Labour should aim for a decent society – and leave tax cuts to others
There is a gap in the market for a party focused on the delivery of public services
‘As a party that is both willing and able to govern, Labour is a rare beast in the Irish political firmament.’ Above, former tánaiste, Joan Burton, surrounded by party colleagues on her way to a press conference where she announced she would be stepping down as Labour party leader. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
As the Labour Party faces the future in Opposition, the challenge facing its new leader is immense.
A weak and incoherent Government is confronted by a volatile and fragmented Opposition, where for all the talk of “new politics”, rank opportunism, populism and the “something must be done” approach will continue to underpin much political discourse.
Meanwhile, the country is far from out of the woods and the strong economic recovery, job growth and reduction in our national debt achieved by the last government are imperilled by numerous external factors, particularly the threat of Brexit, as well as a palpable return to irresponsible governance at home – most clearly evidenced in the botched compromise on water, where even Government Ministers appear not to know what the policy is.
So while the challenges the country faces – housing, healthcare, pensions and education – are medium- and long-term ones, our politics remains resolutely short-term and obsessed with ephemera.
In this space lies the opportunity for Labour. There is clearly a gap in the political market for a party not just willing and able to govern but also focused on solutions to the delivery of public services.
Before prescribing the solution, it is important to diagnose the condition. Labour clearly paid a heavy price for participation in a government that had no choice but to fix the public finances in haste.
The fact that this was done while protecting core welfare entitlements and public services to a degree unthinkable had Fine Gael governed alone or with support from its gene pool cut absolutely no ice with the electorate.
Between its entry into coalition with Fine Gael in March 2011 and the May 2014 local and European elections, Labour lost 1 per cent of its support every three months.
Subsequently, under Joan Burton’s leadership, the party stalled its decline but was unable to sustainably increase support.
This was particularly the case following the establishment of the Social Democrats, which attracted support from Labour’s progressive middle-class base while being untainted by participation in government. While Labour lost a considerable proportion of its working- class vote to Sinn Féin, the progressive middle-class vote also split between Labour, the Social Democrats and the Green Party.
Three broad themes emerged from the election and the RTÉ exit poll that must inform Labour’s strategy under a new leader: the need to broaden the party’s appeal and build progressive alliances in a society where the centre is shifting to social democracy; a need to prioritise values and principles over individual policy proposals; and the need to stand over our record in government and avoid a race to the bottom with the populist left – at exactly the time that the rest of the political system appears, in the case of water, beholden to magical thinking.
As a party willing and able to govern, Labour is a rare beast in the Irish political firmament. To deliver on our agenda in the next government, we must target a threshold of about 15 per cent of the vote in the general election. Achieving such a level of support would require us to target at least three times this number of voters.
According to the exit poll, Labour largely drew support from urban, mainly Dublin-based, middle-class families. For many, the party has come to represent a core of middle-class, liberal voters, prioritising the relative importance of issues such as the repeal of the eighth amendment. Although highly influential, this core constituency represents a small proportion of the electorate. Furthermore, while there is considerable support for these issues, that support does not necessarily translate into votes. For example, in the exit poll respondents were asked for their view on abortion on a scale of zero to 10. Among the 22 per cent with the most liberal perspective, more people voted for Fianna Fáil than for Labour. It is clear that this approach is insufficient to build a broad base of support for the party.
While Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit leap over one another to claim their “left-wing” credentials, Labour should also resist siren calls to tack to the left. It is clearly more important that the party stands for something more meaningful in voters’ minds. While just 22 per cent of voters self-describe as being on the “left”, 37 per cent favour the social democratic position of investment in services over tax cuts. This is the section of the electorate that already “thinks” Labour.
David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former adviser hired by Ed Miliband, jibed that the British Labour Party approached their 2015 campaign offering from a transactional perspective. “Vote Labour, win a microwave,” as he put it. This approach may persuade swing voters during an election campaign but, outside of that, party support builds through an emotional attachment and a clear understanding of who and what the party stands for.
Opportunity, equality and decencyIt is not individual policy proposals but stories that connect with the values of opportunity, equality and decency associated with Labour that cut through with the electorate. Labour’s story is that we are the real thing when it comes to delivering the social democratic agenda in government, rather than cribbing on the sidelines. It would be a great error to deny or apologise for what the party achieved in government; as the clear flaws in the new Government become more apparent, the last government’s record and Labour’s key role in it will be cast in a considerably more favourable light.
Connecting our values and story with the views of our target section of the electorate, the singular focus of the party should be on the delivery of a decent society, comprising high levels of investment in universal public services. The quid pro quo of this is that the party should leave tax cuts to others. The electorate no longer believes that you can have your cake and eat it when it comes to tax cuts and increased spending – a position consistent with the fiscal rules.
Labour can prosper by giving it to the electorate straight. Ed Brophy was Joan Burton’s chief of staff during her term as tánaiste