August 27, 2007

Labour's time for hard graft

Posted in Ireland · 9 comments ·

As the Irish economy winds down, perhaps people will see merit in an often discarded party.

After the last election, political scientists at Trinity College undertook a fascinating piece of research, which found that people who voted for the Labour Party in Ireland were richer than those who voted Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or any other party apart from the Greens.

So there it was: the party of the workers was actually the party of the bourgeoisie. So how come Pat Rabbitte, a man of the Left with a long pedigree of left-wing activism, led a party that represented the well-off?

It all seems a far cry from the rhetoric of Karl Marx – the spiritual leader of the Left – who knew exactly where he stood.

In Das Kapital, Marx stated that ‘‘capital is dead labour which, vampire like, lives only by sucking living labour’’. How did it happen that the men who read and subscribed to Marx in Ireland also managed, without feeling compromised, to live in big houses?

This inconsistency is possibly the biggest dilemma facing the Labour Party now. Who are they? What is their constituency?

If working men are not voting Left, what is the point? And because of this failure to connect with the workers, what is the least successful Socialist party in European post-war history going to do now?

One interesting way of looking at this conundrum is through the prism of generational politics. Back in the 1970s, when the big beasts of the Labour Party were forming their political views, the world was captivated by the language of Marx.

There was a real sense this Utopia could be achieved, albeit based more on blind faith than on concrete evidence. But spurned on by the ham radicalism of 1968, the extreme idea of a class war and class enemies was seen as part of rational political discourse.

Faith in the state’s ability to deliver – once power was wrested from the old order – was unwavering and (possibly most crucially),the economy was seen as a tool of ideology to be used and abused at will.

Just about the time Irish university campuses were packed with Che Guevara wannabes in PLO scarves, the entire system which underscored this fantasy began to break down. Many regard the fall of the Berlin Wall as the day socialism ended; however, arguably, it came much earlier.

In themid-1970s,thewestern economies suddenly stopped working. The 25-year post-war expansion stalled. Europe went from full employment to persistent unemployment. Budget deficits ballooned.

Stagflation replaced growth and the hydraulic management of the economy – where it seemed politicians only had to pull levers to effect change – came to a sudden end.

Like most things in economics, the problem can be traced to a change in relative prices. The oil price shock of 1973 was the turning point. For 25 years, the West had motored along, subsidised by cheap Arab oil. As long as petrol prices were low, the European cost base looked artificially competitive, which allowed Europeans to pay themselves more than they were worth.

The resulting rise in living standards allowed the young socialists to indulge in fantasies based on a mythical lumpen proletariat and a tiny boss class. It also emboldened their view of what could be achieved by the state and, maybe most damningly, it deluded them into thinking that economic success was easy to come by.

Since then, apart from a blip here and there, the left-wing cause has been an ailing one. This is a shame because their aspirations are obviously worthy. Who can argue against a comprehensive health care system, who can return from a visit to Denmark and not be impressed by the way they organise themselves, despite having the highest tax rates in Europe? Yet, the Irish electorate have comprehensively rejected Labour under two very able leaders for over a decade now.

The reason might be very simple. This generation of Labour leaders, who are now in their 50s, do not understand an electorate where the big bulge in the population is in the 20-35 age group. There is a political generation gap in Ireland, which is as much demographic as ideological.

Arguably, Ireland is governed by a new social contract, which has been drawn up by Bertie Ahern during the boom. We have witnessed the emergence of a younger generation, who could be termed New Provisionals. They lead a provisional lifestyle where everything is temporary.

Your house, your job, maybe even your relationships are seen as provisional stepping stones on the path to a better future. Many Irish people now, as Ronald Reagan once said about Americans, ‘‘believe that tomorrow is a brighter place’’.

So are we on a conveyor belt which is moving in the right direction? The motor of this machine is the belief that tomorrow will be more prosperous than today. The lubricant of this New Irish Dream has been rising house prices. As long as house prices were rising, the electorate tolerated the daily hassle of living here, safe in the knowledge that they were getting rich.

Many put up with the overcrowded schools, hospital waiting lists and lack of childcare because they believed in a better tomorrow. Private wealth predominates over the public realm. And for many, the rhetoric of Labour sounds outdated and possibly destabilising.

Bertie Ahern on the other hand, as the architect of the new social contract, is seen as the custodian of the Provisional dream.

As a result, thousands who are concerned about the same basic issues that the Labour Party espouses, opted to vote for Fianna Fail.

Ironically, now that house prices are unambiguously falling and the basis for the Provisional dream is being undermined, it might be that the message of the Left, or a reconstructed Left, might be more persuasive.

Pat Rabbitte is an intelligent man and one of the best speakers in the Dail, but might it have been wiser for him to have stayed the course a few more years and waited for the downturn to make more persuasive the Labour message?

It is clear that the social contract based on ever-rising house prices is about to be torn up; Labour and the other opposition parties should have their new political scripts ready for that eventuality.

  1. David,
    You built up an argument why state-directed European economies flagged after the oil crisis. As you say the faith in the state-run system collapsed even before the Berlin wall. Instead the market became king. In that context, then, a mere recession is not going to revive faith in the defunct state run system, so Labour will need more than a downturn to punch its way through to the heavy weight section. Ironically, faith in raw markets probably peaked as well sometime around the time the Berlin wall fell. Post Reagan and Thatcher there has been a growing acceptance of market failure and how the state, while it may not need to run the companies or provide the services, it needs to run the system, or at least monitor it. But I digress. Back to Labour. A mere recession will not be enough for them to make it to the big time. Here is why:

  2. Dan Hayes

    David & Co.:

    In the good old USA we have a term for the rich who would vote for Labour (sic): “limousine liberals.”

    While Denmark works, I guarantee that here a state-run economy (and that’s what socialism/labor is all about) would fail to deliver the goods. That’s why we have state capitalism – capitalism provides the goods and services and the state siphons off the top (it’s called taxes) and delivers “socal services” which are neither social nor served in an anywhere competent fashion.

    Carry on!


  3. “political scientists at Trinity College undertook a fascinating piece of research, which found that people who voted for the Labour Party in Ireland were richer than those who voted Fianna Fail…”

    Do you have a reference for this work ?

  4. pmurtagh

    Most labour advocates are generally wealthy & intellectual – just like Marxs himself. Not surprised at that finding. But, I figure Fianna Fail will just become Marxist if needed. They seem a flexible lot.

    The move to the left (however it emerges) usually means more protectionism and other mechanisms of “social security”. This type of reflex is to be expected and usually causes more trouble than it saves.

    Maybe, just maybe, as this generation gets older and gets tired of materialism (judging by the traffic and the longer holidays breaks people HAVE to take and the lousy schools/ creches – it’s inevitable) we are actually getting wiser and more discriminating – getting crankier – the difference this time around is that there are more skills and experience out there that we can draw upon to do something about it. Is increased self reliance with the acceptance of maybe having to make do with less with a sense of pride something too much to look for?

  5. sean murphy


    we are certainly facing into a downturn within the next few years. How the electrate reacts remains to be seen, though I suspect there will be a prettty ugly reaction, not neccessary favourble to Labour as it is now constituted but to the political movement that can best exploit the fear, anger and envy of the disconcerted voter.

    The swing therefore will be away from free market/free trade policies and towards statist/economic nationalist/security orientated view, which party is best postioned to ride in on this tide?

  6. But Sean, we’ve had recessions before, and under our wretched regimes they came like Shakespeare’s sorrows – not in single spies but in battallions. And after each a surge in the Labour party? A lunge away from the market to the hard red? Not a chance. A recession will see FF lose seats, but the gains will be shared among FG, Labour, SF, etc. Those who argue that a downturn is Labour’s chance to make the big time are impeccably wrong.

  7. Tis simple. The working men aspire to the wealth offered by “pure” capitalism as offered by FF and the PDs, whereas those who are already wealthy have the time, education, and experience to ponder generosity and State-Sponsored redistribution of wealth. Those who are poor aspire to be rich, those who are rich aspire to be generous. Those who are generous aspire to the simple life and a clear conscience.

    Ok, I’m being a little facetious, but the point is simply made. It can be further justified by appeal to evolutionary trends, or by appeal to psychology, or by appeal to example (Chuck Feeney is quite topical).

    As to Labour: poor labour. The party suffers, as do all ideologically driven enterprises, from the ever-encroaching development of Science, itself a very special kind of ideology. Even Economics, that most dismal of sciences (which I currently study, though a Maths/Physics graduate), is more and more scientific and mathematical and thereby less comprehensible to the “working man”. The Labour Party is struggling to update its mission statement in the face of reality.

    Poor labour, for as you rightly point out in your previous missive “A little less accountancy and a little more carpentry is what we all need”, no matter what the level of “education”*, labour is ever more at the beck and call of huge, barely accountable, functionally immortal, corporations. And so we mortgage our lives and make the stupidest of gambles.

    So what of the “Left?” Sadly yet usefully, the paradigmatisation of socio-economics in leftist terms is waning in utility, just as that in rightist. It is not that we move to the centre, but rather that all analysis tends towards the scientific. Not until the “Left”, “Right”, and “Centre” cop on to the inescapable increase in authority of Science can they realistically hope to reclaim any kind of “ideological” credibility. What’s especially interesting about this process is that it doesn’t matter which party cottons on soonest, the process is so inescapably inclusive they’ll all join in with a will as soon as any real contribution is made. Don’t forget, it’s cheaper to hire a scientist than it is to hire a good PR guru.

    David, you’re a great commentator, one with both great insight and considerable flair for easy and memorable communication. Why aren’t you starting a new party? And last I saw you the bags under your eyes were only massive, and this on TV. Get some rest, we’ll need the best of you in years to come. I look forward to you at the Electric Picnic tomorrow.

    Lastly, sorry for all those quotation marks, call it the anti-post-modernist in me. I like to make textual analysis as obvious as possible.

    * The funniest mathematician in Ireland (even more so than Dara O’Briain), Des McHale, once remonstrated me with Mark Twain’s “never let university interfere with your education.” He paraphrased, he’s productive in Geometry, Number Theory, and Group Theory. He’s allowed.

  8. Declan

    In the 1960s and 1970s entry into university was even more elitist than today. At the time mothers in middle class suburbs of Dublin, encouraged their daughters to get into Trinners or UCD, so they would meet a suitable mate (social status of course). Basically third level was filled with those from priveleged backgrounds. And the quantities generated by third level institutions were small-even the stupidiest and laziest walked into jobs afterwards. In fact there was no need to study in third level.
    Some of these students came from families where the background had included harder times. These students inherited a sense of graft or industry from their parents. They were more inclined to think about merit, and generally more competitive. They tended to be sceptical of the pronouncements of the rich. Generally they fell into the the politics of the centre right. They were the eager beavers in a society, that was at the time infected with a version of cronyism that drove many capable people to the US and Canada. Work was essential to any sort of progress.
    The pampered ones threw scorn on the competitive ambituous lot. They adopted a different world view, centred on an idea of entitlement. These people became the front bench of the Labour Party. What killed the concept of entitlement was the time between 1980 and 1996, when cohorts of people with an entitlement mentality ran the economy into the ground. The same cohort created the benchmarking deal and got bought out by Bertie Ahern. In effect Fianna Fail became the party of pampering and tried to put the Labour Party out of business.

    Therefore the most underrepresented constituency in the country is the private sector workforce. And nobody on the Labour Party front bench can honestly claim to represent them after spending the last four decades talking about entitlement.

  9. Conor

    1968 and the age of Marxist ideals and rhetoric is dead and gone. Concepts such as class war and inequality have become outmoded, at least in the context that Labour sees them. The party of the elite continues to patronize ‘hard-working families’, who know better than to vote for a party whose populist notions of €1 bus fares are seen as a vote-grabber at election time. ‘Hard-working families’ were the same people punished by Labour’s fiscal incompetency during the 1980s. They were punished by a bunch of ageing Marxists who were too arrogant in their misguided beliefs to accept the economic reforms necessarry to stem and decrease spiralling unemployment burgeoning public debt and a haemorraging of our youngest and brightest through emigration. ‘Hard-working families recognised that what the more economically liberal policies of the centre-right were of greater benefit to them than tax and spend incompetency. However these families have lost out in some ways by voting for the centre-right because of the appalling state of our public services.

    Believe it or not, I am a scoial democrat by nature, I firmly believe that the state should play a large role in securing economic growth, keeping unemployment low and providing every citizen with an equal opportunity to succeed. The Irish Labour party needs to look to its sister party in the United Kingdom in order to go foward. It needs to let go of Marxist intellectualism and introduce a little Blairite pragmtism. The Irish Labour party needs to look to middle-Ireland and the lower middle classes in order to succeed. It needs to examine how Blair re-claimed the centre of British politics and do the same here. It needs to stop alienating the middle class which is expading at a dizzying pace.

    We live in a hugely different world to that of the 1960s and 1970s. As McWilliams states in his article, Europeans were overpaying themselves and as of today they stll are. The global economy is more open and globalised which presents fantastic opportunities for trade and economic growth in all countries and will be of huge benefit to the poorest countries who harness the situation appropriately. However, Labour needs to realise that this situation means we should no longer attempt to compte with China, Poland and other low-cost ecomonies as a means of securing growth. Labour needs to ditch the trade unions and their excessive demands to secure jobs which can no longer exist in our post-modern economy. Instead, it needs to focus on making labour more adaptable to change in the ecomony. This does not mean accepting job-losses, but it means preparing people for the opportunities which will present themselves in a higher cost economy as Ireland has become. It means more investment in education, so that Irish workers will have the skills necessary to cope with shifts in the labour market.

    Of course there is inequality in Ireland, open your eyes and it is all around us, but arming our citizens with the tools to succeed is the best way of dealing with this inequity. Tax and spend policies to re-distribute wealth have in the past not only failed to deliver a more equal society, but have ultimately stifled growth and as a result increased unemployment. Those most vulnerable to unemployment are the poorer, less educated members of society, the very people the elite of Irish Labour claim they are trying to protect and yet have consistently failed to do so. If the Labour party of Ireland were truly social democratic in nature, their policies would incentivise and educate the most vulnerable rather than hand out cash left right and centre.

    All citizens deserve to claim their stake in society, but so far, Labour in government has not provided them with the best tools with which to do so. This is why 70 per cent of the Irish electorate, many of whom would agree with Labour’s liberal social polocies continue to vote for two conservative parties, because those parties provide a better opportunity for them to succeed.

    Blair proved in the United Kingdom, that better public services can be provided in a low-tax enviornment, but in order to do so we must have more accountability and better value for money. In order to claim the centre of Irish politics, Labour must ensure that yes it commits to a fairer soiety, but modernises its Marxist idealism concernig class and inequality. Labour is simply too removed from the electorate, especially as the working class continues to shrink in both real and absolute terms. Labour has the opportunity to become the champion of the Irish people. Labour has the opportunity to consolidate the economic gains of the last decade and ensure that everyone in Ireland gains their stake in society, nevertheless recoginsing the need of the able and equipped individual to claim his/her stake for his/herself.

    To paraphrase from Michael McDowells musings about his own party, the Progressive Democrats, it is time for the Labour party to radicalise and claim the centre for themselves lest they become redundant and isolated on the fringes of the left of Irish politics. The ‘Third Way’ is the way foward for the centre-left and is they way foward for Ireland. Hopefully, Éamon Gilmore can distance himself from his Marxist-Leninist roots and really radicalise the Irish left into doing something worthwile, pragmatic and beneficial rather than disconnectin the party from the people and remaining in an elitist ivory tower.

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments