Fine Gael for office with a few capitalist cheerleaders

Labour lost its way before and if it goes into coalition with Fine Gael, it's likely to lose its way again, writes Vincent Browne.

If Fine Gael and Labour have problems in agreeing a programme, the problems are ones of personality and perception. There are no incompatibilities of principle or ideology.

Both are agreed it is best to renegotiate the EU-IMF deal to reduce the debt burden and to decrease the interest rate. Both are convinced there is no option ultimately but to defer to the diktats of the ECB and EU Commission even if this means compensating bondholders of the banks not covered by the guarantee.

Both are agreed the deficit has to be reduced to 3 per cent of GDP, they differ only marginally on the timeframe (in reality it will take longer than either propose) and in terms of the balance between expenditure cuts and tax increases (in reality it will take more than either is proposing on both fronts).

Both have stealth taxes in mind, especially Fine Gael which is allowing for a property tax and services charges and Labour will go along with whatever is deemed necessary.

Both propose political reform and both have good ideas but they avoid the central issue: the subservience of the Dáil to the government of the day, because of the whips system. Neither is prepared to give the people, to whom there is such rhetorical deference, any direct say in the crucial decisions affecting this society. Nothing will be done about the low representation of women in politics or about the low representation of working-class people in politics.

Both Fine Gael and Labour, however, are chock-a-block with men (mainly) and women (a few) of integrity and ability. Both parties are chock-a-block with men and women who believe it is not possible to effect any radical restructuring of society to make it more equal. In the case of Fine Gael there are several who think this is a daft idea and bad for society because it would lessen incentives.

On the Labour side most believe in what they call incrementalism (the incremental advancement of equality), even though they have every reason to know that incrementalism has not worked before and won't work now.

During the period from 1994 to 1997 when Ruairí Quinn was minister for finance, Seán Healy, then of Cori, calculated that in every one of the budgets for which Quinn was responsible, it was the rich who benefited most. And, in a telling indictment of Labour's five-year tenure in office in the 1990s (first with Fianna Fáil from 1992 to 1994 then with Fine Gael and Democratic Left from 1994 to 1997), the Institute of Public Health calculated that 5,400 people died prematurely every year because of the scale of inequality here.

On 30 June 1994, Proinsias De Rossa, then leader of Democratic Left which included Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte, had this to say of the Labour Party then in coalition with another right-wing party, Fianna Fáil: "Who can point to a single issue in the economic area where this Government has adopted a position or taken a decision that might not have also been taken by the previous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats administration or the minority Fianna Fáil Government which went before that?

"Has the Labour presence led to any new radical approach to the unemployment problem or new measures to secure an equal distribution of wealth? There is no evidence of that..."

"Far from being in partnership with Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party has now been almost totally assimilated into the political culture which the Tánaiste (Dick Spring) spoke of in such withering terms in the dying days of the last Dáil."

Without even an acknowledgment that Labour lost its way, even partially, in previous coalitions, Labour is now again about to enter another coalition and, it is certain, the outcome will be the same. No alteration to the structure of society, aside from a widening of inequality. Yes a few reforms that, essentially, won't change much.

Hardly anything different from what could happen were Fine Gael to be in office on its own, with the support of a few capitalist cheerleaders.

There seems no reserve about two parties agreeing a programme for government now, for which nobody voted. It was abundantly obvious for years that the next government would be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition and yet both parties refused to put a joint programme to the electorate to seek a mandate for it, as they sought in 2007.

There will be claims of a strong mandate to engage in all kinds of depredations but many voted for Fine Gael, not to give a mandate to every item of policy or, in some cases, any item of policy, but simply because Fine Gael was not Fianna Fáil. Actually, the Fine Gael success in the election was modest. It won only about a third of the percentage vote Fianna Fáil lost, ending up with just 36.1 per cent, hardly a mandate for anything at all.

The Labour Party did slightly better in getting Fianna Fáil's lost vote share but still did not manage to surpass its best result, which was in 1992, when it won 19.5 per cent of the vote (just 19.4 per cent in 2011). Fine Gael got lucky in its number of seats getting an unprecedented seat bonus (ie, the percentage seats versus the percentage vote).

The next election will be the most interesting ever!