Why Ireland needs a Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders

No political vision sets out appropriate role of the State in creating a fairer society

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool: he has said, “If you want real opportunities for everybody you have to invest in a way that doesn’t increase inequality.” Photograph:  Oli Scarffoli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool: he has said, “If you want real opportunities for everybody you have to invest in a way that doesn’t increase inequality.” Photograph: Oli Scarffoli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

 

Last year the UK Labour Party amazed itself by electing a mainstream left-wing leader with a “radical” political agenda. Jeremy Corbyn vowed to restore the traditional policy focus of the Labour Party. The groundswell of support among ordinary Labour members for the new “old” politics of Corbyn and the ditching of the Third Way compromise of the old “new” politics of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and latterly Ed Miliband was not supposed to happen.

Since then a political “war” has been waged against Jeremy Corbyn and his political strategies – giving ordinary members a greater say in a remodelled party structure and campaigning for decent public services for citizens – by disconsolate MPs seeking a return to Third Way-style politics. That war is now over.

Corbyn’s decisive victory over his opponent Owen Smith is a vindication of his new “old”politics and a clear rejection by Labour Party members of the centrist ideas of his opponents.

The Third Way politics of so-called New Labour looked for a synergy between public and private sectors, harnessing the dynamism of the markets but with the public interest in mind.

A new social contract

In the US Bernie Sanders confounded the Democratic establishment by giving Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money. The 74-year-old Sanders appealed to young American voters because he campaigned for a new social contract. A social contract based on old values. His policies – abolish tuition fees at US public universities, universal access to healthcare, paid maternity leave and a more generous minimum wage – sought to modify the extremes of American capitalism and create a fairer society.

Here in Ireland privatised education, health and welfare have been promoted by successive governments. A two-tier health system condemns public patients to long waiting lists for care and treatment while private patients are fast-tracked through the system. In the welfare system there is a growth of private fostering and residential care services. There is no political vision setting out the appropriate role of the State in creating a fairer more equal society.

Public services

Irish politics is crying out for a Corbyn or Sanders style leader who will focus on investment and expansion of the material economy in parallel with investment in public services. Corbyn’s view that “there is a generation that is totally turned off by the conformity of political offerings, particularly in the economic area” is also true in Ireland.

The fragmentation of Irish politics and the rise of independents is testament to this loss of faith in mainstream political parties. Here in Ireland there is no Corbyn or Sanders on the political horizon offering the electorate transformative ideas and ambitions.

The so-called New Politics of our cobbled-together Government is light on democratic strategies for a fairer deal for advancing the welfare and well-being of all citizens. Corbyn recently stated “if you want real opportunities for everybody you have to invest in a way that doesn’t increase inequality”.

Three basic principles

Social justice requires fairness in our everyday lives. The core idea of social justice is underpinned by three basic principles.

Equal citizenship: every citizen is entitled to an equal set of civil, political and social rights.

The social minimum: all citizens can gain access to the resources which they require to meet their essential needs and secure their wellbeing.

Equality of opportunity: life chances should not be pre-determined by features such as gender, class or ethnicity.

No social justice policy

However social justice does not have a policy presence in the new Irish politics. Tough challenges now face a Government which appears to be content to muddle through in key policy areas.

Crucially this muddling through policy approach adopted by the Government lacks a coherent investment strategy in health, education and housing. The OECD has recommended that the Irish State increases demand in the economy through enhanced public investment.

The “whatever you are having yourself” policy discourse of the Kenny-Martin-Independents political axis lacks commitment to distributional and relational social justice objectives. Oppositional voices also lack coherency and vision.

A politician with the integrity, vision and candour of a Corbyn or Sanders is badly needed to assist in the creation of a genuine new politics here in Ireland.

Colm O’Doherty is a lecturer in Applied Social Studies at the Institute of Technology Tralee

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