Eight ways for Labour to give itself a chance of revival
Progressive budgets are as intrinsic to social democracy as Mass is to Catholics
Protesters demonstrating against cuts affecting the elderly, sick, and vulnerable, outside Leinster House earlier this year. Photograph: Eric Luke
It may well be too late to save Labour. But if the party has any remaining will to live, there is a package of immediate measures that could give it a fighting chance.
The task is obvious enough: re-establish Labour as a social democratic party with a recognisable and distinctive identity. It is very difficult to do that within the current Government but not entirely impossible.
Here are eight things a new Labour leadership must do if it is to retain, with a lot of additional luck, a chance of emerging from the next election as a viable party. Taken together, these mild measures are an absolute minimum – they do not require departure from Government or even from the fiscal parameters laid down by the troika.
1. Stop inflicting stupid and unnecessary crueltiesA disproportionate amount of political damage has been inflicted by measures – the review of medical cards being the most obvious example – that cause appalling misery to vulnerable families for a minimal fiscal return. Just stop the institutional sadism.
2. Start a large-scale programme of social housingBoth to tackle the crisis of homelessness and to get unemployed people (mostly men) back to work.
3. Set down as an unalterable principle that the effect of the next two budgets must be progressiveWhich is to say that the budgets must favour the poor more than the rich. It seems ludicrous to even have to write this: progressive budgets are as intrinsic to social democracy as Mass is to Catholics. The most obvious mark of Labour’s failure in Government is that Fianna Fáil/ Green “austerity” budgets were more progressive than those of the current coalition. In the 2014 budget, the bottom 20 per cent were harder hit than any other group – a staggering result for a Labour-influenced Government. When direct and indirect taxes are accounted for, the bottom 10 per cent of earners pay 28 per cent of their income in tax – significantly more than every other group except those at the very top.
A new Labour leader could do two things. One is to insist that the distributional impact of the next two budgets be independently determined in advance, not six months later when it is too late. The second is to make an absolute commitment that the next two budgets will not only be progressive in themselves but that they will ensure that the overall impact of all budgets in the lifetime of the Government is similarly weighted in favour of the worst off.
4. Help the working poorSome 6.5 per cent of all those in work live on incomes below the poverty line and the working poor represent 14.2 per cent of all those classified as living in poverty in Ireland. Setting a “living wage” would encourage work, boost domestic demand and increase fairness – all basic social democratic goals.
5. Child-proof all State decisions“Austerity” has been, at its heart, an attack on the young. Young adults have been the worst affected by unemployment but have also been targeted for the largest cuts in welfare. Most scandalously, children have borne the brunt of Fine Gael and Labour’s policies. The same children to whom we are consigning the Celtic Tiger’s legacy of public debt are also being plunged into poverty: a shocking 32 per cent of Irish children are now experiencing deprivation. At the very least, Labour has to insist that every relevant policy measure has to pass the test of having a positive impact on children.
6. Put together a specific, time-limited plan for breaking
the link between banking debt and sovereign debt The failure to make good on the apparent breakthrough in June 2012 when the EU recognised Ireland
as a “special case” has done immense damage to Labour. It should put forward a plan through the European Socialists and Democrats group which, if Labour goes down, will lose its presence in Ireland.
7. Get real about democratic reformLabour lost the plot on the need for radical democratic renewal with some decent initiatives (on lobbyists and freedom of information, for example) cancelled out by backward steps such as cod “reform” of local government and, almost incredibly, an increase in the use of the guillotine to render parliament even more irrelevant.
It could move quickly to regain the initiative: scrap the unconstitutional Economic Management Council to reduce the influence of unaccountable advisors, put all the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention to a referendum, democratise the Seanad, create real local democracy, and establish an electoral commission.
8. Reclaim the equality agendaLegal equality isn’t just about gay marriage – it’s also about the scandal of allowing open discrimination in public sector employment against people on the basis of their religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Removing the exemptions for religious-run institutions from the Employment Equality Acts ought to be a basic Labour demand.
These are not revolutionary ideas: any functioning social democratic party would already have implemented them. And if they’re acted on, they wouldn’t guarantee that Labour will not be wiped out at the next general election. But they would at least mean that it could contest that election as something vaguely recognisable as a Labour party.