February 13th Afternoon: The Recession Diaries

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One in four people you pass by on the street today have stated they would vote for Labour if an election were held today (well, not exactly – 17 percent opted for Labour, the 24 percent is a calculation based on excluding the undecided; and it was last Monday and Tuesday when the poll was taken, not today – but you get the point).  The clarion call that has sounded for years from leftist ghettos – that of a left-led government – can now be heard in everyday streets.  Extraordinary times throw up extraordinary options.  No more is this apparent than in today’s Irish Times tns/MRBI poll.  Heady days, indeed.

That is the backdrop for an examination of ICTU’s recently published, ‘There is a Better, Fairer Way: Congress Plan for National Recovery’.

The first thing to be said is that this is the latest in a long line of contributions to the debate.  There is probably no other organisation in the State (and that includes the Government ) that has contributed as much and as thoughtfully as ICTU.  They have published proposals on the banking crisis, incomes policy, training, pensions, productivity, etc.  So this latest document rests on a considerable body of work.

Congress starts off with the proverbial olive branch and pistol:

‘Our preferred option is to engage with all parties on these initiatives but if that is not possible, we will embark upon a major campaign to achieve a change in policy, commencing with nationwide demonstrations on February 21.’

So talk with us or we demonstrate.  Ordinarily, one might think the Government wouldn’t be too alarmed.  But in the wake of the polls – and the realisation that the public were not impressed with Fianna Fail’s macho, unilateral €2 billion cut and the Taoiseach’s ‘shoulder-to-the-wheel’ speech in the Four Seasons – they may think there is safety in numbers.

But there is, from the outset, what would appear to be a fundamental contradiction.  ICTU rightly describes Government policy:

They resorted instead to a narrow focus on the public finances . . Their intent is to achieve a competitive devaluation of wages across the economy . . . This is no less than a campaign against wages . . . Policy to date has been almost exclusively deflationary in practice.’

And it is this critique of a deflationary government (both economically and politically!) that informs their specific proposals:

  • Guarantee incomes for unemployed workers through combining a pay-related benefit with training schemes
  • A thorough-going clean out of the banking sector with nationalisation as an option (get credit flowing, sack current executive and cap pay, three-year moratorium on home repossessions)
  • End the Energy Regulator’s policy of artificially raising ESB tariffs
  • A range of progressive taxation measures to share the burden of addressing the fiscal meltdown
  • Use the Pension Reserve Fund as a Pension Protection Fund (to safeguard occupational pensions)
  • Quickly enact employment protection legislation contained in Towards 2016
  • Issue Economic Recovery Bonds

Were all these enacted we would be better off.  What is lacking, however, is an organising principle behind these proposals – one which ICTU promises to provide (this is after all, a ‘Congress Plan for National Recovery’) but ultimately ends up disappointing.  For instance, it states:

‘Surely the most sensible option is to stimulate the economy, rather than dampen spending and growth?’

Yes it is.  But then it continues:

”To this end, all parties must now return to the negotiating table to agree a resolution of the situation on the National Pay Agreement, to provide people with some confidence for the future . . . Government must return to the Framework Agreement of January 28. . . Until that happens there can be no sustainable plan for national recovery.’

Not only is a plan for national recovery postponed until social partnership talks resume, that plan can only come about through a compromise process with ‘partners’ who fully support deflationary policies. And that ‘squaring of the circle’ is compounded by the critical element of the Framework Agreement – namely, the reduction of the deficit by €2 billion.

The fact is that the ‘sensible option’ ‘to stimulate the economy cannot come via the Framework Agreement that priorities the deficit, or as ICTU itself put it, narrowly focuses on public finances.  ICTU is caught up in contradictions within contradictions.  These do not necessarily result from the partnership process itself but rather by the balance of political forces – a balance that is radically shifting even as I write this.  In other words, a different Government, a different process and, hopefully, a different and better result.

The contradiction ICTU finds itself in – seeking a stimulus programme from partners who want anything but; there is a way out.  It can be seen in the bald numbers on the front page of the Irish Times.  The solution is staring trade unionists in the face from every news rack in the country.

And that is why everyone who cares about the economy and society should come out next Saturday on the National Demonstration.  To put one more stake in the heart of a, now obvious, undead Government.  To get us one more day closer to a better Government that will adopt the ‘sensible option’.

Each step we take on that march gets us that much closer to a progressive destination.

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