November 14th Evening: The Recession Diaries

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Some on the Left are trying to put a brave face on the Irish Times poll today. ‘Consolidating’ support at 14 percent is one rationalisation. Another is that the Labour leader has the highest satisfaction rating of any party leader (or rather the least dissatisfied); yet Pat Rabbitte outpolled Enda Kenny in every MRBI poll. Brendan Howlin, TD, claimed this support level could win Labour 30 Dail seats. Maybe, but not likely – and not just because Labour faces the prospect of several senior TDs stepping down. In a strict PR system, 14 percent would gain 23 seats. The vagaries of STV means the seat total can vary. However, in 1992 Labour’s 19 percent gained them 33 seats. So it would be a climb at current levels.

But no, none of these really work. After months of daily bad econ-news, of a budget ineptly handled, of U-turns and defecting Government TDs – Labour declined marginally while the three progressive parties fell back from a combined 28 percent to 26 percent. So much for the idea that recessions benefit anti-conservatives.

Fine Gael is the unabashed winner and it’s not hard to see why. They have put forward a clear and consistent line; they have produced documents and briefings; their several spokespersons have all been on-message; their Finance Spokesperson, Richard Bruton, speaks with knowledge and confidence on a range of issues; and, of course, Fine Gael is the historical alternative – inertia alone gives them pole position.

How much different on this side of the house. The Greens are caught up in a terrible contradiction, aligned with policies they would otherwise bitterly oppose. Sinn Fein has yet to make an important intervention. And, while Eamon Gilmore has recently put forward some potentially constructive analyses, it is not clear how much this emanates from the party as a whole, or just from his office. On the News At One today he said:

‘We’re setting out a separate and very distinctive and clear Labour Party message. We’ve been doing that on the economy, on issues like the banking crisis, on areas like unemployment, and on the issues of the quality of the public service. . . . it is the Labour Party that is arguing for the rebooting, the re-energising, the revitalisation and the regrowing of the economy. In doing that we are putting forward a point of view very much in line with what Obama is proposing in the United States, what Gordon Brown is proposing for the United Kingdom and what many of are sister parties are proposing in other European countries.’

That is over-stating it. First, Eamon suggested using the Pension Fund for commercial capital projects within Ireland, has argued that borrowing for capital investment is appropriate and that projects like social housing should be targeted. All quite welcome, but hardly distinctive – these are also positions Fine Gael has laid out in their briefings. Indeed, very few have a problem with borrowing for capital projects.

Second, what is being proposed in other countries is of a qualitatively different order than anything discussed here. In the US they are contemplating a ‘big bang’ – an expansionist programme that reaches into industrial bail-outs, health care, financial institutions, protection of home-owners, infrastructure, etc. In the UK, the Labour Government is looking to blow a hole in their ‘golden rule’ of keeping their debt under 40 percent of GDP. In Germany they’re coming up with a ‘cyclically justified growth policy’ – deficit spending to you and me: direct investment in public transport, education, the car industry, and small and medium sized-firms.

Eamon has said that the fiscal crisis is the result, not the cause, of the economic crisis. This opens the door to a large-scale economic stimulant package of the type being canvassed elsewhere, but Labour has yet to walk through it – never mind return with a package for the Irish public to consider. And this leads to the third problem:

The few positive noises coming from Labour seem to be confined to Eamon. There is little party content to this: no documents and briefings to outline the scale and extent of such intervention, few if any Labour spokespersons on-message; no systematic critique of reckless fiscal conservatism (which would surely merit a swipe or two at Fine Gael).

In short, it calls for an alternative political narrative – a new story that requires the Left to enlist sympathetic media commentators (shouldn’t take that long, there’s not that many), social organisation, trade unions, other political parties, bloggers, whomever – inviting them to play a full active part in this programme.

We’re a long way from that. We’re so far away, in fact, that everyone is lining up Labour to support a Fine Gael-led government. Even though Eamon kicked to touch when asked by Sean O’Rourke three times to rule out supporting Fianna Fail, the Labour leader did make this clear:

‘If there were a general election based on those figures today, there would if be a change of government and the Labour Party would be part of it . . and it was pretty clear in that poll that Fianna Fail would not be in government.’

It’s a roundabout way of saying the Left will be in government, supporting Fine Gael and probably not Fianna Fail, if these numbers hold. Whatever’s the case, who needs a new political narrative? The old one – the two-and-a-half party system – is doing just fine.

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