goes like this. Because it is planned to cut “allowances” for “frontline” workers, “fairness” demands that highly paid workers who don’t get allowances have their pay cut too. In other words, we are back to “sharing the pain” and leaving the structures of inequality intact. It is certain that rich public servants will be cut by proportionately more but clearly they are much more able to absorb small reductions even when these are expressed in impressive percentages.

It is of course a matter of the Labour Party being outmanoeuvred by market liberals and failing to reduce inequality but it is also a question of leftist acceptance of enormous levels of inequality while maintaining a vestige of credibility.*** Credibility is secured by talking about merely the richest 1% and arguing that it would be “unfair” to tackle one group of rich people unless all rich people can be similarly affected. Even opponents of Labour in government and those on the left whose ambition it is to destroy Labour effectively support inequality of income.
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* I am a longtime member of the Labour Party.

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/how-concerned-are-you-about-horizontal-fairness/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/inequality-of-income-can-labour-put-it-on-the-public-agenda-and-achieve-some-reduction-while-in-government/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/prioritising-public-spending-and-reducing-income-inequality-in-the-public-sector-a-motion-which-failed-to-make-the-agenda-for-the-labour-party-conference-2012/

“The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisfied with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom.” – Laura Slattery ‘The Frontline’ is dead, long live a revamped ‘Prime Time’, Irish Times Thursday, January 31, 2013 (http://m.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2013/0131/1224329469784.html)

Laura is getting close to the problem with the mass communication of political debate but she remains within the tent that is journalism.

Journalism has a political perspective. It is conservative, it poses no challenge but it manages to appear anti-establishment, pro-“people” and remain within the strictures of balance and fairness.

What it amounts to is this. There is, it is said, a “political class”. From this point on journalists are on safe ground. There’s now not the slightest chance of an accusation of bias or lack of balance because politics as a clash of parties, ideologies or major political perspectives – like liberalism or socialism – has been excluded.

There is of course a range of views which sees this as a managerial or a technocratic or a post-political approach. There’s quite a lot of sense here but it’s a whole lot worse because the participative citizen developed over centuries is about to be demoted to peasant!

Back to journalists. The “political class” controls the state, taxes and spending. People participate by putting pressure on the “political class” (Sometimes referred to as the “establishment” so as to secure an anti-establishment image for the commentator.) through pressure groups led by “activists” who share the journalists’ disdain for politics. An effective group wins a concession from the “political class” usually at the expense of a poorer and/or less well organised pressure group. Journalists function by siding with, reporting on and sorting out which pressure groups are most powerful, and then helping the “political class” decide which concessions must be made so as to maintain the system.

Yep, it’s really a great distance from citizens talking about great public controversies. It’s more like supplicants or peasants appealing to the ruler for preferential treatment and threatening unrest if that doesn’t work.
Laura Slattery came close when she observed the conservative futility of having “victims of austerity” state their cases for preferment. She then opted for the attractive diversion that is talk about broadcast programme formats. The problem is the abandonment of politics. The citizens need to talk about public priorities – setting a hierarchy of public spending – for in here lie real political differences over freedom and economic inequality.

“HORIZONTAL FAIRNESS”!!! Jesus wept!

Have a listen here: http://media.newstalk.ie/archive Colman at Large 2/1/13 part 2 at about 26 mins.

Not only was the term used but the programme presenter didn’t question it. It is a nasty concept slathered in the familiar balm of “fairness” and it should have been explored. Sean Healy reckons that in Ireland we are relatively strong on redistribution but weak on “horizontal fairness”.

What this boils down to is that no one among the better off is to have their income reduced unless everyone in the same income band is similarly affected, and until this happens, the default position of taking from the poor can continue because it’s “fairer”.

See also: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

 

 

One of the best courses I took at UCD years ago was John Baker’s course in Political Argument. I opted to do an essay on Fairness. It turned out to be complex and interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t give details. However, I’ve lately been commenting on how “fairness” has come to be such a weasel word, used to signal virtue without saying anything very much.

This morning I heard Micheál Martin interviewed on RTE Radio and he was stressing the importance of “fairness”. Needless to say, the interviewer didn’t ask what was meant by the term. If it retains any meaning in political discourse, it now means doing nothing that would change the existing structures of economic inequality. It means that if there are to be charges or cuts, then everyone will pay and perhaps the rich will pay a little more but their income must remain so many multiples of the minimum wage.

What it boils down to is this: “I’m paid ten times the minimum wage because I’m worth it and the market says so. We live in tough times and I’m prepared to do my bit but it wouldn’t be fair to reduce me to five times or even eight times the wage of a café worker.”

Jesus wept! The interviewer didn’t even ask!!!

Here’s a motion which twice failed to get the support of ordinary members of the Labour Party and so didn’t make it onto the agenda for Conference 2012.

As a first move in establishing a priority list for current public spending, Labour marks the maintenance of public sector incomes above 100k p.a. and public sector pensions above 50k p.a. as the lowest priority. That is to say, in the event of any further reductions in public spending, Labour identifies the first cut:  a 100k p.a. income ceiling for public sector workers and a 50k p.a. ceiling on public sector pensions.

Here’s the argument:

Let’s be clear

This proposal has nothing to do with taxation. If taxes were raised or if a new rate of tax were introduced and if the money so raised meant that there would be no need of further cuts in public spending, then this proposal would be redundant. The point here is this: if there are to be cuts, what area of public spending is least important, what should be cut first? This proposal answers: if there are to be cuts in public services and/or the incomes of relatively poor people who depend on the state, then those cuts should be considered only after the incomes of the rich who are on the public payroll have been capped at an affordable and sensible but generous level.

 

The immediate background

Leaving aside revolutionary and populist posing, the bulk of expressed opposition to cuts in state spending has involved particular pleading.  Then our media – in making no demand that something constructive be said – have compounded the problem. Journalists and presenters fail time and again to ask the most obvious question: “If there must be cuts and you feel that ‘X’ has to be maintained, which areas of spending do you think are less important than ‘X’ and should be cut first?” The lack of stated priorities has ensured that cuts are spread and this has tended to copper-fasten existing deprivation and inequalities.

I have been arguing on FaceBook and elsewhere that the rich among our public servants are the least of our concerns and that income (to include pay, bonus, overtime, allowances etc.) and pension ceilings should be introduced before any other cut. While there has been negative reaction, there has also been support and some of the support has been to the effect that the proposition should be put to a Labour Conference.

 

A fundamental question for Labour at this time

Because revolution and populist posing must not feature in Labour thinking, a major and significant question looms, and it demands an answer now: What remains of Labour values when state spending must be cut? Two very old and basic Labour tenets begin to harmonise and form at least part of the answer. Firstly, while equality is central to Labour’s ambitions, the Party has been slow to emphasise the most crucial and controversial aspect of equality: equality of income or – at least – reduced inequality of income. The time is ripe to put that right. Secondly, Labour has always sought to defend the meagre incomes of the poor. Never was this more urgent.

A pay ceiling on public service incomes and pensions would

  • accept that money is tight and that we cannot have everything but that some spending is vastly more important than others, and lay down a marker that a start has been made to setting priorities for Irish public spending;
  • make savings in public spending such that vital services and the pay of poor and middle income public servants could remain untouched;
  • reduce the bizarre and shameful spectacle of rich people beside poor people on the public payroll;
  • place inequality of income on the public agenda;
  • make it clear that Labour in bad times and in good times is serious about reducing inequality.

 

Arguments against

There are of course arguments against. Actually there are basically just three arguments against:

i)             The fairness argument

ii)            The brain drain argument

iii)           The Croke Park argument

 

i) The fairness argument says that public servants should not be singled out and that nothing should be done unless all rich people are tackled. In a sense this is a “what about?” A “what about?” is very much a conservative position which hides opposition to a change by diverting attention to other – often larger – issues. In this case, limiting the income of rich public servants is opposed by diverting attention to the income of other rich people. In another sense it is a crazy distortion of the notion of equality because what it says is that it would be unfair to reduce the incomes of one set of rich people unless all rich people were similarly treated. That is to say, it is a demand that all RICH people be treated equally!

It needs to be emphasised that it is public money that is in short supply, that cuts are happening now and that clearly public sector pay can be cut. In other words, there is neither time nor compelling need to be concerned about other rich people.

ii) The brain drain argument takes two linked forms. It is said that a reduction in top pay among public servants would result in a flight of talent abroad or into the private sector. It is certain that some may flee. However, the idea of a mass flight is fanciful. There may – just may – have been a time when a dissatisfied public worker could walk and pick up a job in the private sector. That certainly is not the case today. Moreover, this is a familiar threat raised by the rich from time to time. Remember when bank bonuses had to be paid or there would be a flight of talent? It didn’t happen.

 

Another form of the argument suggests that a ceiling would prevent the recruitment of exceptional talent. This rests on an abuse of the word “exceptional”. A pay ceiling would not rule out exceptional pay for an exceptional talent in exceptional circumstances. It would control the income of numbers of ordinary, unexceptional, rich workers.

iii) It is pointed out that the Croke Park Agreement rules out a pay ceiling. This is true. However, it does not rule out talking about a pay ceiling. Moreover, the extent to which the CPA guarantees that a group of rich people stays rich needs to be discussed and addressed.

 

Summing up

  • Let’s face it: 100k or a pension of 50k would appear a king’s ransom to the ordinary people who are made to pay these rich people or whose services are cut to maintain them. No one could seriously argue that these ceilings are not generous.
  • A public servant or potential public servant so in thrall to money that they will not serve unless paid more than 100k is clearly “the wrong stuff”. Get someone who understands the meaning of public service!
  • We live today in the kind of times so strange and fraught that a proposal once thought unimaginably daring becomes ordinary and feasible.
  • While in government in a time of crisis and austerity, Labour desperately needs to rediscover its radical voice and fundamental tenets.
  • It is possible without upsetting the troika too much to use what sovereignty we have left to make a start on a less unequal society.