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

Protesters demonstrating against cuts affecting the elderly, sick, and vulnerable, outside Leinster House earlier this year. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 12:07

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 cruelties

A 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 housing

Both 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 progressive

Which 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 poor

Some 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.

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