Saying the right thing at the right time? …Eamon Gilmore’s speech.

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One of the major problems of political life in this age where everything is available almost at an instant is the sense of familiarity, even dullness, of policy proposals. Take, for example, the idea of a third tax rate for high earners as mooted at the Labour Party National Conference yesterday by Eamon Gilmore. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the idea. Nothing at all as it happens. The small problem is that voices across the political spectrum are articulating this position.

For example, a mere two or three weeks ago Stephen Collins and Deaglán De Bréadún were writing in the Irish Times that in preparation for the emergency budget the Cabinet were weighing up various possibilities:

An increase of at least 2 per cent in the lower and higher rates of income tax is expected in the budget but Ministers will have to decide whether to introduce a new top rate of tax which has been widely advocated.

It goes, perhaps, deeper than that.

In the contemporary environment the choices available to politicians and political parties are constrained both by ideology (or lack of it) or by prior experience of applying them however well or ineptly.

So, despite being a welcome change from the Labour Party platform of 2007 with it’s near risible tax cut to 18% on the lower band, which gave Collins et al such satisfaction, there is something a little unsurprising about:

We will publish our pre-budget statement next week, and our tax proposals will include a third rate of income tax for the highest earners.

And I wonder is that familiarity responsible for this, as reported by Simon on Irish Election. 17% for Labour. Still very good, but not quite the stellar heights of previous polls. And worth parsing it out later as to why the decline in their fortunes and the resurgence for the government parties.

More satisfactory, by far, is the following:

But when we pay more tax, and deep down we all know we have to, then it must be progressive and on the taxpayer’s terms. The Government must end, in this budget, the practice and status of tax exiles.

Although I’d have liked the emphasis to be on progressive across the scale, rather than focusing on tax exiles. In fairnes while that’s something he doesn’t say explicitly, he appears to implicitly when he continues:

We will only get out of this mess, if we work together, as one Ireland.

Not by scapegoating nurses, teachers or gardai, or by targeting vulnerable groups like special needs children.

But by insisting on better value for money in the public services and having clear bottom lines.

That means that no-one who makes an honest effort to pay their mortgage should lose their home.

And there’s a lot more in that speech to indicate that Gilmore, and one assumes Labour, have at least some understanding of nuance when it comes to political activity. Not least when he argues that:

That means that €16 million is a small price to pay to vaccinate teenage girls against cervical cancer. That means that now is not the time for cuts in education. Labour would reverse the cuts in special needs classes. Reinstate the school book grants for our schools. Lift the cap on Post Leaving Cert Courses and keep universal access to third level education.

And also heartening to hear:

There has to be sacrifice, yes, but terms and conditions apply.

Indeed they do.

Now, the political implications of all this appear to mean that we are hurtling back to the embrace of the usual partner in this particular dance… how else to read the following?

The time has come for fundamental reform. Twice in a generation, Fianna Fáil has brought this country to the edge of disaster. Twice too often. It is now time to say ‘Never again’.

But in a way, Fianna Fáil isn’t the problem, or at least is only part of the problem. I could as easily posit a political system where all, almost all, collude in the chimera of low taxation as the panacea to our woes across two decades is also to blame. Or to put it a different way, don’t confuse the symptom with the cause. Fianna Fáil, as ever, has been the instrument of our near destruction, but it could have been otherwise.

And there’s a contradiction in all this. If Labour is asking all to play their part, is making submissions to government, then it makes it more difficult for them to attack government in a way that doesn’t sound… well… peevish.

Someone asked me to do a little thought experiment recently, enquiring as to what I thought the future would have been like had Fianna Fáil and Labour stayed in government rather than collapsing to usher in the Rainbow. It’s worth thinking about briefly. Had both parties developed a modus operandi worth its name we might have been spared successive FF/PD coalitions. We might have seen some interesting developments had DL had to sink or swim on its own (and let’s not even consider the effects on SF in that context). We might have seen FG and PD grow closer as they tried to carve out space on the right.

A lot of might have beens. But is it unreasonable to enquire as to whether our present situation would have been worsened by, say, a decade of FF/Labour government?

End of thought experiment. It never happened, we are where we are.

Again, and as usual, there is much to like in Gilmore’s speech. As the man who appears to have almost single handed brought it back from the brink of irrelevancy into a key player in the unfolding events of this period of time he has done remarkably well. He’s even managed to oversee some structural changes, which while I’m uncertain will assist in his endeavours, and arguably narrow the range of voices within the LP will no doubt play well with the media. Or as the IT notes:

Earlier, Mr Gilmore received a boost when an overwhelming majority voted to adopt a report proposing a new party constitution which will give greater power to head office in the choice of election candidates, bringing in a new administrative structure and redefining the relationship with the trade unions.

Ah, the much vaunted ‘reform’. Well, we’ll see how that plays out. There’s little doubt that the suspension of the strike tomorrow did Labour no harm at all this weekend. Was that, even in part, a favour? Who knows? Well, whoever, they’re not telling.

Interesting too to note a full-throated endorsement of Lisbon (with a mild caveat). That too will make for interesting times.

But beyond that, and I don’t want to diminish its effects, it is good that at least one voice is pointing out the bleeding obvious…

Let us be clear that the greatest false economy is to pay people to do nothing.

That means we must fight harder to keep the jobs we have. Who says that when a Dell or an Ericsson or an SR Technics decides to up sticks and move their plant abroad, that their Irish employees must inevitably be made redundant?

And also:

We are not going to solve this economic crisis unless we put jobs at the heart of everything we do. That is why Labour has been putting forward proposal after proposal, to save jobs, to create new jobs and to restimulate our economy.

That should up the poll rating by a few points. And perhaps make people think.

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