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Fintan O’Toole: The Irish political system is destroying the middle-class lifestyle it depends on

Political middle-ground depends on middle-class way of life that is ever further out of reach

Can conservative politics hold together when the conservative lifestyle is crumbling? That is the big question for Ireland. Irish politics has been extraordinarily stable: every government in the history of the State has been led by the centre-right Fianna Gael duopoly. Even with radical social, cultural and religious upheaval and even in the wake of the implosion of the State in the banking crisis, the latest Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll shows Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on 54 per cent between them. But lift the lid and something that has been simmering away is coming to a rolling boil: the basic promise of conservative politics is dissolving.

By a conservative lifestyle I don’t mean religion or sexuality. I mean the aspiration that has been inculcated since the late 1960s in Ireland: get a good education; work hard; get married; get a mortgage; buy a house; have kids. It’s a template for living and not one to be despised. It’s the one I’ve followed myself and it offers a fair chance of happiness. Not everyone who leads this life is politically conservative but all political conservatism depends on it. Strip away the rhetorical flourishes and this is the product on offer. A middle-class lifestyle sustains a middle ground politics.

But this contract is being torn up in the developed world of which Ireland is a part. The great promise was that, if you can just get a good education, you will enjoy a secure middle-class lifestyle and be better off than your parents. Broadly, our hypercapitalist societies have managed the first part but failed on the second. A highly educated young generation has little hope of being as well off as its parents. Seventy per cent of baby boomers were in the middle class by their twenties – just 60 per cent of millennials are.

Social mobility

For people growing up in working-class families, the aspiration to the middle-class lifestyle is rapidly waning. Social mobility has not just stalled. It has gone into reverse. An OECD report last year showed that in developed societies, the pace is now so slow that it would take between four and five generations – up to 150 years – for a child born into a low-income family merely to reach the average level of income. And even for those who are already middle-class, their relative status has diminished. One of the ironies of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution is that it hugely weakened the economic power of the middle classes that supported it. In 1985, before the revolution, the middle class in OECD countries had four times the combined income of the (numerically much smaller) upper class. Now it has less than three times the combined income.


Ireland exemplifies all of this, sometimes in an extreme way. What the conservative parties have managed to create in Ireland is an economy where costs are Scandinavian and public services are American. The cost of living in Dublin is 18 per cent higher than in Brussels. But we don’t have the benefits built over generations by social democratic governments in Europe. Middle-class families shell out huge chunks of their income for health insurance and childcare. In the EU as a whole, the net cost of childcare (after taking benefits into account) is 12 per cent of the average wage. In Ireland it is 28 per cent.

Housing a luxury

But the primary assault on the middle-class lifestyle is the disastrous housing policies of the conservative parties. It is Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael between them who firstly turned housing into a commodity and then made it a luxury. The middle class is being dragged downwards by the gravitational pull of housing costs. The Central Bank decrees that the maximum any couple can borrow for a mortgage is 3.5 times its annual income. But the median price for a house in Dublin is now a staggering nine times the average annual income. In other countries, it is possible to maintain a middle-class lifestyle by forgetting about a mortgage and just renting. Last year, in the UK and the EU as a whole, residential rents rose by 1 per cent. In Ireland they rose by 6 per cent. The cost of renting an apartment in Ireland is now 20 per cent higher than it was in 2007 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

Karl Marx claimed that the middle class would eventually be pulled downwards into the proletariat. For most of the postwar period, he was proved wrong. But the young Irish middle class is now becoming a property proletariat – let's call it a propertariat. More and more of its income is being eaten up by the cost of housing – the surplus generated by its hard work is transferred to the owners of land and property. And this destruction of the middle-class lifestyle is being accomplished by the very political system that depends on it. It used to be that this system had other things to hold it together: nationalism; Catholicism; Civil War tribalism. Those things don't work anymore. The glue is now just a way of life: work; mortgage; house; kids. The parties most ostensibly invested in that way of life have made it more and more impossible for more and more people.