Cliff Taylor: Government is vulnerable over record on public services

The economic ground on which the coalition will try to fight the election is clear - more of the same, stability, and some tax and spending sweeteners thrown in

‘The Opposition parties need to probe Health Minister Leo Varadkar’s plans for the health service, and just how far he wants to push an agenda of private provision - and sell an alternative.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

‘The Opposition parties need to probe Health Minister Leo Varadkar’s plans for the health service, and just how far he wants to push an agenda of private provision - and sell an alternative.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Fine Gael seems to be winning the phoney war ahead of the general election, but in the strange world before the real campaign gets under way nobody else seems to be playing yet.

The largest party in government has been engaged in a kind of dance of the manifesto promises, unveiling in a clearly planned way some of its thoughts on the universal social charge, pay support for the low-paid and so on.

Labour has started to join in. It seems to be working for Fine Gael, to judge by the polls, although who knows what will happen when the real fighting begins.

So far the Opposition parties and groupings have been slower into the fray.

Are they trying to time their run or have they been taken off guard by the seemingly relentless stream of good economic news? Either way, full battle on the main economic issues will surely begin in early January.

The economic ground to bat on for the Opposition will centre on two things.

The first is the historical argument about how the Coalition handled the crisis and the cutbacks.

However, the Opposition will have to come up with a forward-looking narrative too.

And this must surely centre on public services and investment.Because if it gets into a battle with the Coalition on who can deliver most in a tax programme, or on the state of the public finances, then it will lose.

The precise timing of the election depends on the banking inquiry. If it stays afloat then the Taoiseach has to wait for it to report just before the end of January. Enda Kenny might well move sooner if the banking inquiry collapses or faces a legal challenge.

The coincidence of 7 per cent growth and an exchequer that will balance its cash position this year is as good as it is going to get for him.

Were it not for Christmas and the banking inquiry the buzzer might already be going at the gate in Áras an Uachtaráin.

The economic ground on which the Coalition will try to fight the election is clear – more of the same, stability, and some tax and spending sweeteners.

Fine Gael will major on tax cuts, Labour more on spending, but they will go into the election with their arms around each other.

National mood

A year ago the Opposition would have had an easier job. Looking back at this newspaper’s news review of 2014, there is a picture on the front of a massive anti-water charge protest in Dublin last December and a headline that declared: “The year the citizen broke.”

Kathy Sheridan summed up the national mood, pointing out that media discussions on many subjects featured the phrase “there is a lot of anger out there”. There was, but is there still?

The first port of call for the Opposition will still be to play on what happened during the crisis. The pain still lingers.

There are still some 200,000 out of work and some 92,000 in mortgage arrears.

ESRI figures during the week showed the average family had lost about 10 per cent in spending power purely due to tax and spending measures in the crisis budgets.

Middle ground

There will be much talk in the campaign about areas and groups “left behind by the recovery”, but the problem for the Opposition is that these are fewer now. Over the past year the consumer mood has lifted.

The KBC/ESRI consumer confidence index has risen from about 80 at the start of the year to over 100.

The Opposition groupings cannot rely on anger about what happened during the crisis to oust the Government. They need to persuade people they can do a better job.

And here the management of public services and State investment is surely the most fruitful ground as we look again at Government uncertainty about what to do about the health service, at large tracts of land flooded, at a housing shortage and at increased congestion, particularly in Dublin, from an era of underinvestment.

The Opposition needs to draw out the part of Fine Gael that wants to cut tax aggressively and reduce the level of the State in the economy, and to persuade people that this will damage key services.

It needs to look at Minister for Health Leo Varadkar’s plans for the health service, and how far he wants to push an agenda of private provision – and sell an alternative.

It needs to look at the level of investment the economy needs and set out a programme for this, persuading voters that it can actually do a better job.

Given the uncertainty about who might form an alternative government, this will not be easy either.

If the election turns into a debate about how quickly USC might be abolished, or cutting property tax, or on the details of forecasts for the public finances and borrowing then it will play into the Government’s’s hands.

The Opposition needs to change the game.

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