During the unkind years of the neo-liberal consensus, which were dominated by the free-market/small-government/low-tax/eat-what-you-kill/greed-is-good mentality that pretty well everyone now recognises to have been a failure, it was exceptionally difficult for the Labour party in Ireland to promote itself as anything more than ever-so-slightly left-of-centre without fear of electoral annihilation. Though it battled away manfully, it struggled to maintain even 10%-12% of first preference votes. The central social democratic principle of wealth redistribution almost became the principle that dared not speak its name. Raising the tax rate from the patently unsustainable 28-30% of GDP level we had was an unmentionable idea. And in the midst of an economic boom, the hypothesis that the rising tide would lift all boats became established as a creed that would solve the problem of poverty, forever.
More and more, privatisation of public services and utilities became plausible options, even among some wavering social democrats, as in Blair’s Third Way New Labour. With the rising-tide hypothesis now in tatters, the Irish legacy of the neo-liberal consensus is almost too painful to contemplate – a ramshackle and uneven health service, a third-rate transport infrastructure, a burgeoning population of young people facing declining educational standards and few prospects, and worsening poverty.
Writing in the New Yorker this week on the charges of ‘socialism’ made against Barack Obama by the McCain camp, Hendrik Hertzberg referred to:
the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation’.
Sadly, Ireland spurned the opportunity to take its place among Hertzberg’s ‘gentle democracies’. But the post-Budget upheavals have caused a fairly remarkable re-evaluation of political direction in Ireland.
With that re-evaluation has come a resurgent Labour party. In the Dáil, on the streets and on the airwaves, Labour has been assailing the government with the truth and beating it to a pulp. Leading this merciless onslaught against the wrong-headed government, Eamon Gilmore has turned out to be the most fearsomely articulate politician of his time – a powerful speaker, a skilled parliamentarian and a social idealist. The opposition is lining up behind him, with even Fine Gael, in the shape of former leader Alan Dukes, paying generous tribute on RTÉ to Gilmore’s Dáil performances.
These began, not with the Budget, but before the summer, with his assault on the hospital co-location project when he forced government admissions about the real cost of the programme – he showed that with the loss of private revenue to the public hospitals and the cost of the tax-breaks the State would lose €1.3 billion. This was not refuted. Around the same time, his expletive-provoking interventions on consumer prices after the fall in sterling caused the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste considerable embarrassment and defined Cowen’s first months in office.
But it was the genuine fury he articulated in the aftermath of the Budget and his immediate identification with and defence of older and unrealised Irish social values that have marked him out as the man of his time.
The following is a recent speech, taken from the Labour website, where Gilmore strongly defends universality, which he declares to be the new battle-ground of Irish politics, and in which he restates Labour’s social democratic philosophy. And for the first time in quite a while, we see a focus beginning to be directed on ‘a fair system of taxation’ – the old principle of wealth redistribution is daring once again to speak its name.
The Labour stall has been fairly set out. There is much in this that Old Labour warriors, like Tony Benn, might admire.
“The Victorians believed that the public purse should support only the most destitute, and then only under the most stringent and exacting terms.
“That workhouse mentality is alive and well in Ireland today. While across the world, the disciples of Thatcher, Reagan and Bush are in retreat, in Ireland the New Victorians are still determined to trim social provision to the bone.
“The Budget contains within it a direct attack on the principle of universality. While the initial cut in medical card provision has been partially reversed, the principle of universality in health care for those over 70 has been removed. Once means-testing is in place, the record shows that the number of medical cards will be slowly but surely whittled down.
“Meanwhile, third level fees are being brought in through the back door of so-called ‘registration fees’, and child benefit is next in the firing line. Primary education, a constitutional right, is further undermined by spending cuts.
“Universality is not an abstract notion – it is a statement of who we are as a people.
“Universality means that those over 70 should have a medical card, not just because it will save the taxpayer money in the long-run (which it will), and not because of any charitable impulse. They should have it, because health care is a basic human need and a basic human right, and because of the value that we place on each and every member of our community.
“The principle of universality is based on the idea that there are certain things in life that are necessary to human existence, human dignity and human flourishing. They are and should be available on an equal basis, as of right, to all members of the community. With those rights comes the responsibility to contribute to the cost of providing these services through fair taxation.
“Social democracy, which is the political philosophy of the Labour Party, means extending democratic values into the social and economic sphere. Once the great battles of the 19th century for the right to vote and for civil liberties had been won, the Labour movement sought in the 20th century to extend those democratic ideas of equality and human dignity into the social arena.
“The universalist ethic was at the heart of the programme enacted by the post-war Labour Government in the UK, which included the foundation of the NHS. This was a conscious rejection of the workhouse mentality. Workhouse ‘inmates’ were outcasts from the community, deprived of the right to vote. Using the NHS was a right of citizenship, and an expression of equality, in a tradition that has its origins as far back as Thomas Paine.
“Universalism is about having a vision of a community of free and flourishing individuals, bound to each other by a common bond. Labour believes in universalism, because there are some areas of life, where we find the best for each of us in promoting the common good.
“Education and health are clear examples. Education taps the potential with which each of us has been endowed. It is a core human need, and it should be available to all as of right. That logic applies with equal rigour from pre-school to university. No-one should set a boundary to the flourishing of mind and spirit that education makes possible.
“That is why Labour has long advocated free pre-school education for every child. That proposal was attacked before the last election by Brian Lenihan, who, as Minister for Children, said that it ‘smacked of universalism’. We heartily agree!
“And I make no apology for Labour’s commitment to free third level education. Universities do have a vital role in industrial policy, but why should students be taxed to pay for it? If third level education confers a benefit on the individual, which it does, then let them contribute to the cost through a fair system of taxation. Meanwhile, society will benefit through enhanced third level participation.
“Similarly, in health, Labour is committed to a system of universal health insurance that would provide this vital service on a common basis. Indeed, such a system is the only way that we can drive the kind of changes that the health service so desperately needs.
“I am regularly asked why a party of the left should want to give anything to Mrs X, or Mr Y, both identifiably wealthy individuals. In reality, the number of those individuals is small, and collecting money from them through the tax system is a lot more efficient than the cost of means testing. The idea, for example, of means testing every person over 70 to find the 5% who don’t qualify for a medical card is ultimately wasteful. It appears that the only place where the Government believes in promoting employment is in the means testing industry.
“In fact, universal provision ensures that those on middle and higher incomes have a stake in maintaining high standards of public services.
Here then is the new battle ground of Irish politics. The workhouse mentality of the New Victorians is reaching further and deeper. The Labour Party will ensure that the values of equality, solidarity and human dignity stand in their way.
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