Friday, 18 July 2014

Alice in NGO-Land

Good news is rare in Irish politics these days, sufficiently so that every crumb of comfort is a feast. This week's feast has been brought to us courtesy of the venerable Irish Times.

It should come as no surprise that with Fianna Fail having been reduced to an ideological seraglio of eunuchs (to paraphrase Michael Foot), with Sinn Fein's motley crew still lacking the intellectual firepower to produce a coherent critique of government policy, with the far left daily demonstrating its political irrelevance, with Labour exiled to the cold, unforgiving Gulag of government and with the Creighton-Donnelly-Ross axis of non-left opposition still not cohering into an actual political party, the locus of political opposition has moved from parliament to forces outside of electoral politics - principally the trades unions and the media. Few enjoy a more illustrious profile in this oppositional syndicate than veteran Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole. This week, in his regular Tuesday column, it fell to O'Toole to deliver the intellectual left's critique of the government - one which Labour can no longer deliver.

In it, O'Toole laments the elimination of government funding for community charities, which, he claims, are doing vital, largely unheralded and economically efficient work. He styles his critique in the form of an exhortation to the younger Ministers in Enda Kenny's cabinet:

"Alan Kelly and Leo Varadkar can make a good start in their new jobs by getting to grips with a cruel and completely unnecessary crisis in funding for almost every small charity for people with disabilities."

He then goes on to describe the services provided by these charities in the following terms:

"[These charities] organise the voluntary efforts, the fundraising and the advocacy that gives these vulnerable minorities some chance of having a voice in the public policies that affect them.

Note the emphasis on the A-word - advocacy. Once upon a time, charities were designed to act as direct conduits between people who had money and wished to disburse it to deserving recipients and the recipients themselves. Education charities did not lobby government departments in relation to education. They educated. Housing charities didn't campaign for more housing. They provided it. Poverty charities helped the poor, rather than campaigning for government to do it. Indeed, O'Toole shows his age in referring to these organisations as charities. The Newspeak for charity is NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) - and charity is fast becoming a dirty word. Why? Precisely because the role of the NGO is not to help people per se but to advocate for them to be helped by someone else - almost invariably the government. Indeed, were the Good Samaritan story to be written today, one suspects that the Samaritan would have set up an NGO to campaign for money from the King, the hapless wounded man would have quietly expired during a protest held on his behalf outside the Royal Palace, and twenty years after the deceased was forgotten, a staff of two dozen would be working as full-time policy and liaison officers for the Judea and Samaria Wounded Men's Support Group.   

Notwithstanding his admirable attention to detail and vivid writing style, O'Toole, not for the first (or, one suspects, last) time, completely misses the point. Eliminating taxpayer funding for campaigning NGOs is a necessary first step in draining the malarial swamp that surrounds the delivery of charitable assistance and the debating of public policy in Ireland today.

The first problem with government-funded advocacy is that it implicitly discriminates between citizens. In 1996, the Supreme Court in the McKenna judgment found that government funding of the "Yes" side in a constitutional referendum offended equal protection provisions in the Constitution by structurally disadvantaging the "No" side. It is hardly a stretch on this logic to say that government funding of advocacy groups infringes the McKenna principle by publicly endowing one position or policy in relation to an issue over others. It is mystifying that in the eighteen years that have passed since the McKenna decision, the government funding of ideologically loaded advocacy groups has not been brought to heel. The greatest irony of this bizarre status quo is that people who are most inclined to lecture institutions on the importance of equality are most committed to the blatant use of taxpayers' money in such a discriminatory fashion. 

However, the problems don't just extend to those who oppose an NGO's agenda but to the people who support it as well. Where an NGO receives money on a discretionary basis, from a government department, it loses its independence from that government. The pursuit of government money can and will affect the NGO's ability to campaign. For example, where the government has a choice between funding an NGO which has criticised it and one which hasn't, which one will it fund? On a day-to-day level, will an NGO which has an opportunity to criticise a government policy not think nervously about the next funding allocation? Ten years ago, I attended a lecture in the Law Society of Ireland Education Centre, where an official with a left wing NGO described being in a radio studio debating against a coalition backbencher against a government policy of the day. She described how, during the commercial break, the irate politician turned to her and said something to the effect that her organisation had a cheek taking money from the government and then campaigning against its policy. She was (unusually, I might add) able to respond to the TD that her organisation did not, in fact, receive public money. Good for her - but ask yourself this question: How many conversations like this have happened between NGO officials and politicians and how many of them weren't able to dismiss the politician's concerns with such equanimity? More to the point, ask yourself this question: Do you want the NGO you support to be accountable to you or to the very politicians that it is supposed to be lobbying?

Finally, there is an even worse problem - propaganda, the most effective form of which is not delivered on Stalin-esque government newsreels but by people who masquerade as independent advocates, analysts or observers and enjoy prestige commensurate with their perceived independence. Government funding of NGOs results in the creation of what is known in the US as "astroturf" movements - so called because while they look like grassroots movements, they are in fact secretly controlled by powerful insiders who use the respectable veneer of independence to advocate agendas close to their hearts (and normally wallets). Hence the remarkable ability of NGO-land's campaigns to reflect the intellectual prejudices of powerful interest groups within the modern corporatist apparatus - most notably, but by no means exclusively, trades unions and the public sector. Eliminating taxpayer funding of NGOs reduces the ability of governments to distort the public perception of debates by funding notionally independent advocates to influence public opinion in favour of outcomes which have been approved in advance by the very governments that the NGOs are supposed to be holding to account.

Any reductions in funding for this political lobbying masquerading as charity has to be good news - even if the first step is an immeasurably modest one. Far from advocating O'Toole's favoured policy of reversing the cuts, the young reformers (if they wish to be worthy of such a moniker) must go further. A good place to start is the tax rules on charities. Charitable tax exemptions are a fine idea for organisations engaged in the activities mandated by the Pemsel Rules: namely education, the relief of poverty and services to the community at large. However, the government - if it is serious about cleaning up the political system - must crack down on organisations which use the provision of traditional charitable services as a front for political lobbying. Political lobbying is a legitimate activity - but let the lobbyists do their business on their own dime, not the taxpayer's. Perhaps something for Simon Harris to think about in the Department of Finance...

Friday, 4 July 2014

Labour: How Burton Won and What Comes Next

In the end, it wasn't even close. Joan Burton's nearly 4:1 victory over Alex White was surprising only in its enormity - White has done so badly that he cannot necessarily count on the Cabinet position which was probably the real object of his run. I previously argued that Burton was in fact the riskier of the two choices, representing a decision to consciously pursue blue collar voters at the potential risk of alienating the socially progressive and economically vague and ill-defined white collar demographic that is now Labour's core vote, while White represented the safe but limiting strategy of repelling downscale voters whilst doubling down on the gentry progressivism beloved of Labour's suburban intelligentsia. It seems that White was aware of this paradigm and fought in vain to rescue himself from it. In so doing, he sealed his fate. He became the riskier proposition as well as the more limiting one - a lose-lose situation. Faced with the return-free-risk of a White leadership, Labour's grass roots sensibly opted for Burton.

Burton's strengths in the leadership battle are almost too obvious to mention. She has more than two decades of experience of political representation under her belt (including seventeen non-consecutively served years in the Dail). As someone who has prior experience of the indignity of losing her seat in a bad election, she was probably better able than her opponent to empathise with shell-shocked backbenchers who are only too well aware of the Sword of Damocles that a vengeant electorate holds over their necks. She will have earned respect by having dragged herself back into the Dail five years later (and on another bad day for the party, where the leader almost lost his seat) and topping the poll in 2011. She has perhaps the most entrenched media fan club of any politician of her generation bar Bertie Ahern (Pre-2008 Model), her ability to manage the news cycle is excellent and she has a loyal demographic base within the electorate (women). Moreover, she used her failure to be appointed to the Finance or Public Expenditure portfolios to her advantage by using her media base to generate a victimhood narrative that has, to some extent, acted as a talisman protecting her from some of the harsher blowback associated with being a Minister in such straitened times.

By contrast, White seemed only to open his mouth in order to insert his foot. His refusal to take responsibility for a Medical Cards policy which he implemented and from which he then tried to distance himself looked like naked opportunism. The "Red Rose" launch on the Rosie Hackett Bridge only highlighted the suspicion in many people's minds that he would have been more comfortable launching his campaign in the Four Seasons Hotel - for my part, I'd have advised him to go for the functional, businesslike Buswell's. As a Senior Counsel from a southside constituency, he had weaknesses and strengths baked into the pie, which he needed to take as a given before commencing his campaign. Whatever about his humble origins, the Alex White that the public now sees is silver-haired and patrician. He was doomed to suffer all the disadvantages this entailed, so he might as well have sought to milk the upside. Instead, he sought to burnish his Drumcondra upbringing, his widowed mother, his train driver father and his trade unionist grandfather in an effort counteract the gentry vibe. This simply drew attention to the "posh" factor. His phraseology didn't help either:

"Alex White is a TD for Dublin South and a Senior Counsel but his closest family and friends are acutely aware of his modest background. It’s been a long road for Alex White. His family are keen to share his story as it’s his family’s past that drives him to make Ireland a fairer and better country."

Personal narratives are best communicated subliminally. Once explicitly articulated, they lead to the reasonable suspicion that identity politics are being used to mask policy deficiencies and reek of inauthenticity - for example, I'm sure I'm not the only person to wonder whether he spoke with his current accent when he was growing up north of the Liffey. The whole affair is reminiscent of the words of Jack Hartounian, the hero of Caddyshack II, played by Jackie Mason, in talking about his blue-blooded detractors in the Country Club: "They have roots like a tree. We have roots like a radish". In this battle, White was the tree, his roots hidden. Burton was the radish - her roots ostensibly indistinguishable from herself. In those battles, the radish always wins.

In going down this route, White eroded his advantage amongst the portion of the Labour base which prefers its leaders to know which cutlery to use at the dinner party. Worse though was his advocacy of coalition with Sinn Fein and a wealth tax - two policies that amounted to Exocets aimed squarely at his own base. In the end, he handed Burton exactly what she wanted - an easy victory without the stench of a Gordon Brown-style coronation. Finally (but, I think, not insignificantly), White's media manner was all wrong. White has an affliction about which he can do little at this stage in his life. His voice is baritone and his accent is plummy. People with this combination have a handicap - they can't come across as authoritative and amiable at the same time. Amiable toffishness is a characteristic that is appreciated in a wine merchant or an antique dealer but not a politician. Authoritative toffishness, by contrast, can appeal to the type of voter who likes politicians to be like an ideal son-in-law. The latter course is what White should have chosen. Instead, he presumably paid someone like Terry Prone a lot of money in a failed bid to sound authoritative and likeable (like the soft-voiced Tony Blair in his heyday or David Cameron today). He should have saved the money. The result represented a refusal to sit or get off the pot (feel free to adopt a more robust terminology if you wish - this is a family blog). In order to square the impossible circle, he leaned forward, stared at the camera, frequently changed the inflection of his voice, smiled awkwardly and injected a false saccharine warmth into his drawling Mid-Atlantic patois. The effect was to make even a TV viewer in a far away living room feel as if his personal space was being invaded.

Burton has now done the easy bit. Now, as did Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, she must take her chalice and drink. After her honeymoon ends, she must confront the defining characteristic of her career to date, namely a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. Burton's mastery of the news cycle is as much a curse as a blessing, inasmuch as it gives her a false idea of how well her daily tot of small victories in the day-to-day news cycle will translate at election time. Her ability to gain headlines outside of election season is second to none. The problem is that her ability to, for example, stoke the fires of public outrage by using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how many high rollers paid no tax in any given fiscal year, helps her to get into the main report segment on Six-One or the Nine O'Clock News on RTE, but it butters no parsnips during an election campaign when public policy questions inevitably revolve around what your party's tax and spending policies will be. Burton has, thus far, not demonstrated an understanding of the difference between news cycle victories and those of the long-term variety.

In this regard, it is instructive to contrast her 2002-2007 performance with that of her Fine Gael counterpart, Richard Bruton. Burton needed to put lead into the pencil of a leader (Rabbitte) who was popular but lacking in specific substance. Bruton had the much harder job of playing wingman for a leader who was regarded as both insubstantial and uncharismatic. While Burton won most of the individual days within the news cycle with her rhetoric and the wide perception that she was a policy wonk, the genuinely wonkish Bruton annihilated her in the parts of the news cycle that mattered most - namely ones that revolved around set-piece policy (for example, his inspired opposition to benchmarking) and the election campaign itself. Personality mattered in this regard. Bruton is what one might call a forward thinking progressive - he has a (perhaps sometimes naive but always honest) vision of reform, which consists of confronting the excesses of special interests, even if those interests often consist of one's own voters or donors. Burton, by contrast, regards reform as consisting of little more than giving more money and power to the one's own core supporters (electoral and financial).

In 2008, Burton managed to parlay her opposition to the CIFS Bank Guarantee into a perceived opposition to bank bailouts (she in fact supported the even worse policy of nationalising all of the domestic banks - "Five Anglos" as Enda Kenny put it), which gave her a much heftier reputation coming into Election 2011 than she had enjoyed in 2007. However, once again, when the frying pan was delivered, there was little steak to match the sizzle. Leo Varadkar derided her economic policies and her leader's as the "Eamon and Joan Show", openly intimating that if it came to a coalition deal, Fine Gael would bypass her and seek to negotiate an economic programme with Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte and the Limerick streetfighter Michael Noonan ran rings around her in debates. As election day loomed, the "Eamon and Joan Show" began to go off the rails. It is easily forgotten that the disastrous "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way" soundbite, which is now Exhibit A in the case against wild election promises, was greeted on the day with derision - a sign that Gilmore and Burton were delusional. In the end, Labour's second spot in Election 2011 was saved by a desperate rearguard action by Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Roisin Shortall and even Ciaran Lynch, who attacked the Far-Left "ragbag" (to use Shortall's phrase), thus reassuring nervous public sector workers that they could perhaps save their jobs without causing a fiscal meltdown. After the disappointment of 2011, Gilmore punished his Deputy Leader by not giving her the finance job she craved - a punishment which, ironically, saved her career.

To succeed, she will have to demonstrate long term intellectual seriousness - and yes, this sometimes means losing out in the short term news cycle. She will need to stop believing what she reads about herself in admiring newspaper columns. She is a skillful politician. However, contrary to popular belief, she is not a policy person. She needs to address this deficiency, because the option of oppositional bloviation that was open to her predecessors cannot be exercised from Cabinet. Her opposition (most notably Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald) will continue with their policy of trying to use her past popularity (and populism) against her - but this time, she will not have Gilmore as a mudguard. They will needle her with attacks on her policies, saying that they know she is acting against her better instincts and her conscience, reminding people of what the idealistic Joan of old would have done. They will try to slowly jaundice her admirers' views of her until they are led to conclude that the best way to honour her principles is to not vote for her or her party. If they succeed (and the odds now favour them), Burton will arrive at Election 2016, a hollowed-out shell of a political sophistication that once was. Even worse than attracting anger (a fate which befell her predecessor), she will attract pity.

She only has a few months to build up a credible defence, based upon realistic policy. The early signs are not good. Her signature policy initiatives are a "living wage" law (a policy which amounts to eviscerating the employability of the poorest and least skilled workers in the labour market) and a "strategic investment bank" (which would have the effect of putting the taxpayer on the hook for the sketchiest sub-prime venture capital projects with no guarantee of a countervailing return). She will have to do better. A legacy of promises like these is the cross that she and her party will have to bear. The only question is whether or not she and her party are on their way to Golgotha.


Joan Burton's Victory and the Twilight of the Stickies

Joan Burton's victory in the race to succeed the ill-fated Eamon Gilmore as leader of the Labour Party represents the end of an era. For the first time since 1997, Labour has elected a leader not foaled in the Democratic Left stable and the party now has an "Old Labour" hand at the tiller for the first time since 2002. It is perhaps a good time for Ms. Burton to take inventory of the water that has passed under that bridge in the years leading up to and proceeding those milestones. In 1992, the year Burton was first returned as TD for Dublin West, the combined Labour-DL vote was 22.1%. In 1997, the last election contested by the two as separate parties, their combined vote was 13.2%. As of May 2014, the vote of the single party formed by the Labour-DL merger was a mere 7.2%, meaning that in the 22 years since Burton's entry into national politics, the Labour-DL complex has lost more than two thirds of its support.

One person from whom Labour's current travails will probably elicit a bitter chuckle is Sean Garland, until recently the president of the Workers' Party, the now almost defunct political vehicle from which DL emerged. It was he, along with Cathal Goulding and Tomás MacGiolla, who led a group of young Marxist upstarts in the Republican movement who took over the Official Sinn Fein/IRA organisation in the 1960s and 70s to form what was technically the legal successor to Official Sinn Fein, first called Sinn Fein - The Workers' Party, then simply the Workers' Party. Notwithstanding the legalities, however, the Workers' Party was a new political party in all but name and treated as such by the electorate. It quickly abandoned its Irish nationalism, in favour of a more internationalist socialism - first, of the unreconstructed Soviet variety, then latterly of the more vague and chic progressive variety which once held the loyalty of a large portion of the educated middle class.

While the new party declared itself to be concerned first and foremost with "the Workers", its most notable attraction was to a ruthlessly ambitious clique of upwardly mobile professionals and career politicians whose subsequent use of the organisation as a vehicle that brought them significant personal wealth and prestige astounded many. It attracted so many RTE producers (such as Eoghan Harris) that the organisation came to be regarded by friend and foe alike as "Sticky" territory - the Sticky moniker was a consequence of their practice of wearing adhesive stickers of the Easter Lily emblem for their 1916 commemorations as opposed to the more commonplace pins. It became a political home to presidents of the Union of Students of Ireland (Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore). It even reeled in well-heeled professionals like Dr John McManus (a GP), his wife, the future TD Liz McManus (an architect) and Pat McCartan (a successful criminal solicitor and now a Circuit Court Judge). It became a home to those who aspired to and enjoyed the bourgeois capitalist way of life as much as they claimed to despise it. As far back as the March 1982, what might be charitably described as the flexibility of the party's adherence to its Marxist principles was in evidence, when its TDs voted for Charlie Haughey as Taoiseach in the aftermath of the February '82 general election. But this was only the beginning.

Garland and MacGiolla were left behind by history. The Young Turks in the Workers' Party's high command, led by Proinsias de Rossa, were motivated less by their founders' eschatological enthusiasm for an October Revolution with an Irish accent than by a lust for power and glory. Meanwhile, a younger generation of angry leftist voters did not share the Stickies' distaste for the IRA terrorist campaign. The former migrated to the Labour Party via DL, the latter towards (Provisional) Sinn Fein or newer, more doctrinaire, Far-Left forces like People-Before-Profit and the Socialist Party. The Workers' Party fell between the two proverbial stools. But by then it had served the purpose of its uptown contingent of aggrandising their careers and status and giving them what they really craved, which was a leg-up in the leadership of an enlarged Labour Party. It worked a charm. Of the four formerly Workers' Party TDs to be elected on the DL ticket in 1992, one served in the Rainbow Cabinet of John Bruton (Proinsias de Rossa) and three (Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmore and Liz McManus) served as Ministers of State. One of the four (de Rossa) became President of the Labour Party and served 13 years on the Brussels gravy train as an MEP. Another (McManus) served as Labour's Deputy Leader. Two (Rabbitte and Gilmore) went on to lead the Labour Party and serve in Cabinet (one as Tánaiste).  In terms of ensuring that its TDs attained the trappings of political success, no party has been able to spread the jam so wide and yet simultaneously so thick.

Compared to the "Old Labour" contingent, this 100% record of attaining executive office has been nothing short of astounding. Until Burton's election, not one of the dozens of Old Labour TDs who made their Dail debuts after 1981 served as party leader. Even fifteen years after their party ceased to exist, 40% of Labour's incumbent Cabinet Ministers are ex-Stickies - although only until a new Cabinet is formed. Meanwhile, of the "Class of '92" TDs derided by Alex White during his leadership campaign (so-called because they were elected in the "Spring Tide" election of that year), most (such as Eithne FitzGerald, Declan Bree and Pat Gallagher) lost their seats and never returned, while only Burton has thus far made it to Cabinet. This reflects not merely the skittish nature of the Class of 1992, which, despite its huge size, has produced only one TD who has achieved anything approaching stardom (Burton), but also the price paid by Old Labour for buying off what was once its main competitor on the left (the Sinn Fein of its day, in many ways) - namely, an unofficial queue-jump perpetrated by the DL stalwarts, who demanded and got precisely the pound of flesh that merger opponents like Roisin Shortall, Ray Kavanagh and the late Pat Upton feared. In return, what did they deliver?

In short, not a whole lot. The Democratic Left alumni inherited by Labour were characterised by three things. The first was naked personal ambition. They once valorised, then abandoned and then turned viscerally against the Republican cause as the political fashions dictated. They used Marxism to purge themselves of the taint of the IRA, and then they used slick marketing to purge themselves of the taint of Marxism. They used the supposed staidness of the Labour Party as a means of gathering a caucus of angry radical voters, only to use the leverage that this gained them to segue into the Labour Party. For people who changed their clothes more often than the average supermodel, it is interesting to note that not once were the Stickies guilty of a transformation which hurt their careers - those were always well looked-after. Their second defining characteristic was an ability to manage the news cycle par excellence. Eoghan Harris's talents were such that he was enlisted (with limited success, to put it politely) by John Bruton to spruce up Fine Gael's image. The likes of Pat Rabbitte and Liz McManus quickly earned "rent-a-quote" status with the national media. Even the socially reclusive Eamon Gilmore was a darling of the RTE studio. As for de Rossa, his ability to manage the media was almost as great as his ability to obtain compo cheques from it. Their third trademark trait was an oily obsession with smart marketing and packaging over substance. This was first in evidence when de Rossa ran his successful "breath of fresh air" campaign for the European Parliament in 1989. Another quintessential example arose when Pat Rabbitte's team of media spin doctors managed to raise his support levels to 22% in the May 2003 MRBI poll, only for that support to fall to just 10.1% on election day in 2007 after he demonstrated himself to be unable to match his memorable wit with any memorable policies. It was further evident in the cringe-inducing "Gilmore for Taoiseach" campaign, which back-pedalled on policy in favour of a synthetic personality cult.

So how did it all work out? In each of the four elections that took place in the ten years after the Labour-DL merger in 1999, the merged party failed to obtain the combined Labour-DL vote in the (bad) 1997 election. In three of those elections, the party failed to even obtain the vote that "Old Labour" had attained in the 1997 disaster. Only with an economic catastrophe did Labour manage to break out of this funk in 2009 and 2011. However, even in those banner elections, Labour failed to reach the 22.1% that Labour-DL got in 1992. The 7.2% in the local elections represented a disastrous (and perhaps terminal) return to Labour's secular trend of post-Spring era decline. As Eamon Gilmore bows out to Joan Burton after seven years at the helm, the socialist millionaire's club formerly known as Democratic Left finally returns to the Old Labourites the party that was taken from them in 1999. If there was any justice in politics they'd leave a note apologising for the state in which they've returned it. But there isn't and they won't. Best of Luck Joan!