Una Mullally: Varadkar has much to learn about coffee and socialism

The messaging the Taoiseach gravitates towards does not chime with the demographic his party will need to grow its base

It’s often hard to guess what Leo Varadkar is thinking, but sometimes he drops a clanger that reveals more than he intended. In response to Labour TD Alan Kelly’s remarks about the “cup of coffee budget” – that there wasn’t much in it for many – the Taoiseach said, “I’d advise these latte socialists to think again about where they buy their coffee. Because if you can’t be trusted to spend your own money carefully, how can you be trusted with other people’s?” Varadkar is developing a tendency to trot out such first-draft soundbites, lines that almost get there but just don’t land properly. He said this at his first Fine Gael presidential dinner as leader (I’m presuming there was coffee served after), and I like to imagine him preparing for such a killer smackdown in a montage scenario, ripping A4 sheets from a typewriter and three-pointing them into a wire waste paper basket, before BOOM! Latte socialists! That’ll get ‘em.

It doesn’t get ‘em though, does it? It does, however, reveal a bit more about our Taoiseach, who is typified as enigmatic. “Latte socialists” would be perceived as a more authentic line were it to come from a rural TD feigning disgust at the affectations of the “urban elite”. Yet Varadkar is himself a member of that urban elite, and so his disdain for such affectations rings hollow, especially for a guy who handed out coffees from a hip cafe while he was campaigning to be the next Taoiseach. It’s not the lattes Varadkar has a problem with, it’s the socialists.

Silos and strata

Using “latte socialists” (RIP champagne socialist) displays a very particular world view. It’s no surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with Fine Gael that binary definitions of where people sit in society are their bread (sourdough?) and butter. Fine Gael is a party for the conservative and wealthy – from big farmers to big business – primarily concerned with the conservative and wealthy. The conservative manner in which Varadkar sees the country (and perhaps the world), appears to be one of silos and strata, within which we must subscribe to the acceptable social mores and not deviate from them.

What is unusual about someone who projects an image that yearns for contemporary slickness, is that his one-liners are often so old-fashioned

What does “latte socialists” mean? That people who can afford fancy coffee have no business being socialists? That “real” socialists are broke? Or that socialists shouldn’t drink lattes, eschewing the conspicuous consumption of bourgeois culture – including one’s choice of coffee – in order to appear “authentic”.

Socialists who do not come from poverty are always viewed with suspicion by capitalists, as their point of view disrupts the selfishness and individualism capitalism requires to operate. One becomes a traitor to a predetermined and privileged economic trajectory. The latte (or the champagne, or the avocado) therefore, is an avatar of frivolous consumption, as if to say a desire for egalitarianism must also be a desire for misery, and devoid of nice things.

Up early

Such assumptions and generalisations are directly linked to Varadkar’s dog-whistling on Fine Gael being a party for “people who get up early in the morning”, another borrowed line trotted out for years by neoliberal politicians. It is a line designed to do two things. Firstly, to appeal to the widest version of the mainstream (people like to think of themselves as hard-working and diligent.) Secondly, to seed social division that benefits the status quo, the subtext being that everyone on welfare or sporadically employed is lazy or less motivated, that everyone who has a job is hard-working, and that the world is made up of those who give to society (tax) and those who take from it. This narrative allows us to entrench our ingroup bias, where we favour those like us. This bias is intrinsic to traditional party politics, a worldview that sees political power as an elite sport, and is adverse to change or revolution.

It goes without saying that Varadkar is only referring to a certain type of person who gets up early in the morning – not the homeless people woken at dawn, the carers rising first thing, the poor farmers, the commuting students, the people living in direct provision, the women catching early flights to England for abortions, and so on. Varadkar’s latte line also reveals a belief that some people are allowed guilt-free nice things, and others must be denied them, either through posturing or poverty.

Then there’s the content of the messaging itself. What is unusual about someone who projects an image that yearns for contemporary slickness, is that his one-liners are often so old-fashioned. Even the use of latte – a drink that by now your granny orders – feels out of date. Perhaps he could have gone for something more hip to the groove. Cortado communist? Sriracha socialist? Za’atar Zapatista?

For a Taoiseach so novel in so many ways, it seems odd that he suffers from a lack of originality. The messaging he gravitates towards does not chime with the demographic his party will need to grow its base: those who may not be automatically predisposed to Fine Gael’s ideals, but might be drawn to Varadkar’s image. This is primarily a slice of disillusioned Labour voters. They may like their lattes very much, and their vaguely socialist politics too. Those things are not mutually exclusive, unless, of course, you’re Leo.