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RTE reported a warning from the UK’s PM, Theresa May. She put it that every MP raising the issue of another Brexit referendum “needs to consider very carefully the impact that it would have”. She said: “I believe it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy. I believe it would lead many people to question the role of this House and the role of members in this House.”

She’s too late. The damage to the UK constitution has already been done by the first referendum and by its aftermath. Before the Brexit referendum parliament was sovereign. After it, even to say that parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor.

Since then there’s been struggle and the UK parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a referendum) not for advice but for a decision.

Theresa May recognises constitutional change when she sees it and she realises the dangers for a country without a written constitution but she has presided over parliament’s decline. After the referendum parliament should have asserted its authority. Instead noisy, populist street fighters were allowed to assault with impunity the UK’s old constitution.

Paradoxically, the damage having been done, the safest course might be another referendum but it would have to be such that the alternatives are tested and it would have to deliver a decisive result. It’s a risky course but it might steady the boat for long enough to allow parliament to assume its primacy once more.

The UK might also consider a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets.

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

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

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

Out of touch 1

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

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

Out of touch 2

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

In touch

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

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

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before reading watch and listen to Yanis Varoufakis in this Youtube clip. He’s not talking revolution. He’s not even talking socialism. Indeed he’s on about that most liberal of fashions, value free, “evidence based” policies. How this could lead to a crisis requires explanation.

Ok, that was the former Greek Finance Minister making a persuasive case for old fashioned, liberal Keynesianism. This was a view that was growing in popularity in the public press and on-line in the months before the Greek election. Reading and listening to Syriza before the election it seemed that they were just doing the routine, familiar, populist anti-austerity pitch for votes. After the election they changed to an emphasis on negotiation and the sort of position outlined in this video. It was a very encouraging development and it raised the hope that Syriza might strengthen or lead the emerging consensus. That consensus was certainly not socialist or even mildly egalitarian but rather the creation of a functioning liberal economy – yes, ripe for leftward reforms but the left would defer that until a reasonably stable and prosperous liberal economy had developed. Clearly it would be difficult if not impossible to get a liberal deal of this kind through the Greek parliament without the support of the older centre-right and centre-left parties. However, somewhere during the months of negotiation the Keynesian position disappeared. Towards the end the German Chancellor insisted that any deal would have to be approved by the Greek Parliament. In doing so she inadvertently hastened the end of negotiations and saved Syriza’s unity. In the week before the IMF payment was due there were two sets of proposals: the creditors’ ultimatum and Syriza’s.  As the Greek Finance Minister insisted, there was nothing much between them. Then the P.M. decided on a referendum to accept or reject the ultimatum. There needs to be an enquiry into these negotiations because it is simply not plausible that the argument advanced by Yanis Varoufakis in this video caused a crisis.

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

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

Here’s the argument:

Let’s be clear

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

 

The immediate background

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

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

 

A fundamental question for Labour at this time

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

A pay ceiling on public service incomes and pensions would

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

 

Arguments against

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

i)             The fairness argument

ii)            The brain drain argument

iii)           The Croke Park argument

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Summing up

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

There is a number of protests looming in Ireland which oppose the state making payments to speculators and chancers. The 99% Network is featuring the slogan, “We don’t owe, we can’t pay, not our debt”. Let’s take 1 and 3. There is – as far as I can see – COMPLETE (right to left) Irish agreement that there is no legal or moral obligation on Ireland to pay these debts. We are being compelled to pay them because we are in a weak position: we are supplied with money fortnightly to pay welfare and public servants and our paymasters want us to pay these chancers/speculators. The question now is should we give in to our paymasters? The answer depends on what the consequences of refusing to pay might be. No one knows for sure what the consequences of non-payment would be. The possibilities range from none (Our paymasters will simply say that non-payment is ok.) to catastrophic (Our paymasters will cut off money to pay welfare and public service wages.). Calls for non-payment – assuming they are serious and not just populist lies to attract support – are therefore either calls to gamble – and to gamble with the incomes of some very poor people – or to try to provoke the catastrophic and hope that revolution will follow which will usher in the kind of society in which our current predicament could not be repeated. This, however, is another gamble on the security and income of those same people because revolutions tend make things much worse before building something which might be better. No. 2 – “We can’t pay” – is quite different. It involves having or not having the money to give to the chancers. Right now, we clearly can pay but at enormous cost. Right now, the paymasters don’t much care about those costs and think that this can continue. This leads back to refusal to pay or to the only RELATIVELY safe and prudent course: We keep on paying until we can convince our tormentors and our international “friends” with influence that the cost is too high and amounts to “can’t pay” by anyone’s standards or until some unforeseen development affords the country an opportunity to act.

All this talk of betting, prudence, honesty and letting chancers away with it for fear of doing more harm is boring and inactive. Many leftists prefer the protest route which is familiar. It’s hard, you see, to face accusations that because you are fearful and want to play safe that you support the inegalitarian cuts in state spending. Moreover, trying to capitalise on the crisis by arguing/campaigning for the kinds of change which can be achieved while still paying the chancers is hard too, especially when the field has been vacated by so many leftists.