Beyond counting bad apples

Reform and tax-tinkering can seem feeble when stacked up beside the overhwleming structural and social inequalities in Irish society. Did the ballot box riot of 2011 merely channel genuine anger into a cosmetic shift from one party’s austerity to another? The Irish crisis will not be solved by this election or the next, argues Dara McHugh.

The election campaign and its aftermath have witnessed strident declarations that all has changed. Most prominent is the decimation of support for Fianna Fáil, the party that has ruled 61 of the State’s 89 years of existence. Both Fine Gael and Labour have experienced remarkable success in the polls, unparallelled for the latter. These are not insignificant, but the context of continued economic crisis renders the changes in parliament relatively minor. Whatever government is formed, it will share the titanic debt burden of the previous administration.

This fiscal straitjacket minimises the policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour and between this government and the last. As the parties consult on the shape of their coalition, the issue is where the money comes from: increased taxation and slower cuts to spending (Labour), or no substantive tax changes and aggressive cuts to spending. This coalition is not the only option, but there's no available grouping that will, Houdini-like, slip its fetters and spring free.

The political focus distracts us from other matters. The European Right-Left divide is not what it used to be and Labour, no less than their European counterparts, feel the gravitational pull towards a centre that is not collapsing but imploding, dragging all parties into a neoliberal vortex. The new government will have little capacity for investment schemes, beholden to the keepers of the printing presses in Frankfurt and the bond market barbarians of London and New York.

If austerity is the likely option, then there will be very little difference between this government and the last. The cuts have been coming steady for over a year now and show no sign of stopping. A flat tax ‘Universal Social Charge’ is imposed on all workers. Trainee nurses and unemployed teachers are told to work for nothing. The minimum wage is reduced by a euro an hour. The injustice is palpable to all but met with sullen silence and sporadic rejoinders. Opposition needs both plausible alternatives and persuasive force. The former is beyond my ability, but the latter is worth consideration.

There have been many remarks on the muted response of the Irish to these cutbacks. Maturity, docility, or simple laziness, the pundits do not agree. The election has shown there is anger, but its only outlet has been at the ballot box. There is, I believe, ample sentiment for a fightback, it is the capacity that is sorely lacking. A movement needs organisation; people must be able to meet, discuss the issues and take collective action.

The major unions have shown repeatedly that, when it comes to public mobilisation, they remain the most important organisations in the country. 80,000 took to the streets in November in opposition to the ‘bailout’, a year after some 250,000 came out for a one-day strike against ‘the pension levy’. But these dates are almost all there is. The unions have tended to minimise member participation, with representatives being seen as service providers, membership an insurance policy. Even as social partnership has died, its habits remain. Strikes are a last resort and rarely move beyond a show of force to push belligerent employers back to the negotiating table.

The left has attempted to address the militancy deficiency with an unfocused mixture of joint and sole-venture activist networks and groupings, without achieving any notable success thus far. The long process required for reform of the unions has not yet begun in earnest and it will certainly not be complete, or even sufficiently advanced by the time the axe is sharpened. The defense of the public sector will be marshaled by the leaders who have presided over a series of abject surrenders.

The private sector has thinner unionisation, and will deal with sporadic attacks. In both cases there are some possibilities. The left will need to come together and develop a common strategy, and it could use rearguard battles to develop its strength and challenge the leadership.

Developing a base in the unions is indispensable, but it is hampered by anti-democratic structures, increasing unemployment, emigration, and prevailing defeat. It is a priority, but it does not offer the best chances of success in the short-term.

Neighbourhood-based campaigns are one area where there’s enough breathing space for effective organising. Left groups and parties have pricked up their ears at the re-emergence of water and property taxes in party manifestos. The Water Tax campaign of the 1990s was a rare victory for the Left and also drove its first major electoral advance since the Workers’ Party. There is no shortage of issues to organise around, only resources with which to do it. If not water taxes, then property taxes. If not these then housing repossessions. If not this, then unemployment.

Now, with Joe Higgins returning to office along with four other ULA representatives, the prospects for strong campaigning are good. The ULA TDs draw only the average industrial wage and donate the remainder to their parties, so a formidable war-chest is available to provide for activists and materiel. Their Dáil seats, combined with those of Sinn Féin, will mean that the government's gouging receives at least some condemnation in the mainstream media.

Persuasive force is exactly that: the austerity approach will only end where it is stopped, it will only retreat where it is pushed back. Campaigns are not won on voices alone, but by the economic and political muscle they can bring to bear. The Irish crisis will not be solved by this election nor the next, and the left needs to focus on building bases of strength; groups that can outlive campaigns and drive forward new ones. Ultimately, the people affected by cuts must organise to resist them, to prevent the continual transfer of crisis from top to bottom. The challenge is to build such organisation.


Image top via pverdicchio on Flickr.