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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interest in increasing employment; and iii) that Labour will try to have the 8th amendment to the constitution rescinded.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/

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The extraordinary level of agreement on the need to tackle inequality should prompt suspicion. For centuries there has been argument and struggle over economic inequality but almost suddenly, it seems, there is agreement. The deceit is in the proportion, 99:1.

“We are the 99%!” is a heady rallying cry and there are countless on-line memes emphasising the ludicrous wealth of the top 1%. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of people who would be considered rich by any standard are not in the 1%. They are hidden among the 99% and very likely aware that confining attention to the 1% is their best chance of retaining wealth and privilege.

In other words, the choice of 99:1 rather than 90:10 or 80:20 is about more than slogans. It is the most conservative position possible at this time.

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.

It’s no wonder that market liberalism is almost unquestioned in Ireland. Liberals know how to use state power and institutions. Socialists in government need to watch them and see how it’s done.

Have a look at this: “The National Competitiveness Council was established by Government in 1997. It reports to the Taoiseach on key competitiveness issues facing the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to enhance Ireland’s competitive position.” – http://www.competitiveness.ie/aboutus/

The establishment of a state council has institutionalised competitiveness as a permanent objective of government.There’s a lesson to be learned: The establishment of a state council is a way to institutionalise X as a permanent objective of government.

The Labour Party is now in Government lumbered with political argument from a state council for competitiveness. If the left is capable of learning how to use the state, this is what we need to see before this government leaves office:

“The National Council for the Reduction of Inequality of Income was established by Government in 2015. It reports to the Taoiseach on key issues causing economic inequality in the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to reduce inequality of income in Ireland.”

“Former CRC boss got more than €700k pension package from charity fund”*

This has nothing to with theft. This has nothing to do with proper governance. This has nothing to do with private funding versus state funding. This has nothing to do with paying for exceptional talent. This has nothing to with capitalism.

This has to do with rich people looking after those similarly situated. While too many on the left rattled sabres at the richest 1%, quietly the majority of the rich – say, the top 10% of earners – were establishing and maintaining excessive pay, bonus, expenses and pension norms while pretending to be “middle income”** and very likely joining in complaints about the 1% rich. The movement started in private companies and spread to the elite in state employment.

I have argued for a long time that €50k p.a. is an exceedingly good pension and that all public service pensions and pensions in organisations funded or part funded by the state should adopt this figure as the maximum permitted. Some years ago it was objected that a court had decided that a public service pension was a private asset and could not be touched. Public service pensions, however, have since been reduced. That leaves the real objection: Rich people, the top 10% of earners, the ruling class, the elite (Give them whatever title you prefer.) don’t regard €50k p.a. as a great deal of money or as creating sufficient inequality to maintain elite status or lifestyle.

It’s long past time the 80% or 90% of earners insisted on straight talking and a grasp on reality. €50k is a fabulous pension and above that it quickly becomes ridiculous.
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* http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/former-crc-boss-got-more-than-700k-pension-package-from-charity-funds-29922420.html
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/

Michael Taft writing in Unite’s Notes From the Front reports favourably on Switzerland’s 1:12 initiative and other moves to reduce inequality of income.* This is really good stuff from Switzerland and it’s the sort of approach the Irish Labour Party and the left generally should be taking: Link top pay to the minimum wage or the pay of low paid staff members. Moreover, every initiative, every policy, every budget should be evaluated with reference to inequality of income. I might add that every cut in public expenditure should be similarly evaluated. Since 2012 this kind of equality audit has been Labour Party policy but it’s a well-kept secret and labour’s critics on the left show not the slightest interest in it.**

The notion of limiting top pay to a multiple of the lowest pay appears in the thinking of even the British Conservative Party.

I put forward an argument that the first cut in the public service pay bill should be a cap on pay and extras of 100k and a 50k ceiling on pensions. It was met with hostility to the extent that I couldn’t get my own branch or constituency Labour Party to put it on the 2012 conference agenda.*** How about now putting it to a plebiscite now?

There were other proposals. One was to call the bluff of those who said that increases in the minimum wage would close businesses especially in the hospitality industry. The suggestion was that the minimum wage would be payable only within companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times the minimum wage; all other firms would pay the minimum wage plus, say, three euro per hour. Another was that state contracts would be confined to companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times its lowest paid staff member or, say, four times the lowest paid staff member in any of its contractors.

The multiples can be debated and indeed changed periodically. The important point is that inequality of income becomes a matter of public controversy.
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* http://notesonthefront.typepad.com/politicaleconomy/2013/10/a-few-referenda-ideas-that-just-might-succeed.html
** 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/

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/ )

Since the IRA went away and SF decided to adopt a socialist posture, SF has become the latest party to figure in a decades old Labour Party fantasy about creating a left majority – not by convincing citizens to support socialism but by adding together the support levels of anyone who could conceivably considered leftist on a dark night and without your glasses on! In the latest edition of this silliness Emmet Stagg – who is well aware that this has been said of other parties in the past – argues for a Labour/SF alliance on the basis that SF has abandoned violence and that they now have a democratic mandate.*

Come on, let’s be sensible. In all walks of life it is pretty stupid to ignore someone’s past when evaluating their character and how this might affect their behaviour in future.** (Much is made of the new generation of SF politician. However, Pearce Doherty decided to join SF in 1996, a year of IRA activity which included the murder of Det. Gerry McCabe and the London Docklands and Manchester bombings.) Moreover, as revelations about SF’s past drip out over the years, Labour in an alliance with them – even a coalition – might have to defend, say, a minister wanted by an international court. SF’s past follows them around; anyone foolish enough to ally with them would inevitably be mired in it.

Yes, it is true that in the full knowledge of murders, atrocities and crimes against humanity a sizable number of Irish citizens vote for SF. It is equally true that a democratic mandate does not wash clean or redefine crime as acceptable. It simply means that citizens are prepared to vote for wrongdoers. It’s not an uncommon occurrence and it’s not confined to gun runners.

There’s also SF’s project of reunification. Everything is secondary to that. Their espousal of a populist type of socialism made sense when the ambition was to replace the Labour Party. However, they weren’t to know that FF would come so close to destruction and that replacing FF might have been a better plan. They’ve fallen between FF and Labour and are in a tactical bind.

The notion that normal politics is an approximate 50/50 split between left and right is quaint and it forces Irish believers constantly to try to form unlikely alliances to make up “normal” figures. In Ireland if conservatives and liberals come together on an issue, they easily outnumber the left. If liberals and the left come together on an issue, they outnumber conservatives. That’s how divorce etc. and two presidencies were won and unfortunately it’s also why economic equality remains a fringe concern.

Socialism or even support for egalitarian policies is the perspective of a small minority in Ireland but it might be enough to effect real change. The day Labour realises that its routine and extraordinarily reliable 10% support gives the freedom to make explicitly socialist demands as a condition for entry into government is the day that we can begin to think that the structure of inequality in Ireland can be changed. Looking around for liberal votes or trying to make alliances with parties of any vague pinkish hue or whose ambition is to destroy Labour is a repeat of what has gone before and is a gift to the right.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/stagg-says-labour-link-up-with-sinn-f%C3%A9in-possible-1.1504075
** http://irishpoliticalmemes.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-wawa-conservative-theres-no-need-to-change-anything-when-the-past-is-forgotten/

Take a look at this from politicalreform.ie: http://politicalreform.ie/2013/08/17/so-what-for-silly-season-politics-looking-at-the-august-opinion-polls/#more-4664

It is a longish piece but bear with it or at least scan through to its salient features. If it is remotely accurate, it predicts a single digit number of Labour seats and extraordinarily right wing parliaments for Ireland.

Attention focusses on the belief that, while Labour might hold on to a vote in the region of its traditional 10% support, it is reaching a tipping point at which marginal seats fall rather than are won. This will be a cause for celebration among Labour’s rivals both left and right. The problem for those celebrating on the left is that there is no leftward movement in voter support. The belief on the left (a very old belief) is that as soon as Labour is destroyed and/or joins a unified left, Ireland will magically have something like a 50/50 left/right electoral split. There’s not the tiniest shred of evidence to support this hope.

Here’s a different interpretation of what’s happening and it too is not based on anything that could be remotely described as quantitative research. Let’s leave gullible victims of populism aside and consider the citizen who is open to argument. The citizen is listening and knows the precarious state that we are in. The citizen can choose to support the left or the right. There are arguments presented from left and right. Neither set of arguments seeks to change the structure of inequality. The right argues that cuts are necessary to “restore the economy”. The left argues that cuts are unnecessary and will further damage the economy. I’ve always found liberal economics both daft and cruel so I won’t address the right wing argument here. It is the left wing arguments that concern me deeply. They pretend that if bond holders and banks were not bailed out, there’d be no shortfall between state income and expenditure. They talk about making the rich pay but exclude the majority of the rich, i.e. emphasis is on the top 1%, possibly the top 10% but under no circumstances will the top 20% be targeted. The left’s position is to try to convince citizens that life can return to “normal” as before the crisis. Yes, it’s a conservative argument but it is also implausible.

It is hardly surprising that a thoughtful citizen would turn right because the argument offered there seems less implausible.

Peter McVerry made a simple point in a recent letter to the Irish Times. He asked if the hundred million spent on building a free flow structure on the N7 at 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.*

He’s talking about priorities here, how state money ought to be spent, and he’s calculating on the basis of inequality. It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured: There are constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat while we recently created a traffic corps; far more people die by suicide than are killed on our roads while the RSA is favoured for funding. That however is too limited an approach. The reality is that we don’t talk about priorities, and that helps keep equality and real change off the agenda.

Avoiding the issue of priority has not only made 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. There’s a political model in operation and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists seem to believe 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. It explains the return of support for Fianna Fáil who can once again seem to be “more in touch” and better rulers.***

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change to existing structures of inequality. The 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. Leaving aside revolutionaries who view all unrest as potentially advantageous, many among the Irish left have a romantic view that all objection to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government with spending cuts rather than resisting them. The idea of using cuts to assault inequality can’t get a hearing; progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that the “Celtic Tiger’s” incomes and inequalities can be restored if only the rich paid more tax. Conveniently for most of the rich, they too can pose on the left because the emphasis is almost invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%.

Ireland needs to talk about economic inequality but not in vague terms which allow conservatives to pose as egalitarians. It’s time for socialists and other progressives to make the reduction of inequality of income the prime objective. The Labour Party now favours equality audits before budget and policy decisions ***** but the party in government continues to talk about economic recovery and fairness as if they were prime considerations, and most of the government’s harshest critics on the left share that agenda.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/speedy-aid-for-the-homeless-1.1446630
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/theres-nothing-surprising-in-the-return-of-support-for-ff/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/
***** 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/

Let’s be clear. This was an Irish scam. Lending companies had access to lots of relatively cheap “international” money. This was “imported” and lent to the relatively poor so that extraordinary property prices could be paid to the rich.

In terms of page-one economics the price of a house was determined by whatever people were prepared to pay. The graph shows that income and costs increased steadily but house prices took off on a bewildering upward trajectory.
6a00d8342f650553ef01901d4b2988970b
From Michael Taft’s Notes from the Front. http://notesonthefront.typepad.com/politicaleconomy/2013/06/the-hulk-says-crush-household-debt.html

Traditional lending conventions linking income with loan size were dropped in order to maximise borrowing and this made large payments to the rich chancers possible ( https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/if-the-banks-and-building-societies-were-giving-crazy-loans-which-could-not-be-repayed-by-how-much-should-we-penalise-both-their-and-their-customers-foolishness/” ). The scam was greased by making some people desperate (“You need to get on the property ladder.”) and by convincing others that they too could be successful speculators (“It’s a no brainer; property prices don’t fall in Ireland.”).

The interesting question is this: How did so many people fall for the scam? Firstly, it needs to be emphasised that not everyone fell for it. Secondly, while citizens correctly expect those of their fellow citizens who are paid to think, manage and comment to warn them of scams, they were sorely let down. I’ve argued elsewhere that these well-paid failures who did not speak out time and again either because they were too stupid to see the scam or so lacking in integrity that they abandoned their jobs to hide within the scam, should now be moved to jobs more suited to their shortcomings. In short a significant portion (perhaps a majority) of Ireland’s professional elite has been exposed as thick or turpid or both. ( https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/they-are-known-to-be-useless-and-they-are-all-still-there-a-reminder-from-eddie-hobbs/” )

It is, however, a mistake to view all of the victims of the scam as blameless. No matter how many times managers and media encourage a person to be foolish there remains a personal obligation to be prudent. Of course there are times when a scam is so well done that little or no blame can attach to the victim but that is not the case in relation to the Irish lending scam. Despite the elite chatter and media torrent in support of foolishness, ordinary conversations about the dangers were commonplace and there were many warning voices which could have been heeded. Moreover, as the scam developed there was increasing concrete evidence in plain sight sufficient to warn all but the wilfully blind or the addicted risk-taker.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to scams and are often preyed upon. The property scam was no exception. The pressure to “get on the property ladder” was relentless and in a just world a nasty fate would await anyone who dispensed this advice – especially when it was dispensed as it became more and more clear that the end was approaching.

Mature victims drawn into a reckless gamble were less vulnerable and their fellow citizens should be less forgiving of their stupidity and/or avarice.

The argument that the victims should be bailed out for reasons different to those offered for baling out the banks is untenable. There was no moral or legal reason for baling out banks. Leaving aside young people and cases where no blame could attach, there is no moral or legal reason to bail out victims of the scam either. However, a functioning liberal economy or the view that these people in aggregate qualify as “too big to fail” may be very good reasons why careful, thinking citizens will have to bail out these people as well as the banks.

In today’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins writes about media portrayal of the Irish economic experience. His title is “Things not nearly as bad as they are often portrayed”. I’ll leave it to others to make the justified response that inequality of income determines how bad things are in each citizen’s life. I want to draw attention to an interesting point that he makes: he says that there is a “dominant media narrative” in Ireland and that it is shared by “anti-austerity campaigners”. He is spot-on and he is saying something very important about an Irish paradox: “anti-establishment” has been assimilated and is part of the defence of existing structures of inequality.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Fianna Fáil was built on local service, on taking account of what ordinary people said to a party which had consciously insinuated itself into every part of Irish civil society. This of course contributed to making clientelism essential for anyone seeking election but it also made it possible for a party to govern the state for the greater part of its history while being anti-establishment. This is neither mad nor a joke. On the contrary it is an easily understood system with a plausible political theory. In Ireland today the media and the anti-austerity opposition play their part within the system.

It goes like this. The “political class” are said to control unlimited finance. Deficiencies in public spending are caused by the stupidity and/or meanness of the political class. Progress is made by putting pressure on the political class to fund one interest group at the expense of another. Pressure is organised and managed by the anti-establishment comprised of journalists, advocates, activists and non-government elected representatives. The anti-establishment position deserves the older and more elegant label, bien pensant.

While it has nasty, inegalitarian outcomes, as a stable, conservative structure, it is fascinating. The term “political class” is now accepted by leftists. Everyone can disparage the political class and side with a disadvantaged group without ever having to consider priorities.

Oh yes, and the majority of the top 10% of earners can regularly be described as middle income, while no one laughs.

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.

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.

Deciding which political values will motivate policy is a great public controversy and it is one which the left is losing.

Contrast the following quotations.

Young people are “bringing a completely different set of values to the workplace. They’re not interested in a permanent pensionable job. They’re not interested in someone to mind them . . . They are interested in experiences and satisfaction and will move if the work is not satisfying for them.

“Organisations can satisfy that today because they are not providing permanent pensionable jobs. So there’s a completely different psychological relationship, and a really different type of commitment, between the employer and the employee. It’s far more contractual.” – Dr Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist at DCU Business School, quoted by Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times January 12th 2013

http://m.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0112/1224328726217.html?via=rel

In this article radical individualism is presented by Joe Humphreys as realism, youthful, progressive, satisfying.

Now try something very different.

“We know that the present economic morass through which we are struggling did not come about by accident. We know it came about because of a failed paradigm of economic policy, undeclared assumptions, skewed values, and the growth of a culture where our assets were valued and utilised on purely material considerations. It was a version of economics that was rooted in a radical individualism and a theory of infallible efficient markets delivered through policies of light or no regulation. We are all now grappling with the enormous consequences of that failure and must now move forward to a better model – one that will build social cohesion and provide a sustainable basis for economic development. We must reject the notion of normative citizens being reduced to the status of disaggregated rational utility maximisers in our theories and policies.” – President Michael D. Higgins at the Trinity Economic Forum, Friday, 3rd February, 2012  http://www.president.ie/speeches/trinity-economic-forum/

Michael D. bangs on in this vein regularly. He tends to be presented in the media as everyone’s favourite old uncle. He is heard with respect and ignored and all the while the causes of the economic collapse are pushed as antidotes under the pretence that they are new.

“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/

 

 

A revealing sentence appears almost casually towards the end of an article in today’s Irish Times. The article is, “Re-emergence of FF is not inevitable” by Noel Whelan [i]. The sentence is, “This poll [ii] shows that more than two-thirds of the electorate favour targeting child benefit at those who need it most.” This is true but it lacks democratic validity unless we know the alternatives that were rejected in favour of the proposition.

The poll asked the question about payment of child benefit in the context of reducing public expenditure. The question has merit in that it invited citizens to think about priorities. The problem is that it limited priorities to the question of how we might reduce spending on child benefit and thereby excluded consideration of all other priorities.

I’ve argued that the least important area of public spending is pay and pensions above 100k and 50k p.a. respectively and that – being the least important – it should stop first, i.e. a ceiling should be introduced before consideration of cutting more important spending.

My views may be unacceptable but it seems I’ll never know because I’ve failed to get the matter onto the public agenda. Mine is a legitimate point and it comes with an argument [iii] but it is effectively censored until a public opinion poll asks citizens to identify the least important element in public spending and includes in the list of options the money paid out in excess of the 100k and 50k limits.

It’s received little attention so far but five motions to the Labour Conference 2012 which were adopted unanimously have considerably strengthened Labour’s position on equality by a) placing inequality of income centre stage, b) making its reduction an objective during the lifetime of this government, and c) deciding to prepare the data necessary to having budget discussions that focus on income inequality.

The motions were no. 28 (Donnybrook, Dublin SE,) no. 30 (Hugh Geraghty CDW, Dublin SC), no. 87 (Ashbourne, Meath E), no. 94 (Labour Youth) and no.132 (Labour Equality).

I’ve looked at these motions and found them in general agreement. There are minor differences as to which of the measures of income inequality should be used and over techniques/terminology around “equality auditing”, “equality reporting” etc. However, the position in summary seems to be this:

  1. Labour has made the reduction of inequality of income not only a short term objective but also a measure of the party’s performance in government.
  2. Labour wants all policy and particularly budgetary measures audited so as to make it absolutely clear what effect they are likely to have on income inequality.
  3. In the event of  Labour’s partners in government declining to effect equality auditing,  it is Labour’s position to press ahead using whatever resources are available and to have the information so generated inform Labour’s cabinet contributions and public debate.

 

The full texts of the motions can be found here http://www.labour.ie/conference/schedule/ If I’ve misinterpreted or made some other error, I’ll be happy to be corrected.