Misuse of political labels can lead to bad politics

ANALYSIS: IN THE course of taking a swipe at Joe Higgins in the Dáil during the week, Enda Kenny asked how people who claimed…

ANALYSIS:IN THE course of taking a swipe at Joe Higgins in the Dáil during the week, Enda Kenny asked how people who claimed to be socialists could be opposed to a property tax. Labour TD Emmet Stagg nipped in to dub the far-left critics of the Coalition "tea party socialists".

The ensuing raucous exchanges about political labels may not have meant much to people outside Leinster House but they raised issues about our political system which have consequences for the way the country is governed.

Kenny was right to suggest that only in Ireland could people who oppose a property tax describe themselves as socialists. Much of what passes for left-wing politics here would be regarded elsewhere in Europe as sectional self-interest or reactionary populism.

The other side of the coin is that those who believe in a properly-funded state that provides good quality services like health and welfare are routinely described as right wing because they insist that the money to fund such services should be provided through a broadly-based taxation system.

In other EU states supporters of this approach to government would usually be regarded as left wing, while such views would be regarded as rank socialism in the US.

The right-wing Tea Party campaigners in the US who don’t believe in taxes are at least consistent as they don’t believe in state spending either.

Does it matter whether labels like left and right are misused or misrepresented? Well it does if their misuse leads to bad politics and misgovernment.

One of the reasons why politics failed the country in the first decade of the 21st century was a lack of coherence in the Bertie Ahern-led government about what it stood for. Ahern famously described himself as just one of two socialists in the Dáil, the other allegedly being Joe Higgins. At one level Ahern did follow a left-wing path. During his tenure in office the State funded generous pay increases to public servants, huge increases in welfare entitlements and a massive expansion of the public service.

The problem was that this policy went hand in hand with cutting taxes for rich and poor alike to dangerously low levels, a range of tax incentives for property developers and speculators that fuelled the property boom and a lack of effective regulation at all levels.

The incoherence of the approach brought the State to the verge of bankruptcy.

Since the crash the efforts, firstly of the government led by Brian Cowen and now of the Coalition led by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, to put the State back on a sustainable financial footing have been widely denounced as right wing and reactionary when they are nothing of the kind. People on the right like Shane Ross don’t believe in a well-funded State at all, hence their rejection of the EU-IMF bailout and their insistence that the exchequer should renege on its debts.

One of the reasons the country got into its current mess was the ambivalence on the part of many politicians and a substantial chunk of the electorate to the State itself. While the exchequer was widely regarded as a source of largesse to be exploited by fair means or foul, there was no corresponding loyalty to the State as an institution.

Now that they are in government Labour and Fine Gael are following orthodox policies but in opposition not so long ago they too opposed property taxes and virtually everything else that was suggested to get the State out of its current mess.

This ambivalence towards the State probably goes back to the Civil War when the institutions established by the winners were rejected and reviled by the losers.

The fact that the losers took the reins of power a decade later, and held on to them for the bulk of the period from 1932 until 2011, institutionalised that ambivalence.

A member of the last Fianna Fáil government noted that one of the features of his party was that its members had a deep sense of loyalty to the party and the nation but not to the State. The cavalier attitude adopted to the State and its institutions by some of its leading members during the good times ultimately proved fatal for Fianna Fáil.

In its final two years in office the party struggled to rectify the situation and that struggle is now being waged by the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition. There are signs that the strategy is beginning to pay off, despite growth in Europe remaining very sluggish.

While the cynics in the political world and the media are still predicting doom at every turn, the unfolding events in Greece should be an eye-opener for people tempted to believe the seductive arguments of those who have consistently argued that we should default on our debts and spurn the EU-IMF bailout.

The people of Greece, whose pay and welfare levels are much lower than ours, are facing further living standards cuts if they want to remain in the euro and potential chaos if they can’t meet the conditions.

As a result of the relatively much milder medicine we have taken here, Ireland has now put deep blue water between itself and Greece and is in a much better position than Portugal which is struggling to meet its obligations.

Writing in the Financial Timesa few days ago, Harvard's Prof Ricardo Hausmann cited the Irish model of an export-led economy as an example for Greece. Sadly that is no solution for Greek woes in the short term, but it should induce an element of realism here about how far we have come as well as how far we still have to go. Abandoning flawed notions about what constitutes left and right might help us on our way.