From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin; Michael Taft
The two conservative parties – particularly, Fine Gael – are increasing their grip on Irish politics. Three polls in January – Red C, Ipsos MRBI and Behaviour & Attitudes – show a resurgent Fine Gael led by an increasingly popular Taoiseach.
While Fianna Fail is struggling to build on its 2016 result, Fine Gael is racing ahead. Combined, the two conservative parties are approaching 60 percent and this doesn’t count the Independent Alliance and the conservative (gene-pool) independents.
In Dr. Adrian Kavanagh’s vote-to-seats model, Fine Gael’s performance is even stronger. While this is only a model, Dr. Kavanagh projects that the three polls could result in Fine Gael winning up to 70 seats, or 44 percent of Dail seats.
At this level, Fine Gael is knocking on the door of single-party government, even if they have to rely on outside independent votes.
Again, in Dr. Kavanagh’s model, the two parties combined could dominate the next Dail, with a combined 117 seats, or 74 percent.
For progressives, the story is one of stagnation at best.
While Sinn Féin sees an increase (with a possible future boost by its new leader, Mary Lou McDonald), this is cancelled out by the decline of other progressive parties, leaving the combined vote slightly below the 2016 election result which, for progressives, was itself a disappointment.
Unfortunately, Dr. Kavanagh doesn’t have the full seat projections for all these parties. Sinn Fein sees, on average, an increase of three seats while the other parties will be lucky to hold on to what they have.
So why is Irish conservatism doing so well, while progressives are treading water? One reason is that Fine Gael has been able to sell a twin-message of ‘change’ and ‘stability’ with a bit of ‘radical centre’ thrown into the mix. Is this just vacuous branding?
Over the last three years there are 155,000 more people at work – an increase of 10 percent. Unemployment has fallen from nearly 12 percent to just over 6 percent – a decline of over 100,000 people on the dole.
Someone on the average wage will have received an increase in take-home pay of over €1,700 annually in pay increases and tax cuts (on average).
Deprivation rates are falling, severe arrears are falling, public sector pay is being restored: after the roller-coaster of crash, recession and austerity things are settling down for many people.
This can be seen from Eurobarometer’s poll surveying people’s trust in their national government.
Prior to the crash, a substantial proportion of the population ‘tended to trust’ the Government – 41 percent. Shortly after the crash this figure dropped to 20 percent.
Now, however, trust is returning to pre-crash levels. It is reasonable to assume this is related to people’s perception of the economy and their own financial and social circumstances.
But another reason screams out: there is no alternative. Progressives don’t currently constitute an alternative capable of governing or significantly influencing the debate.
It would be interesting to poll public perceptions of the Left’s economic policy.
I suspect that, beyond taxing the rich, redistributing income and spending more on public services, people would struggle. Not surprisingly – the broad Left lacks a common economic narrative even as it makes sensible demands.
And for many progressives, this is compounded by a vocabulary rooted in anti-austerity protest that is increasingly disconnected to growing numbers in this period of recovery.
This is all the more frustrating given the evidence of people’s re-emerging progressive instincts, whether that is evidenced by support for public services and capital investment rather than tax cuts, concerns over both economic and political inequality, frustrations over the conduct of banks (tracker-mortgages) and low-road employers. Just as the winds are starting to blow in our favour we have no sail to put up.
How do we start addressing this?
We, first, need to construct an ‘economics of recovery’ rooted in the world of work that can directly connect to people’s workplace experience.
People want a voice in the workplace –about wages and working conditions; people want social security – when they become ill, or are starting a family, retire, in need of housing or healthcare, or are between jobs; and people want income certainty and an end to precarious working hours and intermittent pay.
These are three strong starting points for an ascendant progressive politics, connecting to the Taoiseach’s ‘early risers’ or, in more old fashioned language, the working class.
Secondly, we need to develop a politics of common sense, a way of formulating and presenting issues that capture the debate. This common sense can emerge out of a sense of decency (shouldn’t wages at least guarantee that people don’t live in poverty – hence, a Living Wage); out of what’s fair (people’s health care shouldn’t be dependent on income – hence, free healthcare); or out of logic (doesn’t it make sense to rent or sell homes at cost – hence, cost-rental and cost-purchase).
Of course, we have to show how common-sense policies can be delivered. Not only are there economic constraints, and institutional and cultural inertia; there are powerful interests who can portray such policies as utopian or simplistic, in order to maintain their economic status.
Third, we need a practice of cooperation to make all this work. This requires maximum progressive cooperation; not only between broad left parties, but with civil society organisations and the trade union movement (what Conor McCabe has described as a ‘commonwealth of civil society and trade unions working in tandem with a progressive political sphere’).
If the broad Left is to provide leadership in the debate, it must start in its own backyard. And, quite simply, leaders bring people together, unite, and give everyone a stake in the endeavour.
Apart from the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment – the lead example of cooperative work – there is the National Homeless and Housing Coalition; a body composed of all the broad Left parties, a number of trade unions and – most critically – civil society groups who work in the areas of housing need.
They have developed a common sense programme to address the housing crisis and are planning a major demonstration on April 7th in Dublin.
This is a crucial development – not just because it aims to keep the housing crisis high up the agenda – but because, through it, progressives can establish themselves as the principle alternative to current Government policies. In effect, Fianna Fail has opted out of the housing debate since it still clings to the old, and discredited, policies of developer-led tax breaks.
This process of cooperation and a common programme, becoming the principle alternative to the Government – this is why the march on April 7th is so important. If it is a success then this kind of cooperation of the commonwealth can start to become a habit – the first step to becoming a major political and social force.
There are no short-cuts; there is no recipe to take down from the shelf. An economics of recovery, a common-sense politics, the practice of cooperation – this doesn’t guarantee success. But one thing is clear – if we continue the way we are, we shouldn’t expect history to bail us out.
Change is certain, yes; but progress is not.
Michael Taft is economic analyst and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front.