A Paradigm Shift to the Left among ABC1’s?


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Do the findings of the TASC survey, The Solidarity Factor – Public Perceptions of Unequal Ireland, published this week, represent a paradigm shift to the left among Irish adults, particularly among wealthier people?

According to the survey of 1000 adults interviewed in April this year, 70% believe wealth distribution in Ireland is unfair and 80% are concerned about high levels of wealth inequality.  Among wealthier respondents (ABC1’s), 50% were willing to support higher taxes to improve public services; but this figure fell to 34% for the less wealthy (C2DE’s).

Equality and social justice (64%), poverty (59%) and the quality of public services (55%) were considered to be more important factors in measuring Ireland’s performance as a country than individual earnings (40%) when multiple answers were accepted. Economic growth (21%), equality and social justice (20%), the quality of public services (16%) and poverty (13%) were most important when respondents were asked to choose the single most important factor, compared with only 7% selecting ‘individual earnings’ and 3% selecting ‘quality of the environment’.

The survey was conducted in a year characterized by international economic upheaval on a scale not witnessed since the 1930’s and less than one year after a general election in which the Progressive Democrats were destroyed by the electorate.  That apparent defeat of the perceived right-wing of the coalition did not, however, translate into any major gain by the left.  This suggests that the left failed to get the inequality message across effectively before the 2007 election.

So what, if anything, has changed since?

Certainly, the media have played an important role.  Over the past year, in its feature articles, editorials and letters page, and especially through columnists like Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times, in particular, seems to have been on a crusade to put poverty and inequality back at the centre of the political agenda.  Vincent Browne in the Sunday Business Post and elsewhere has also made important contributions.

Less appreciated has been the role of the Catholic church in Ireland (perhaps influenced by the profoundly positive effect of liberation theology on political change in South America), which seems to have found a resurgent voice on social justice, with many powerful contributions from CORI Justice (Annual Socio-economic Review, 2008), the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  Many of these documents have strongly castigated Irish government social policy and represent positions very close to those held by left-wing parties.  Unlike political parties, the Church has the considerable advantage of being able to express independent views on taxation without fear of the electorate.  Thus, it has managed to retain substantial philosophical leverage when addressing matters of social policy.

The question of taxation is particularly pertinent.  While the middle classes seem prepared to pay more tax to obtain better public services, it is not so obvious from the TASC survey if they would be prepared also to pay more tax simply to redistribute wealth and reduce poverty to the 3% level found in the Nordic social model.  Unsurprisingly, according to the survey, the less wealthy do not want to pay more tax.

The indications so far are that the government will not introduce an increase in direct taxation (income tax) in the forthcoming budget, indicating that Fianna Fail has bought irrevocably into the Progressive Democrat low-tax, less public services philosophy (or is merely closely in touch with its core voters).  Fine Gael is certainly not promoting increases in taxation.

On taxation, Labour has yet to declare its hand.  Surely the time is now right for Labour to nail its colours to the mast on this most important issue of all?

The facts are these:

  • Irish people recognise that there is inequality in Ireland and they are concerned about it.
  • Wealthier tax payers are prepared to pay more tax to have better public services, including transport, health care, education, social security and pensions.
  • Less wealthy people are considerably less willing to pay more tax.
  • Inequality, social justice and poverty are of greater concern to Irish people than individual income and  the environment.
  • Among wealthy countries, Ireland has an extremely low tax rate (less than 30% of GDP) and disturbingly high rates of poverty, particularly child poverty, and of inequality.
  • Nordic countries, some with tax rates approaching 50% of GDP, have the best quality of life, higher incomes than English speaking countries, the best health outcomes, the lowest income disparity and have reduced poverty to about 3%.  The Nordic social model is the most successful that the world has seen.
  • The main political parties in Ireland remain reluctant to fight elections on a platform of increasing tax, especially income tax.

Judging by the TASC survey, there now appears to be a growing desire for a Nordic-type social model, where the wealthier would contribute disproportionately more through income tax, the working poor would pay disproportionately less and those unable to work or find work would be adequately protected and taken out of the poverty trap altogether.  However, there is probably an inherent expectation in this ‘deal’ of comprehensive social contract that would provide, in return for an agreement by the better off to pay more tax and redistribute their wealth, public services that would match those of countries like Sweden, relieving them of the need to worry about paying for their health care, their children’s education and their private pensions.

For political parties nervous of tax increases, a simple place to start would be to stop all the various tax breaks altogether.

Of course, the TASC survey might be very misleading – responding thoughtfully to a question in a survey about inequality and actually going out and voting for higher tax are two entirely different matters.  The problem for the left is how to translate left wing sentiment into left wing votes.

The recent Red C poll threw up a number of inconsistencies among respondents – 62% said they would be prepared to pay more tax to obtain better public services such as health and education but 61% said the government should cut public spending rather than increase tax.  Which does one believe?  And Labour’s share of the first preference vote fell 1% to 9%, the same as Sinn Féin’s share.  Between them, Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens have a mere 25% of the first preferences.

In the current economic climate, even if wealthier voters seem much more prepared now than before to support greater income distribution, in the long run people will baulk at throwing money at unemployment: the charitable mood will neither be sustained nor translated into left-wing votes.  Falling incomes and rising unemployment will quickly put paid to support for increased taxation.  The answer seems simple enough.  The Labour party’s new policy document, Labour’s New Deal (the title recalls Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deals in the thirties – the more radical second New Deal was particularly successful) recognises the importance of building public infrastructure to stimulate economic activity.

According to Eurostat, the population of Ireland will grow by one million within twelve years.  This represents not just a huge infrastructural challenge but also a phenomenal economic opportunity.  It will require immense public investment – transport, schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, sports and leisure facilities will have to be provided.    In Michael Moore’s excellent film on health care in the United States, SiCKO, there is a charming interview with Tony Benn, who reminds us of Britain’s seminal invention of the National Health Service in the aftermath that country’s devastation in World War 2.  As Benn says, the British discovered that since they could have full employment by killing Germans, they could also have full employment by helping each other, building schools and hospitals.

The Labour strategy appears to be correct.  Surely, if Ireland can have an economic boom and full employment building the shoe-box apartments and holiday homes that nobody really wants or needs through the private sector, then can we not have a boom and full employment building the schools and hospitals people really do want and need, through the public sector?

The TASC survey suggests that there is a once in a generation opportunity for the left to grasp – the chance to offer the Irish people the real choice of social democracy and to finally establish excellent public services and reduce poverty through a socially just system of taxation.

For the left to prevail, these messages will need to be cogently argued and powerfully sustained during the current Dáil.  Considerable courage and leadership will be required when facing the electorate.

The Tony Benn interview in Michael Moore’s documentary film, Sicko.


Notes: The photo above is from Red Mum‘s Flickr account and was taken during a protest outside the Dail on the 2nd of June 2006.


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