Labour TDs need to take the fight to their critics
Inside Politics: Fine Gael has made a much better job than Labour of convincing its supporters it is on the right track on economic reform
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. “The Coalition parties have presented a united front on the big economic issues.” Photograph: Alan Betson
The political atmosphere is remarkably calm in spite of a range of testing issues facing the Government as it approaches the half way mark in its term of office.
Big decisions on public sector pay in the next couple of weeks could change the mood very quickly and there is another tough budget coming in October that will push people to the limit.
Nonetheless, the striking thing about this Government’s term of office to date has been that most of the predicted storms have not materialised. The Coalition parties have presented a united front on the big economic issues, including public sector pay, and all the signs are that the widely predicted row between Fine Gael and Labour over abortion is not going to materialise either.
The stability of the political system in the face of the biggest economic crisis to strike the country since the 1930s has confounded the critics. Instead, as the latest report from the troika during the week pointed out, Ireland’s economic recovery is continuing, albeit at a slow, steady pace. This should harden the resolve of both Coalition parties not to deviate from the course it has set itself now that the end is in sight.
The primary reason that the country is on the road to recovery is that the majority of citizens have faced up to the challenge posed by the need to reduce the national debt and stoically borne a range of hardships from personal indebtedness to much higher taxation.
Political leadership too has also played a crucial role with Enda Kenny and most of his Ministers displaying a resolve for which they get little or no credit from the media. Whether the voters give them any credit, only time will tell.
One of the Taoiseach’s supporters in rural Ireland gave him this friendly warning recently: “Enda. You’re doing a great job cleaning out the hen house but don’t forget the smell is going to stick to you for a while when the job is done.”
One problem for the Government is that while its actions have generally been correct it has too often allowed its opponents to dominate public debate with facile arguments about “austerity”. In particular the notion that there is some pain-free alternative to getting the national debt under control needs to be challenged far more rigorously.
Writing in The Irish Times on Thursday Donal Donovan, former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund and a member of the Fiscal Advisory Council mildly but firmly rebuked those who blithely advocate abandoning our debt reduction targets. “Those calling for less austerity may in part believe that increasing Ireland’s debt even further does not greatly matter. From this perspective, the need to regain market creditworthiness so as to avoid any possible second bailout, as well as the moral issue raised by transferring a larger debt burden to our children and grandchildren, appears to be downplayed,” he wrote.
Former taoiseach John Bruton, speaking at an event to mark the Irish presidency of the EU in Christ Church Cathedral, also made the point that an ethical inter-generational perspective should be part of the “austerity” debate. Bruton argued that we should not pass on to the next generation debts that have arisen from our own mistakes, just as we should not degrade the environment for future generations.
One of the less acceptable features of the Irish response to the crisis so far has been the way so much of the burden has been foisted on the young, many of whom have been forced to emigrate because of unemployment, while the State pensions and entitlements of older people have largely been protected. One of the troika’s ongoing quibbles is the slowness of the response to its injunctions about the need for a root-and-branch shake-up in the way unemployment is dealt with. Addressing this problem is vital if young people are to have opportunities to work here.
Both Coalition parties need to come out fighting and defend the need for their debt reduction policies if they want to get any political credit for their achievements. So far Fine Gael has made a much better job than Labour of convincing its supporters it is on the right track. It may not be all that surprising that Fine Gael’s generally middle-class supporters are more amenable to accepting the Government’s argument but, as against that, middle-class voters are bearing the brunt of the substantial increase in taxation that has been required to deal with the deficit.
Labour has actually achieved considerable success in policy terms in protecting social spending and ensuring that most of the adjustment to date has come from taxation but it does not appear to be getting much credit from its supporters.
This is partly due to the fact that it appears ambivalent about the need for the policies it is pursuing in government.
Falling between two stools
Labour TDs are inclined to go a bit of the road with the anti-“austerity” campaigners and so end up falling between two stools. Brendan Howlin rightly pointed out in the Dáil recently that the Government’s gradualist approach to reducing the deficit actually represented an “anti-austerity” policy, but many of his colleagues have not made that argument nearly forcibly enough.
There is a strong case to be made that in the kind of economic meltdown the country so narrowly avoided, the people who would have suffered most were welfare recipients and public servants, both categories dependent on State spending. By helping to ensure the worst did not happen Labour played an important role in protecting its key constituencies.
It will not be easy to make that argument if further public service pay cuts are imposed in the coming weeks but Labour TDs need to carry the fight to their critics if they are to have a real chance of surviving the next election.