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The 2016 general election in Ireland saw the two largest political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) share a combined vote of less than 50% and the Labour Party reduced to a small wounded cadre of seven parliamentarians. The conventional interpretation of this outcome is that there has been a leftward shift in overall Irish political sentiment which has made the Labour Party at best a mild left irrelevance and at worst a party of poseurs when compared to the emergent “real left”.

There is a possibility that the Labour Party in its weakened state will accept this established account and move simplistically to compete within rather than challenge the orthodox view. From a socialist perspective the problem with the orthodoxy is that increasingly the left in Ireland is implicated in a stable, conservative system of competing interest groups. It is important, therefore, that the Labour Party take time to think about the nature and complexity of this system with a view to confronting it rather than cutting a dash within it.

Despite their relatively small size a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left” or “socialist left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. When parliamentarians elected under the AAA/PBP* banner are asked if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern, the interviewer is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system. Now, while there is no possibility that Labour will join their tradition or at this stage find that theory plausible, there is a real risk that a demoralised and tiny Labour Party will thoughtlessly emulate their activism.

The quagmire into which Labour could very easily disappear is made of “grass roots”, “traditional support base”, “founding principles”, “the people we represent”. “listening to our members” etc. To survive Labour must look hard at the tempting system which has so developed to protect privilege that it easily accommodates dissent, anti-establishment and traditional revolutionaries. To survive and more importantly to keep alive the socialist minority in Ireland Labour must decide to turn away from the community service which most members crave and instead address the Demos – the masses – though the rest of the left opt for competing pressure groups.

***

Perhaps uniquely Ireland has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism paradoxically seen 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. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having been in government for 61 of the past 84 years, can pose as anti-establishment. The mechanism operates 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 – 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.

***

Now, the left would reject this characterisation of establishment and anti-establishment. They would see themselves as real anti-establishment but they would make this point while they move further and further, and more prominently into the stabilising or conservative, anti-establishment mechanism. There are three linked features of this move which – though they have a familiar radical veneer – illustrate the extent of left conservatism.

i) Class reduced to mere interest group

Unfortunately it’s becoming rare to hear socialists mention class. This has lead to the term functioning merely as an affiliation signal. Credibility among some leftists depends on stating explicitly that society is class based but there is little requirement beyond using the word. The kind of Marxist analysis which sought to define working class by attributes and then to calculate possible numbers has been replaced by acceptance of the class categories used by pollsters. This has led to the neglect of working class values, abandonment of the universal significance of the working class and acceptance of the working class as no more than a relatively deprived social bracket, i.e. a large pressure group demanding concessions from the government, political class or establishment.

ii) Representing and defending communities

The increasing emphasis on marking out territory is a further drift away from a meaningful view of class. The notion of deprived housing estates in revolt, besieged by the establishment and in need of defence is attractive to activists and has recent roots in the experience of Northern Ireland where territories were marked out for defence by one side or the other. There is now competition to establish exclusive political leadership within geographic areas identified as “working class estates”. It is common for activists from other areas to move to “defend” these estates.

It is nonsense of course. These housing estates are long established, comprised of family homes and are an integral part of society. The notion that – because they are relatively deprived and troubled – they are attacked by the state and its workers, and are no-go areas for unapproved political canvassers and politicians is a gross imposition. Moreover, it is an authoritarian affront to residents to suggest that they need leadership, particularly from outsiders with a more privileged background.**

iii) Favouring the street over parliament

In theory and in sentiment the sight of workers marching and organising in defiance of capitalist rule and the oppressive state apparatus is vital to the revolutionary left. In theory they should be marching for something which cannot be conceded and thus hastening the final crisis of capitalism. In this view the determinants of change are people in the streets and not representatives in parliament whose role is the secondary one of agitating within the foremost institution of liberal democracy.

Because it is now so clearly implausible, understanding the sentimental attachment to this tradition is easier than understanding the endurance of its place in left theory. Senior police officers routinely say that the force not only accepts protest but will facilitate it and it is odd that this seldom prompts doubt among those committed to street protest. However, some leftists do see the problem and distinguish between protest and effective protest. The former has been institutionalised to the extent that it is now quasi constitutional. Its primary function is that of a lightning rod which runs dissent safely to earth. An older safety metaphor might be preferred: it let’s off steam. Its other function is to display numbers. That’s why after a protest march there is inevitably dispute over attendance; the larger the attendance, the greater the pressure for a concession. (RTE, the national broadcaster, now reports estimated attendances as rival claims and leaves citizens to judge numbers from the TV pictures.)

The latter – effective protest – in reality isn’t protest as conventionally understood. It is political action aimed at some immediate end, usually preventing something happening, e.g. installation of water meters or the holding of a meeting. In seeking publicity it clearly has a genuine communication component extending beyond the ritual chanting of “peaceful protest”. However, it is also clear that while thousands are prepared to attend a “respectable” march, only a small number involve themselves in “effective protest”. In short, the masses accept the quasi-constitutional protest but reject direct action.

From a socialist perspective these trends have little or no reformative – never mind transformative – value and are fatally unconvincing to potential supporters. The working class is properly characterised by – among other things – admirable and universal values, not support for concessions from rulers. Its reduction to an interest group to be served, patronised, organised or led is an affront to the citizens concerned and to socialism. Moreover, the citizen who is likely to support either a socialist alternative or a somewhat more equal society can see the yawning chasm between sectarian chanting and a plausible argument.

***

The Labour Party is in more than enough trouble now. It is vital for two reasons that it is not sucked deeper into the conservative system of issues, competing demands and policies determined by focus-group research into interests. Firstly, while they come from very different traditions, every other party is serving and supportive of that system and there’s not much point in Labour joining that competition. Secondly and more importantly, there is a role for Labour in opposing the conservative system of cargo politics and competing interest groups.

There is no way of knowing the electoral consequences of Labour making a break with tradition and directly disputing the views of the majority. Indeed, there are no data on what binds the relatively stable minority of people who vote Labour. This essay assumes a significant minority of citizens who are really – as opposed to apparently – opposed to the observable, established system and are well disposed to hearing a political argument rather than mere contending pleas for preferment – pleas addressed to rulers carelessly referred to as the government, the establishment or the political class.

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* The most prominent components of this alliance are the Socialist Workers Party marketed as People Before Profit and the old Militant Tendency relaunched as The Socialist Party after expulsion from The Labour Party. Its more complex alliances can be found here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Before_Profit_Alliance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Austerity_Alliance%E2%80%93People_Before_Profit

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-anti-austerity-alliance-and-people-before-profit-1.2520628

** Counter establishment

Ruling a working class estate reflects a history in Ireland that has had some success. The idea is to make the state illegitimate or powerless and to usurp its functions in serving the people. This is what Sinn Féin did during the War of Independence; while making areas ungovernable or taking control, they established a parliament and a law enforcement system. The approach reappeared in the Provisional SF/IRA campaign in Northern Ireland when the UK state ceased to function in quite a few areas (Security forces could enter only by force of arms.) and in the Republic when the role of An Garda was usurped in tackling drug dealers. It was in evidence again in the details of enquiries and kangaroo courts addressing sex abusers in the ranks of SF/IRA and in the alternative celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

 

 

Dear Brendan,

When it comes to Labour’s approach to the next general election, I disagree profoundly with you. However, let me be clear from the outset that in the next election I will vote Labour and then transfer to Fine Gael. I will do so for the reasons that you outlined in your Irish Times article.* It is very important not to risk what has been achieved. So, how then do I disagree with you? I disagree on a more fundamental level. I disagree with your political outlook – your view of Labour’s purpose in entering coalition. In brief and I don’t mean to offend, I find you unnecessarily liberal and insufficiently socialist.

You see three main reasons for Labour being part of a new government: i) that proportional to its strength in the next Dáil, Labour will push FG in a leftward direction mostly to do with tax relief and improving state services; ii) that Labour has a particular interest in increasing employment; and iii) that Labour will try to have the 8th amendment to the constitution rescinded.

With the possible exception of i) these three are not specifically socialist and could be championed by any half decent liberal party. Indeed if the tax relief is given to middle earners as “middle” is currently understood and if income relativities within state employment remain unchanged, none of the three is specifically socialist.

Before looking at the three in a little detail it would be right to say why liberal as opposed to left ambitions are just not enough. The first reason is that we’re talking about the Labour Party and if it doesn’t have explicitly left ambitions, it has very little purpose. It becomes a caring liberal party among a number of liberal parties all of whom exist to advance liberal ambitions. Secondly, if Labour doesn’t offer left ambitions to the electorate, left voters have no one for whom to vote. No leftist would be attracted to FF or FG and no decent person would vote SF.** There is a group of small left parties but they offer no more than protest. Indeed their function in Ireland is to act as a lightning conductor for unhappiness and dissent.***

Turning now to your reasons for entering government, when Labour talks in clichéd terms about tax relief for low and middle earners, it sounds like every other party in the country. This is because “middle” is not to be taken literally. In Ireland and indeed in Britain “middle income” includes the majority of the rich.**** I can say this because I regard the top 10% of earners as rich and their inclusion within “middle income” as a distortion of public discourse.

When Labour talks about expanding state services without expressing an intention to change pay structures within state employment, the party again sounds like every other party. Worse than that, it expresses an intention to maintain the practice of becoming rich – entering that top decile – through public service. It also shows disdain for those who object to rich public servants along with ludicrous pensions and for those who take seriously the notion that apart from a good standard of living, being a public servant is not primarily about maximising income.

It is hard to be critical of a Labour Party minister being enthusiastic about job creation. Indeed in present circumstances it might be hard to be critical of anyone being enthusiastic about job creation. That’s the point: everyone is in favour of job creation. Liberals are very much in favour of job creation; they call it trickle-down economics. You and every party member know that that creates inequality and that it would be quite simply evasive to say that redistribution and/or labour law must wait until near-enough full employment is reached.

Having opposed Labour’s involvement in liberal objectives, it might seem strange that I would support your ambition to rescind the 8th (“pro-life”) amendment to the constitution. Labour has, however, considerable history on this, being the one party right at the outset to refuse extreme Catholicism its demand to insert a ban on abortion into the constitution. Opposition to this and the sorry, cruel mess it created has been a feature of the Party’s recent history. That campaigning to delete the 8th amendment might attract liberal voters is a bonus but fundamentally it is the moral thing to do.

This amendment then should be the one point of contact between liberal Ireland and the Labour Party, a shared ambition.

What then of your two other ambitions? They are liberal and could be decent. The problem is that in themselves they support, if not promote, economic inequality, specifically inequality of income.

Labour could turn firmly left by stating a modest ambition to reduce inequality of income. This would also drive a left-right wedge into Irish political discourse and at the same time give voters who dislike the existing structure of inequality something for which to vote.

What then of coalition? Few journalists seem to realise that Labour cannot enter coalition without the approval of a full delegate conference. Regardless of what happens by way of voting pacts or suggestions, if the numbers after an election suggest a coalition which includes Labour, there will be negotiations to reach an agreed programme for government. In other words, journalists are failing to emphasise that Labour is precluded by its own rules from doing other than campaigning alone.

However, it is no longer credible to ask for voter support for a whole raft of policies and say that implementation will be proportional to whatever numerical strength the party achieves at election. Voters need to know in advance that if Labour enters coalition something particular will happen no matter how many or few Labour TDs are returned.

We are therefore talking about preconditions. They have to be few and focussed – and this is crucial: they have to be divisive.

The liberal one is already chosen: a government supported referendum to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution. Alone that’s neither sufficient nor leftist. The problem with the other ambitions, remember, was inequality. A second pre-condition should be a programmatic reduction – year on year over the lifetime of a government – of inequality of income.

There’s no reason to be side-tracked in controversy over measurement. Of course there is a number of measurements of inequality from which to choose but let’s not mess about; we all understand the basic objective.

The reduction demanded cannot be big or coalition could be refused by any liberal partner. Each year’s target for reduction will have to be modest. The point is to set Ireland on a radical new path to reduce inequality of income, to make the totality of government policy subject to this modest ambition, to place income inequality at the core of public discourse, to divide Irish society on the question of inequality and to give socialists and mild egalitarians something for which to vote.

Brendan, I’m not dismissive of this government’s achievement in restoring a liberal economy. I’m very aware of the threats to that progress. I’m not opposed to coalition; on the contrary I see it as the only route to leftward reforms. However, it’s time now to set out on that route: nothing revolutionary just a noticeable change in direction.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/brendan-howlin-labour-and-fg-can-provide-state-with-vital-stability-1.2342504?fb_action_ids=10206995868311751&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=.Ve1SQV6jS3M.like

** This might seem merely provocative. That is not the intention and I will argue it at length in a later blog.

*** Lightning conductor is an apt metaphor because these parties function along with media, activists and advocate groups to attract and conduct dissent harmlessly to ground, and maintain the structure of inequality.

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/

I couldn’t say that I know Kenneth Egan, the Olympic boxing silver medallist, but I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve heard him on radio and TV. He’s a decent man who would like to give something back to boxing and to his hometown. When I heard that he intended to be a Fine Gael candidate in the 2014 local government elections, I knew that the smart asses would attempt to flitter him. They did.

He was characterised at worst as a fool and at best as naïve, knowing nothing about politics. Well, he’s certainly not a fool. He readily admits that he knows little about politics and that he’s with Fine Gael because they were first to ask him.

Kenneth Egan was open and honest about his intentions. He wanted to do community work. He reckoned that being on the Council would facilitate this. He was elected.

A cursory reading of the 2014 local election material – leaflets and posters – reveals that he was not at all unusual. Local election material was of two familiar – almost ritualistic – types. Firstly, there were lies that national controversies like property and water taxes could be resolved at local level, and futile Labour/FG efforts to counteract the lies. A variation on the lie was that the County Council was irrelevant and that the election was a method of sending a message to national government. Secondly, there was canvassing to secure employment/recognition as a community worker. Completely absent from the election material was any suggestion that the council would be an assembly which would debate politically, a chamber in which local issues would be addressed from the standpoints of competing ideologies and political values.

A consideration of the role of lies and indirect messaging in election campaigns and how mass media encourage or at least facilitate them will have to wait for another day. Here the intention will be to consider the election of community workers to local government.

At first glance politics and community work are quite distinct and it is tempting to view the routine approach to local elections as a misunderstanding or even as a kind of corrupt populism but it might be better to treat it more seriously. There are two possibilities: 1. that candidates believe local government to be non-political; and 2. that the community-work approach reflects a political perspective to rival, say, both liberalism and socialism. Let’s look at the two possibilities in turn.

1. Belief that local government is non-political has its equivalent on the national scale where clientelism thrives. Here candidates compete to provide some sort of service while trying to avoid anything divisive, like a political argument or an overall political perspective. There is a view that a national interest exists which supersedes all divisions including the entire structure of economic inequality. Many people dispute this view and it is particularly rejected by the left. However, its equivalent in local government goes largely unchallenged. Leftists seem to be as committed to the notion of “the community” or “local people” as anyone else.

After the recent 2014 local elections Labour councillors formed a second coalition with Sinn Fein and others to govern South Dublin County. A party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply is revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.”

It is true that power has been shifted to the county manager. It is also true that it is difficult to identify particular council votes that split along ideological lines. The problem is this: If the council is not a battleground of political values, then it has little function. That is to say, if it manages by reliance on a shared view, then it is no more than a supervisory management board and it could or should be replaced by a smaller board or even by an individual. The small board or individual could be charged with being the community’s representative to counterbalance the career managers. Whether or not election is necessary to choosing the counterbalance will be put to one side for consideration another day but the point is that if the council is not riven by political values, there is no reason to continue with its present quasi-parliamentary form when something a great deal smaller would suffice.

2. There is a danger that commentators and political scientists will fail to take the community-work approach seriously, that they will refuse to consider it as a political perspective – a complex, functional, conservative whole, very suited to maintaining privilege in today’s conditions.

A Fine Gael TD (MP) of my acquaintance – a very decent, hard-working person – argues that ideologies are divisive and unnecessary. He sees his election to the Dáil (parliament) as voter recognition for the years of hard work he put in as a county councillor. In other words, voters promoted him to a higher grade. He takes his role as public representative seriously but it is a role which many would dispute or indeed decry. He attends meetings, holds advice clinics etc. He is, to use the familiar term, “active on the ground”. His activity has a purpose: it is how he establishes what his constituents want. Once he’s established that they want something, his role is to do what he can to help them get it. He will write letters/e-mails, attend and speak at public meetings, lead deputations to government ministers or to senior managers in state services or companies. He uses his status and influence to apply pressure for the delivery of some local demand. He might operate similarly on behalf of a family or an individual provided it did not contradict what the community generally wanted. This is his political perspective; this is politics for him. He is aware of course that many criticise him on the basis that all of his activity is about nothing more than ingratiating himself with voters in order to be re-elected. He agrees that his activity “on the ground” is necessary to re-election but he also enjoys doing it, sees it as his function as an elected representative and supports the whole as a sensible, working political system. He is not in the least odd; he’s mainstream.

This is an old, conservative perspective perhaps best understood as the Fianna Fáil tradition of constituency service. They insinuated themselves into each and every locality and organisation and developed a reputation for “getting things done” or “delivering” and indeed bizarrely for being anti-establishment. Leftists behave no differently but they tend to have a different rationale for precisely the same activity. Leftists tend to be in thrall to “working people”, “ordinary people” or increasingly seldom, “the working class”. Like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, leftists sincerely want to advance popular demands but they also want to lead “working people” who are viewed as essentially progressive.

I know quite a few Labour county councillors. They are thoughtful and acutely aware of inequality and the class-divided nature of Irish society. They live to change that society by way of gradual reform, i.e. the parliamentary route. They realise that there is little or no conflict over political values at council level and that they must do community work. Some have ambitions to be elected to the Dáil and see the county council as a stepping stone. Again like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, they work “on the ground” hoping that voters will promote them. They are aware too that promotion to the Dáil will not mean elevation to a realm of political conflict with a constant clash of political values because re-election will to a great extent depend on that same work “on the ground”. There is no easy escape because not only is that the established way of things but the vast majority of electors shares the political view expressed by my Fine Gael acquaintance. Some voters, candidates and elected representatives may adopt a bogus anti-establishment swagger by talking in terms of the “political class” being pressured by “working people” but it amounts to the same stable conservatism: politics reduced to getting facilities or services for one group of citizens/constituents at the expense of others. Community work – together with protest, agitation and pressure – has become part of the management of dissent, a way of avoiding differences over political values.*

It is very different at party meetings. At times a meeting can inhabit another world, a world in which class, oppression, equality, legitimacy, power and their likes have real currency. Here’s the thing: A prospective council candidate seeking support at a Labour convention or – I presume – any other left party’s convention simply could not say that socialism was irrelevant and that they were putting themselves forward as an excellent community worker. The tradition (It may be a myth at this stage.) has to be maintained that community work, leading protests, etc. are directed towards socialism or at least a more equal society. The thought that they might be directed towards maintaining the system would be unbearable for most socialists.**

There is little point in suggesting or debating reforms at this stage. That is to say, there’s not much point in talking about elected county managers or elected supervisory boards because the overwhelming majority – including most of those who would see themselves as anti-establishment – support the system. There is a more basic argument to be addressed first. The republican approach which would include both liberalism and socialism views democracy as a matter of citizen participation in debates about the direction of the republic. It’s a tiny minority viewpoint. Given the forces opposed, it could be termed deeply unfashionable or even eccentric but it is old, basic, democratic and worthy of support.

Yes, council elections are for the most part about appointing/ recognising community workers. Voting for community workers or local-delivery agitators – even when they belong to ideological parties – is at best mildly democratic but in any republican sense might better be seen as counter-democratic.

It would seem time to recognise that a county or a city council is not a little parliament and making an explicit difference between the two might help to revitalise citizenship and push parliament back towards its neglected deliberative role.

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* This is not the place to consider the possibility of a post-political age.

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

The most popular post-referendum view seems to be that the result foiled an attempted constitutional “power grab”. The sudden decision by the Taoiseach to abolish the Seanad was nothing of the sort.It was Enda together with his advisers looking at a fast growing political constituency in Ireland and thinking, “We could attract them. Look at them: they despise politics, politicians and the state, they’d love the idea of an attack on all three and we could easily market senate abolition as just that.” * Given that survey data suggest that “savings” was the most common reason for voting Yes, Enda and co. may have been relatively successful in wooing that ASAP (Anti-state/anti-politics) constituency. That the outcome was rejection of the proposal may be due less to support for a reformed senate and more to do with a bizarre consistency among ASAP voters, many of whom – as DDI advocate – will vote against anything proposed by the government. In other words the referendum split the ASAP vote between a Yes side which confirmed the Taoiseach’s analysis and delighted in the prospect of fewer politicians, and a No side which would prefer to line up what they see as the elite rather than be on the same side as the government.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/the-taoiseach-intends-to-sacrifice-the-seanad-to-feed-the-growing-anti-politics-constituency/

I was never in favour of abolishing the Seanad. My reasons were to do with mass political communication which many would dismiss with one of censorship’s favourite labels: “academic”. Now, however, there is a more pressing reason to vote No.

I won’t go on too much about the communication aspect but some explanation is required. My interest is political communication and the information – i.e. data and argument – that a citizen requires to participate in public controversies. One of the requirements is access to a range of viewpoints. The Seanad wasn’t designed with this in mind but in its design there was a suggestion of comprehensive debate, something rare and something that could be altered to do the job.

Election to the Seanad is by way of some universities and by way of industrial panels – agriculture, labour and the like. Commentators have pointed to the quality of Seanad speakers delivered by the universities but also to the exclusion of any particular industrial component to the panel elections which came to be dominated by routine inter party competition. There have also been nominations by Taoisigh which sought to recruit particular perspectives. In summary, the Seanad is designed for the most part to institutionalise and deliver sectional perspectives but this simply hasn’t happened.

Had it happened, it would not have been a great success for political communication – or rather for the kind of political communication which the republican or participative citizen needs. It is corporatist thinking. The assumption is that all political debate is based on self-interest and competition for resources. It is the traditional Fianna Fáil way and has become the standard media perspective in Ireland. It has indeed an appealing democratic veneer. Its notion of representation is that voices must be heard from regions, classes, industries, NGOs, lobbies etc. The problem of course is that they may all be saying the same thing: “Me! No, me! No, no, me, me!” This is an intensely conservative position which can often give the appearance of radicalism as when a bit of extra resources for a “deserving” group is championed.

It could be different. Think about this as a specification to be handed to the designers of a new Seanad: It is required that the Seanad reflect not the interests of select groups but that it publicly and fully thrash out all issues on which it deliberates. In summary my long standing position on the Seanad is that it has a promising design which needs to be changed.

Enough of that. We are facing a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The reason we are facing this now has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments put forward over the years that the Seanad is elitist, undemocratic or unnecessary. No, this is happening because the Taoiseach and his advisors can see clearly that there is a growing, right wing, anti-state, anti-politics constituency and he has decided to feed it by sacrificing the Seanad. The cusp of competition for political support now is this large group (There’s no knowing its size yet.) of angry people. It is certainly odd that FG which prides itself on defending democracy should now be prompted in this direction. With the exception of revolutionaries seeking a crisis which might be exploited, the desire among leftists to attach to – even to lead – such people borders on incomprehensible. It seems to be based on a belief that anyone or group opposing austerity and willing to take part in protest is progressive – even socialist. In other words, the very people that might be expected to stand in the way of a populist move to the right are competing to lead it.

Two things remain to be addressed. Firstly, a no vote might be equally attractive to a member of the anti-state/anti politics (ASAP) grouping; “no” would be a rejection of a government proposal. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the No side canvassing support on this basis.

Secondly, ASAP may be nothing of consequence. My concern with it grew slowly. I watched Occupy and spoke to some of its adherents. I attended anti-property tax meetings. I live an ordinary social life and take part in conversations. On this anecdotal level ASAP gives cause for concern in terms of what they say, the aggressive stance taken and their numbers. There’s more, however. Published polling data shows firm support for right wing parties, that parties seek ASAP support suggests the existence of data that make that course worthwhile and the utter dominance of the ASAP perspective in the media all combine to support a case for treating ASAP very seriously.

The Taoiseach has reduced this referendum to a question of for or against cutting the number of politicians. That proposal is close to the hearts of the ASAP people. In these particular circumstances people who have been in favour of abolishing the Seanad for other reasons should consider voting No. A Yes gives encouragement to an extremely individualist brand of politics and many of those that I’ve heard advocating abolition of the Seanad over the years certainly don’t belong on that side.

The rise of Fianna Fáil in opinion polls has come as a great shock to some. If comments on Facebook are any indication, the people who now favour FF have at best lost their memories and at worst have gone mad. The revival of FF, however, is neither mad nor surprising but entirely understandable and predictable.

Firstly, the overwhelming majority of those voters who abandoned FF at the last election most certainly did not act because they had been persuaded to change their political views. They abandoned FF because FF had provided extraordinarily poor management and FG was offering better management. (The Labour Party was quite similar, offering better management but with a more caring approach.)

Without encroaching very far into the realm of theory, it is clear that a citizen who believes that we live in a post-political age and that elections are about choosing managers, would be acting sensibly in supporting FF as soon as the worst managers had been purged. This – together with portraying the FG/Labour government as poor managers – is what has happened.

Secondly, the overriding political perspective offered by the media eases the rehabilitation of management under the FF brand. While this perspective can be viewed as a variation on the managerial or post-political approach, at the very least the two are perfectly compatible. The dominant media perspective sees the political system in terms of a “political class” ruling over supplicants and groups who seek concessions.* A citizen who adopts this perspective might compare the present government with FF’s record and conclude that FF had granted more or better concessions in the past.
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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

David Black, a prison officer, a public servant, was murdered this week. [i] It was an appalling crime but it’s just not plausible to say so without saying the same of earlier similar acts. No doubt the perps. will say that that they are “fighting” for Irish freedom from Britain or for Irish “unification” and that what they did was part of a continuing struggle dating back to the early 20th century or earlier. [ii] In Ireland over the years we’ve adopted a number of pivotal moments, glorifying violence before a moment and condemning violence after it, just as SF and others now treat the Good Friday agreement and the peace “process”. They seek to portray themselves as unlike today’s killers. They want to do what has been done before: be part of a new establishment which condemns the latest political murders. It’s a depressing pattern. As the various claimants to be the heirs polish their boots for centenary marches, [iii] it might do some good if a few of them at least realised that they had plausibility problems.

Yesterday (Nov. 2nd 2011) on RTE Radio 1, Pat Kenny interrupted his morning radio programme to bring us “breaking news”. The news was that SF had left the Dáil until the afternoon in protest at the lack of parliamentary debate on the payment of hundreds of millions of Euro to bondholders at the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank. The SF finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, was brought on air to protest that there was little on no debate on handing over so much money when there was no moral or legal obligation to pay.

So far, so true! Indeed it is so true that there couldn’t possibly be a debate in any conventional sense of the word because absolutely no one is arguing that there is a moral or legal obligation to pay. On this point An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, Fine Gael, The Labour Party and Sinn Fein are in agreement. However, on radio Pearse Doherty was allowed to pretend that there was disagreement on this. Indeed he said that the Taoiseach had been forced to admit that this was the case, whereas the Taoiseach couldn’t possibly have said otherwise.

Where there is disagreement is over the likely consequences of refusing to pay. SF of course is well aware of this but the last thing they want to do is engage in the real controversy because that turns on debating and considering risks. You see, the European Central Bank want Ireland to pay up. One response might be, “How dare they?” Well, the difficulty is that they keep Ireland supplied with the money to pay welfare recipients and public service workers. Because of this the government and many others feel it is prudent to pay up. In short, though there is no obligation to pay, Ireland is forced to pay. Should Ireland refuse to pay in full or in part, it is possible but unlikely that there will be no negative consequences. However, it is also possible that the money to keep Irish society going would be stopped. Essentially the difference between the government and SF is that the former don’t want to risk the livelihoods of many Irish people, while the latter want to run that risk.

This difference certainly does need to be debated. A public service broadcaster has an obligation to bring public controversy to the citizens. In this case a newsworthy event – a dramatic parliamentary walkout – was covered at the expense of an obligation to inform citizens. Sure, they were informed of the walkout but from then on they were subjected to lies and not the slightest attempt was made to call attention to the real – the only – debate.

The website, Political Reform, has published figures based on the new poll: Fianna Fail 12, Fine Gael 67, Labour 48, Green Party 0, Sinn Fein 24, Independents/Others 15. (It is reckoned that the 15 include 10 who would be “left leaning”.)

 http://politicalreform.ie/2010/12/02/december-3-red-cirish-sun-poll-fianna-fail-facing-annihilation/comment-page-1/#comment-2561

Perhaps I’m the only one concerned that an overweening majority would threaten our democracy. On the basis of these figures, Lab/FG would have 115 seats. That’s not a safe majority. It’s downright dangerous and must not happen. The same could be said of FF/FG/SF having 103 seats.

Two combinations remain:

Lab/SF and 10 independents would have 82 seats.

FF/FG with 5 independents would have 84 seats.

The Left coalition depends on the belief that SF are socialist. However, it is implausible that a party which broke from Official SF partly to avoid contamination by socialist ideas and then supported the IRA murder of more Irish people than any other combatant group in N.I. has “found” socialism. It is true that the “socialist split” happened decades ago in very different circumstances but many of SF’s present leaders were around then or soon after. SF are “positioning” themselves to the left of Labour. It is a measure of desperation that many socialists are falling for it. SF are unchallenged at the ballot box for the “traditional” extreme right, nationalist vote. Their hope is that clientilism in poor areas and populist guff disguised by the terminology of socialism will deliver sizeable numbers of the poor and some naive socialists. A “left” coalition which included SF would destroy the credibility of Irish socialism. It would be crazy for Labour to be a part of that.

That leaves a Right coalition with a small majority, facing an energetic and ambitious Labour opposition, challenged on its left by a handful of “fantasy” socialists, with SF pursuing who knows what?

As the likelihood of Labour participation in government approaches certainty, old and divisive views resurface. We are back yet again to opposing coalition with liberals and conservatives. This time it is wrapped in a desire to make common cause with fringe leftists but this too has been seen before: remember the rise of the Workers Party. Let’s separate the two ( i. The question of coalition with FF or FG; and ii. the question of coalition with small leftist parties) and then finish with a proposal.

The question of coalition with FF or FG.

Yes, it is true that coalition has disappointed Irish socialists. Yes, it is true that coalition has underachieved. Yes, it is true that coalition did not significantly alter the structures of power and inequality in Ireland. BUT yes, it is also true that coalition is a tactic not a political perspective or even a programme. Two points need to be made. Firstly coalitions involving Labour have not been failures. Secondly, the extent to which they disappointed socialists may have been due to a lack of thought and imagination among socialists themselves.

The weakness of and danger to Labour in coalition has been the lack of a clear political ambition in preparing for coalition. The problem today on the left is the same as it was in the 70s/80s when Labour was tearing itself asunder over coalition: there is no coherent leftist objective. The best argument on offer is that leftist policies are more likely to restore the kind of prosperity which Ireland enjoyed before “the crisis”.

These arguments are compelling and deserve support. It is clear that familiar socialist approaches offer a better chance of recovery and have the added attraction that they give a degree of protection to the poor. The liberal arguments which stand against them are essentially daft and will not achieve the liberal goal of a prosperous society. In short, Labour retains its status as the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul and becomes the fount of Keynesian sense and decency. This is an honourable position but it is not enough.

Ok, following an extended period in which market fundamentalism became the religion of the chattering classes, it is relatively progressive to offer mildly distributive policies which will stimulate growth but – again and particularly in a time of unprecedented openness to ideas – it is not enough.

TASC’s open letter is an excellent example. It seeks to maintain and expand a functioning economy by way of avoiding cuts in public spending, and stimulating investment including public infrastructural projects. It calls for a measure of equality by way of taxing wealth and high income, and by way of fighting poverty/low income. Frankly, only a maniac would argue against this. It must be done but it is not enough for a party needing to be inspiring and unique. 

It is time to offer something imaginative, something progressive, a different social objective. This is a variation on Rosa’s view that the purpose of a socialist party is to advance the policy that no other party can: Let’s make increased equality and particularly greater equality of income the objective of all policies. In other words, unless a policy will SIGNIFICANTLY NARROW THE GAP between high and low incomes, let’s leave it to liberal or conservative parties.

Think about it. The reason for voting Labour and the price of coalition with Labour is real change: the measurable and significant flattening of income levels.

The question of coalition with small leftist parties.

There is a strange belief among some Labour members that small means socialist or at least in some sense progressive and that an alliance would somehow lead to a left of centre majority. This fantasy sits easily with a strong opposition to dealing with liberal and conservative parties and is encouraged by journalists who are essentially egalitarian but antipathetic to Labour. They are, however, aware that by far the largest bloc of progressive politics in Ireland is the Labour Party.

A basic problem is that even if there were a real meeting of minds within this group, the numbers don’t amount to anything like a majority.

There isn’t, however, a meeting of minds. Coalition with such groups is at least as daunting as with either FF or FG. The explicitly socialist groups dislike Labour and tend to cleave to doctrines and analysis which addresses earlier manifestations of capitalism than that which we now face. The media appearance of their arguments serves to deride socialism, making socialism appear silly and irrelevant. Other parties are simply not socialist or even predominantly leftist. They certainly have socialist members who have subordinated their leftist sentiments to another project, be it environmentalism or aggressive nationalism. Incidentally, the same could be said of members of the two major parties.

Radical or redundant

Forget fantasies about building a coalition of leftist splinters. Forget liberal and conservative policies and leave them to the parties to whom they belong. The sensible approach for Labour is to seek coalition NOT on the basis of anything like easily agreed policy but on the basis of policy that a liberal or conservative party could not possibly initiate.

A drive for greater equality and particularly equality of income would be popular and inspiring. In Britain even David Cameron is aware of public sentiment. He has called for a ceiling in public service pay of 20 times the lowest pay. Figures are up for debate but how about 10 times in the public sector, in companies in which the state has ownership and in companies awarded state contracts?

Sometime last week I heard on the radio a nasty little exchange between Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Minister Martin Mansergh. It was about Euro 200K which had been spent on turning a car park at Leinster House into a lawn. At one point in defending the spending the Minister pointed out that the original estimate of 400K had been cut in half by the use of direct labour.

Now this is interesting on two fronts. Firstly, it is very rare to hear a FF spokesperson admit to an example of a saving achieved by the use of direct labour. Ideology demands that contracts and out-sourcing be cheaper. Secondly, the saving is enormous. I accept that direct labour is more efficient but surely not by 200K on 400K! I asked the Bord of Works and received a reply to the effect that the cheaper job was the complete project.

My next step will be to ask the name of the company which quoted a price 100% more expensive than the job actually cost?