The Labour Party should offer the Irish electorate a new vision of society which is based on social democracy as adopted by Nordic states, Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary David Begg has said.
Such a paradigm would focus on the benefits of good public services for everyone, not just people on low incomes, and would challenge the current liberal Anglo-Saxon model, Mr Begg told the Tom Johnson Summer School, organised by Labour Youth in Galway at the weekend.
Speaking on the theme of "class, the Celtic tiger and the Labour Party", Mr Begg said that the results of the recent general election showed that Labour's alignment with Fine Gael was far more beneficial to the latter party. The left was not seen as an attractive option for the electorate, he said. Yet Ireland remained a "deeply unequal society" and the last decade had been something of a "lost opportunity", Mr Begg added.
Furthermore, the era where people in white collar jobs felt "safe" now appeared to be over, due to the impact of globalisation. An article in the US journal Foreign Affairs had pointed out that while globalisation was worth $500 billion to the US economy every year, some 96 per cent of the US population had not benefited from it.
Ireland's one major social priority in the past 15 years - ending unemployment - had been achieved substantially, but there were still serious inadequacies, Mr Begg said.
The challenge for Labour would be to articulate "an honest vision" of a society which could benefit everyone, and was attainable, he said.
UCD sociology lecturer Kieran Allen said that the general election had been "bad news" for the left in that the State now had a government reminiscent of the 1960s with a "Green tinge". It was "appalling" to see what the Green Party was doing already in office, he said. Yet he would challenge the argument promulgated by commentators like David McWilliams that Ireland had become a "middle class nation".
"Middle class" was a 19th century term which should be removed from the political vocabulary, given that the Central Statistics Office defined it as including everyone from a chief executive to a worker in a call centre, Mr Allen said. Many people in white collar jobs were under pressure to work far more intensively than ever before.
Social partnership had been a "disaster" for the left in politics, in encouraging people in the workforce to believe that they were "partners" with management, Mr Allen said. It was time for the left to recognise, rather than deny, class conflict, and to realise that mass trade unionism, rather than "spin doctoring", was the most effective way to bring about change.
To deny class conflict was to reduce politics to a form of "managerialism", where the electorate was faced with voting for the better "manager" - in this case, "Enda or Bertie", Mr Allen said.
Also speaking were newly elected Labour TD for Dublin Mid-West Joanna Tuffy and Paul O'Shea, a community worker in Moyross, Co Limerick.
Outlining the situation in Moyross, Mr O'Shea said that many community-based initiatives were making headway, and an action plan drawn up by former Dublin city manager John Fitz-gerald was welcome. However, the situation was "unavoidably depressing" as residents were "at the mercy of criminal gangs".