Labour now an agent for reinforcing privilege


For the first time, the Labour Party is actively increasing inequality in Irish society, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

TWO THOUSAND years ago, the Roman satirist Martial explained in 12 words precisely why the Labour Party is in very deep trouble: Vainly the poor extend their palms / Only the rich are given alms.

Labour consoles itself with the usual martyrology of unpopular governing parties: people don’t like us because we’re inflicting necessary pain. The truth is that people don’t like Labour because it is inflicting pain unequally.

For the first time in its 100-year history, it is actively increasing inequality in Irish society – and if Labour is not about equality, it is about nothing at all.

Labour is, in Pat Rabbitte’s startlingly apt phrase last week, “policing” the troika’s Irish policy.

The policy is a pantomime horse operated by drunks moving in two directions at once. It protects the existing distribution of privilege in Irish society – literally at all costs, but it appeals to a rhetoric of equally shared sacrifice. If Labour was going to become the troika’s policeman, the least it had to do was to inject some reality into that rhetoric.

It could look to its sister party in Britain for the best example of how austerity could be combined with increasing equality.

Post-war austerity (from which the now much-abused word gained political currency) was much more than a masochistic orgy of slash-and-burn economics – it was the opportunity to try to create a more equal and decent society by concentrating scarce resources on the things that matter most to human dignity.

Labour knows at some level the only way to make Ireland’s situation bearable is to invoke this spirit. Its narrative is that we’ve been hit by a catastrophe but that if we stick together, we come out of it a better society.

This is actually not an unappealing notion. The swaggering arrogance of the boom years was a sad parody of national pride, but there can be a real pride in the idea of not being defeated by hard times and, indeed, of emerging from them with a purer, simpler sense of collective belonging.

For nations, as Ernest Renan put it in 1882, “suffering in common is a greater bond of union than joy. As regards national memories, mournings are worth more than triumphs.”

What is actually happening, though, is a mockery of this narrative of “suffering in common”.

The nationalisation of private banking debt turns the whole idea of commonality on its head. Instead of meaning that private interests should be subordinated to the common good, it is made to mean exactly the opposite – that the public interest should be enslaved to private benefit.

This basic injustice is being reinforced by an assault on equality.

Eamon Gilmore evoked the Titanic in his speech to Labour’s annual conference – not inappropriately, since the Titanic spirit is being amply demonstrated by the Government: lifeboats for first class, icy waters for those in steerage. The measure of whether austerity is a collective effort or a mask for cynicism is simple: are those who can afford it most taking the biggest hit? We know they’re not.

At first, the depression did make Ireland a somewhat more equal place. In 2006, the top 20 per cent earned five times more than the bottom 20 per cent. By 2009, this multiple dropped to 4.3. But in 2010, the gap increased quite dramatically, to a multiple of 5.3.

What we can see here is that after the initial shock, the most privileged groups in society have been able to regroup and consolidate their privilege.

By 2010, their relative position had improved very substantially on what it was at the height of the boom. This is a remarkable achievement and is testament to the political, economic and ideological dominance of the Irish elite. It has actually become more privileged as a result of the crisis it created.

The biggest testament to this strength is that the Labour Party, founded a century ago to place economic equality at the heart of Irish life, has become an instrument of this consolidation of privilege. It is a breathtaking fact that since Labour came to power, public policy has been used, not to roll back privilege but to increase it.

Where the previous “austerity” budgets had taken more from the rich than from the poor, the first Fine Gael-Labour budget reversed the process. The poorest 40 per cent lost 2.25 per cent of their incomes; the next 40 per cent lost 1 per cent, and the top 20 per cent lost 0.8 per cent.

Even among Labour’s harshest critics, few can have imagined that it would actually be more regressive than Fianna Fáil.

Last week, Pat Rabbitte pleaded for understanding of “how well the Government has policed the agreement foisted on us by the previous government”. He also resorted to the last refuge of the desperate: “There is no alternative.”

But if there is no alternative, if social democracy is reduced to the role of policeman for an agreement that widens, year after year, the gap between the rich and poor, the Plough and the Stars of Connolly and Larkin is now the Kow-tow and the Squad Cars.

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