The Emerging Progressive Consensus


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The following is a speech I delivered at a public meeting in Dublin hosted by the Communist Party.

The fundamental division in the economic debate is between those who support austerity and those who support an expansionary strategy.

On the one side we have those who believe that deflating growth, wages and living standards is the pathway to recovery and fiscal stability. On the other side, there are those who believe that expanding growth, job creation and incomes is the way forward.

This is the economic dividing line – austerity versus expansion. The task for progressives is to make this economic dividing line the political dividing line as well.

There is now an emerging progressive consensus among civil and social organisations. This is both a source of encouragement and frustration.

What is encouraging is that groups such as ICTU, Community Platform, TASC, the principles resulting from the Claiming Our Future conference and other groups (the list is long) have all produced reports and submissions in the run-up to the budget that agree on the fundamentals. There are four areas in which there is a consensus:

First, there must be a multi-annual, multi-billion public investment programme

Second, there must be an end to austerity and opposition to cuts in the overall level of current spending

Third, fiscal adjustments – apart from public investment – must be driven through taxation, specifically on high-income, high-wealth groups.

Fourth, the state must not be bound to honour private banking debt – not one cent

There is also a fifth area, though this was only developed following the budget: a rejection of the IMF/EU agreement reached with the current Government and a demand that whatever comes out of the future mix:

  • The state shall separate bank debt from state debt, leaving private investors to shoulder the burden of the former
  • Our savings and borrowings – in the Pension Fund and NTMA cash balances – must be ring-fenced for a substantial investment programme
  • That there be a new emergency budget, to reverse the deflationary spending cuts of the current budget and to launch the economy on a growth pact.

In regards the latter, it must be stressed: if a new government comes into office within the next few months, whatever they keep from the Fianna Fail/Green budget, they own.

It is also encouraging that a number of economists and analysts have been developing a new macro-economic model to show that a strategy based on these principles will result in higher growth, higher job creation and more effective deficit reduction. It is hoped that this will be launched early next year.

So we have the principles, the model and the numbers – that’s the encouraging part. But nonetheless, it can get frustrating.

Why is it so difficult to get social organisations, who agree with each other on the economic fundamentals, together in the same room?

Why is it so difficult to get these groups to agree together what they agree to separately?

Why is it so difficult to get groups that agree with each other to campaign together?

Whatever the answers to those questions might be, they are no longer good enough. We can only succeed if we work together.

The foundation for a united campaign is already laid. These groups should now come together and promote the principles they agree on: investment, taxation on high income groups, no to austerity and spending cuts, a separation of bank and state debt and a rejection of the terms of the IMF/EU bail-out and the budget that resulted from those terms.

On the basis of such a joint campaign, we should bring people into participation. Why can’t we drop a card in every household, not only outlining these principles but providing voters with questions they can ask the candidates who knock on the door or speak at a local meeting? Questions such as:

  • Do you support taxing high-income groups instead of targeting low-average income earners?
  • Do you oppose spending cuts?
  • Do you support repudiating private banking debt?
  • Will you reverse the decision to cut the minimum wage?

And just as ICTU has rightly announced that it will name and shame all the TDs who voted for the cuts in the minimum wage, this new grouping could name and shame all the candidates who support austerity.

The purpose of this campaign would be two-fold:

First, to ensure that the divide in the upcoming general reflection reflects the divide over economic policy. If the upcoming debate is confined to two positions – extreme austerity or austerity with a human face – then it will not only be dismal debate, it will ensure that no alternative to current policy will be presented to the Irish people.

Second, to ensure the election of the largest possible bloc of TDs who support growth strategies and reject deflationary policies. If we are successful in our campaign, then that bloc of progressive TDs could become the largest bloc in the Dail and be able to drive the policy of the next Government.

But to achieve this outcome there must be a beginning – someone has to pick up the phone, someone has to start organising these progressive groups on to a unified platform. In short, someone or some group has to show leadership.

If this were done, we could surprise ourselves – we already agree on the fundamentals, all the groups have a campaigning ethos, and clearly there is a large appetite among working men and women for a change from the current policies.

Put all this together and we have a chance of winning.

But we will only win if we do it together.

Now is never too late.

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13 Responses

  1. Tom O'Connor

    December 18, 2010 10:41 am

    Right on Michael. The Irish left need a reality check. It is most likely that we will not have for many a years a full blown left government. The choices are: maintain a committment to socialist purity and berate continuously those who could be your colleagues in a pan left government, which would be a blended left. Alternatively, realise that a blended left coaltion will result in watered down principles temporarily but the overall result would still be a left government which is a huge improvement. Labour, The Left Alliance, Sinn Fein and left independents are surely a left stew. But it’s a left stew which will still be left. Sulking on the sidelines about others not being real socialists just leaves right wing governments back in. This obsession with purity at all costs needs to stop. Also, give a people riven with large elements of individualism a chance to see SOME left and they might want more left. Could we not start with a Swedish model at least. If people want more, then so be it. The alternative is to leave cold people die on the streets in order to maintain policy integrity.

  2. William Wall

    December 19, 2010 12:04 pm

    I agree with the argument here. The issue comes down to one of strategy. We have the possibility of shifting the public discourse from one of ‘we have no choice’ to ‘this is another better way’. We should grab that chance. There is a possibility of a broad coalition between Labour and SF and the Socialist Party and PBP etc. But one thing is certain, if such a coalition worked, and came to power, they would have to stay together. If the left were to fracture after a year or so in government, there would never again be another chance – or at least not for twenty years. What we need now is unity.

  3. Michael Taft

    December 19, 2010 3:37 pm

    Thanks for that, Tom and William. I fully agree: a focused, partially-blown progressive government would take us streets from where we are now. And not only is the frustration the lack of unity between groups that share a common analysis and set of prescriptions (even if they differ in detail); but the fact that our analysis is so clearly superior. The politics of coalition and alliances (and here I mean of social groups) suggests that large swathes of small and medium-sized indigenous enterprise sectors would surely see that our approach is also in their interest. This could lead to a powerful anti-austerity coalition. But this needs imagination and a clear tactical sense. All that, I believe, is there. We just have to start connecting the progressive dots.

  4. dom murphy

    December 19, 2010 6:59 pm

    be carefull what you wish for in britain we had years of a labour govt so right wing masses of people voted lib dem. and we are now living with the result

  5. Mark C

    December 19, 2010 9:55 pm

    Michael, why don’t you start picking up the phone and calling the necessary (left-wing) people to get the ball rolling here? You’re perfectly placed to do it.

  6. David James

    December 20, 2010 5:43 am

    Two little stories from USA.
    I was once a member of a musical group called The Common People. At the time I considered myself to be a Catholic socialist. My peace activism (this was during the Viet Nam War) was grounded in conscientious objection on a Christian tradition. Also in this group we had two members of the American Communist Party, one person who considered himself to be “new left”–call it what you wish, Trotskyite, SDS, whatever–we had two women, one a black welfare mother and one a college feminist. We could–and did–sing for dozens of groups and we were considered by many to be the new “Weavers” or the new “Almanac Singers.” We were good, and powerful in our diversity. One day I was confronted by the two Communist members, who said that if we all didn’t join the “Party” the group was going to break up. I said then what I will say now, that that group gave to its Communist faction the best opportunity to get its message out–a message that I supported to a great extent–and for the left in the American Midwest to get a hearing; and that without the diversity of our membership this wouldn’t happen. Our credibility was rooted in our diversity. But no; it had to be their way or the highway, so a very inspirational group of singer/instrumentalists parted company. No one to sing at the teachers’ strike, the Bendix lay-offs, the labor theater forums, the public employees organizing meetings, the nursing homes. The Communist Party is a lot like the Catholic Church: both believe they are the one true faith, that “Outside the Church (Party) there is no salvation.” Well friends, you gotta admit there are Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists, and Atheists too, just like you, my beloved Irish friends, have to admit to a broad left. If the CP has “the” answer, howcome everybody on the left ain’t in the CP? Maybe it’s because of what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Maybe it’s because of what’s happening in China and North Korea. Maybe that person is a farmer, not a wage-slave. OK, so some “slack” is in order. If Sinn Fein has “the answer,” howcome not everybody is in Sinn Fein? Learn the lesson of history. They won, or are well on their way–finally–in Chile, in Venezuela, indeed all over South America, and you wouldn’t have guessed from the horrible dictatorships and repression of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They are now throwing off the IMF, the World Bank, Uncle Sam, and the whole capitalist thuggee army. And they ain’t all “commies,” one’s a native coca farmer, one’s a commie, one’s a democratic socialist; they come in all sorts of “colors.” From where I’m looking, Ireland’s that way too. That’s my personal story. Here’s one bigger:

    Story number two. In the Sixties in the South, the most successful, courageous, inspirational group of activists was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as SNCC, (say “Snick”). Note the name: coordinating committee. Non-violent. The iron-clad rule that they lived by, and took to the front lines, was CONSENSUS. They would have a meeting, lock themselves in a room, and literally not come out until EVERYBODY was behind the program or action that needed to be taken. On this basis they had the power to confront the most formidable agents for discrimination and hate of our discriminating and hating society. They were shot, beaten, gassed, bombed, burned, jailed; but they kept coming back because they had UNITY, and they genuinely believed that each other, black or white, old or young, educated or field-hand, would not be there unless they wanted a new future for all the South. If you don’t believe me, read Barbara Ramsey, or John Lewis, or Diane Nash, or look at see the movie, “Freedom Song” or the quality series from US Public Television, “Eyes on the Prize.” Unity and consensus and a belief in the motivation of all their participants brought them through those terrible times to achieve some success. And they know they’re not finished. I was at their meeting just last March. I’m going again this March, and in May for the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides. They’re still working under a consensus model. And they are going to win. Think about it.

  7. William Wall

    December 20, 2010 9:57 am

    I don’t want to be impolite David, but, you know, none of this is new to us. We do read books from the USA from time to time. And it’s well-known that Inspirational stories don’t work once you cross the Atlantic. Call it old-world scepticism, if you will.

  8. John Meehan

    December 22, 2010 10:48 am

    As I write, listening to RTÉ Radio 1 Today with Pat Kenny Programme, prominent Labour Party TD and former leader Ruairí Quinn rules himself out of Michael’s emerging consensus by committing his party to a coalition with Fine Gael. Looks like back to the future – vote Labour, get Fine Gael.

  9. Cathal

    December 23, 2010 4:39 pm

    Both Eamonn Gilmore(an admirer of Margaret Thatcher) and Joan Burton have ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein.
    Fine Gael and Labour will attempt to implement the failed Thatcherite policies of Fianna Fail now embodied in the IMF/EU plan.
    The populist/nationalist Sinn Fein, together with the progressive ULA, will form the parliamentary opposition in the next Dail.
    As the crisis continues to deepen various political, economic and social fractures continue to appear. Those progressives within the Labour Party who are against the party of James Connolly propping up Fine Gael as they implement IMF neo-liberalism should join the progressive, radical opposition.
    Those that don’t should remember that there is still room in that well-known historical dust-bin.

  10. Fred

    December 24, 2010 12:47 am

    Cathal talking out his ill-informed hat – chapter in EG crap book on Thatcher – not supportive but anti