Saturday, 21 May 2016

Howlin's Mountain

In the South Wexford baronies of Forth and Bargy, isolated communities living in mountain villages which were part of the first wave of Norman settlement in Ireland after the invasion of 1169 continued, until at least the 1840s, to speak an archaic form of Middle English, known as Yola, an antique Germanic language which linguists regard as being one of the last to resemble the English spoken by Strongbow and his cohorts when they arrived in Ireland on Diarmait Mac Murchada's infamous invitation. The physical isolation of these communities was such that the introduction of Modern English by 17th Century colonists passed them by and until the mid-19th Century, their language survived as a living museum piece before assimilation eventually killed it off. To Labour's new leader, Brendan Howlin, it might almost seem that Wexford is now home to another near extinct-species, namely the poll-topping Labour TD.  Indeed, as the earthquake which struck the party in February claimed every seat in Labour's traditional strongholds of South County Dublin, Dublin, Cork and Galway Cities and Kildare and left only seven scattered survivors in Fingal, the Midlands and the South, only the mildest of aftershock tremors could be felt in the stronghold that Howlin has nursed since his first run in 1982. At almost 15%, Howlin's personal vote was actually marginally higher than his 2011 total - albeit that this time he had no running mate. 

Unlike the Yola speakers of Forth and Bargy, Howlin is insufficiently isolated from national trends to be unaware of just how anomalous his own position is. As a former schoolteacher, he is, presumably, also aware, that his native county's southern neighbour of Waterford returned as its MP, Captain William Archer Redmond, one of only six Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to be elected during the Sinn Fein landslide election of 1918. Mr. Howlin will be hoping that the South East has not, in giving him a commanding endorsement, simply continued its historic habit of being the last place in the country to move with the times. Rather, he will be hoping that his trend-bucking performance is the ember which will keep the fire burning long enough to allow him and his bedraggled parliamentary party to gather more fuel. Only time will tell, but having reached the summit of his party's hierarchy (after two failed attempts in 1997 and 2002), his reward has been another mountain to climb - and a steeper one than any of his predecessors bar the party's founder, James Connolly, ever faced.

In his negotiation of this unforgiving terrain, Howlin has only one piece of history on his side, namely that his rise has been largely unheralded and the expectations for his leadership are low. It is interesting to note that since Frank Cluskey's defeat in 1981, the Labour leaders who were elected from a position of optimism and high expectation (Michael O'Leary, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Joan Burton) turned out to be disappointing or (in the case of O'Leary) disastrous. Meanwhile, the two leaders elected before a backdrop of pessimism, adversity and low expectation (Dick Spring and Eamon Gilmore) grabbed the opportunities presented by the political tailwinds that history blew their way and enjoyed unexpected successes. Perhaps Spring and Gilmore's successes were, in some sense, functions of the low expectations surrounding their leaderships. If so, Howlin may take some comfort. But only a little: most of history's winds are blowing away from his party's social democratic ideology and there's not much he can do to influence them. 

Ultimately, Howlin's central political problem will be the dissolution of social democracy's historic mission. The attempts by the likes of Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn and Aodhan O'Riordan to turn the philosophy into a vehicle for fashionable middle class virtue signalling by focussing policy on politically correct postures like declaring war on denominational education, gendered pronouns and direct provision has been a spectacular electoral failure, with the party now not having a single seat in the South Dublin suburbs in which this agenda is most popular. The attempt to define Labour's philosophy around "social" policy having failed, Howlin must grasp the nettle of defining the party's ideology around the good old fashioned steak and spuds of economics, as Fine Gael to his right and Sinn Fein to his left have been far more adept at doing. In so doing, however, he has to face an elephant in the room, namely the question of what role is left for traditional social democracy in the buzzsaw of a long term epoch of fiscal austerity which is with us for at least a generation. 

Since stagflation and labour unrest took the sheen off social democracy in the 1970s, traditional middle of the road leftism has had an essentially negative historic mission. After 1979, the idea that the welfare state was an aspirational institution which would lift society onto a higher plain died a death and, in an atmosphere in which all of the new "ideas" and "reforms" were coming from the right, social democracy's mission was to leverage pessimism in a changing world and prevent the logic of markets and personal freedom from expanding out of the industrial and commercial sphere to threaten the welfare state itself. In this atmosphere, social democracy gained its relevance from the danger that the public might willingly vote to dismantle the welfare state. However, after three decades of cheap credit, consumer debt, asset bubbles and the outsourcing of western industry to Asia, the public has hardened in its support for the welfare state, even as it has also become more jaundiced and less enthusiastic about its inefficiency and vulnerability to freeloaders. This has left social democracy defending a front which is no longer under attack but without the wherewithal to advance into enemy territory.

In a pro-welfare state consensus and a world of drowning debt and demographic decline, there are a number of obvious political niches to be filled. If welfare states are sacrosanct, then they must be closed to the huddled third world migrant masses whose numbers and needs would overwhelm it. This creates an obvious niche for conservative nationalist parties like UKIP, AfD and the Sweden Democrats. At the same time, the weight of unrealistic expectation threatens to make the delivery of everything from eldercare to special needs education so cripplingly expensive as to bankrupt the welfare state itself. Guarding against this phenomenon creates an obvious political niche for starchy, unsympathetic conservative parties which will keep the budgets capped. Even the socialist and hard left parties of the "anti-austerity" movement serve the arguable function of providing an electoral outlet to people who might otherwise start rioting or planting bombs. Within the rubric of this grim resource war, it becomes increasingly hard to see who's going to buy what Mr. Howlin has to sell.  

Friday, 13 May 2016

Burton's End

In the wake of last week's unenthusiastic re-election of Enda Kenny by the Dail, this one brought the long-expected announcement from Joan Burton that she would step aside as Labour leader after less than two years. She does so with her head held relatively high, given that Labour was already in a state of collapse before she took over. However, few have pointed out that Labour's 6.6% in February was actually worse than the 7.2% local election result which defenestrated her predecessor Eamon Gilmore. Whether this decline is attributable to Burton herself is entirely speculative. However, her ability to command the loyalty of party activists and the respect of the media commentariat was always many orders of magnitude greater than Gilmore's and one surmises that in an election with more political tailwinds at her back, those strengths might have translated into more public approval. It's even possible that under Gilmore's continued command, the public would have factored Labour out of the picture altogether and that Burton kept the party sufficiently relevant to prevent an even worse result. One way or the other, we'll never know.

Throughout her career, Burton assiduously cultivated a public image of an issue-driven intellectual and policy wonk whose only weakness was a lack of fluency in the populist language of vote-grubbing. Her many admirers in the media helped to amplify this image. The reality was almost precisely the reverse. Her reputation as a policy wonk was hugely exaggerated. Prior to 2008, the only memorable position for which she was known consisted of an annual crusade to use the Freedom of Information Act to publicise the number of high earners using lucrative tax management schemes. After 2008, she was able to parlay her opposition to the CIFS Bank Guarantee into an image of prescience - in reality, she wanted to nationalise the entire banking system, which would have effectively left the state on the hook for the same debt it took on under CIFS. No matter, the electorate never bought it to the extent that the commentariat did. In 2007, she squared off on economic policy with Richard Bruton and in 2011 with Michael Noonan. She was bested by both opponents.

As a political hardball player, by contrast, she was the Master Strategist of her generation, with the ability to identify the soft underbellies of her opponents like none of her contemporaries. In the 2000s, I witnessed her mastery of the dark arts at first hand as a Fine Gael activist in her West Dublin constituency. On many occasions, canvass teams would arrive on doors to find that Burton's teams had already been there and the narrative in relation to the local issue du jour had already been set on her terms. In 2007, it quickly became clear to us that she had sniffed out Leo Varadkar's surging vote and Joe Higgins' vulnerability. Dozens of voters politely told me that they were switching their preference from Varadkar to Burton out of fear that the latter would lose her seat. Her instincts were spot on. Higgins was vulnerable and her quiet but effective invocation of her own vulnerability helped her increase her first preference vote by nearly 5% and leapfrog Higgins into the last seat. 

In national politics, the killer instinct also served her well. Her highlighting of tax management schemes allowed Labour to engage in tax-and-spend populism in Celtic Tiger Ireland without actually having to advocate higher rates of taxation for the electorate at large. This meant plaudits from Irish Times writers (who like advocating higher taxes) without incurring the wrath of Irish Times readers (who generally don't like paying them). In 2008, a more timid politician would have calculated that voting against the CIFS guarantee would be branded as unpatriotic (a fear which convinced Sinn Fein to support it). However, Burton correctly calculated that Labour had more to gain from monopolising the opposition to the measure. In the event, CIFS turned out to be such a blunder that Burton enjoyed more political upside than she could possibly have imagined.  

Even in government, where her party's popularity sank like a stone, she knew how to maximise the upside of her situation and minimise the downside. The sympathy which she shrewdly stoked amongst voters after failing to land the Finance or Public Expenditure portfolios provided her with some talismanic shielding against the bad publicity inevitably accruing to a Social Protection Minister during an economy drive. Meanwhile, as the fallout from her perceived shafting tarnished the feminist credentials of colleagues such as Gilmore and Ruairi Quinn, she was immune from it and her standing in the Labour Party, if anything, rose. In the end, it was not until she became party leader and Tanaiste that her luck ran out. Shorn of the mudguard of an unpopular party leader and with the crown on her head and the sceptre in her hand, Joan the Master Strategist had nowhere else to go. As the mask came off, what revealed itself was Joan the Consistent: a person whose fundamental worldview had never changed in her decades in politics, with all the good and bad that this entailed.

In policy matters, this consistency looked suspiciously like an obdurate refusal to learn from history. In Burton's unreconstructed 1970s worldview, unemployment benefits provided economic stimulus, labour and minimum wage laws did not raise unemployment, regulation could be seamlessly used to move socialised burdens from the state to business at no direct cost to consumers or indirect costs to taxpayers, the public sector was the tribune of the common good, the interests of public servants were always identical to those of the public they served, civil servants and trade unionists were knights, businessmen were knaves and the state was the Great Equaliser. Despite the fact that this worldview began to fall apart just as Burton's political career was beginning in the 1980s, she remained as loyal to it as Realpolitik permitted. The leftist critics who viciously turned on her in the twilight of her front bench career never seemed to appreciate the extent to which she held the line on policy positions that ruled out reforms that they would have liked even less.

Heuristically, however, this consistency also gave us Burton at her very best. As she progressed through the hierarchy of Labour's power structure, she uttered heresies which often led her critics on the right to believe that she was "changing". However, what they were seeing was the opposite: the adopted daughter of a couple from Dublin's hardscrabble Stoneybatter who never seemed to forget the lessons about human nature that the inner city streets must have taught her. Her background gave her the moral authority to question the sanctity of the left wing article of faith that crime was solely a symptom of poverty. It gave her the standing to challenge the social worker worldview of her party colleagues and talk about her adoptive parents' fear during her infancy that an ISPCC "cruelty" man might mistake her sickliness for parental neglect and have her taken from them. It was evident when, as a Minister, she candidly said that too many young people regarded unemployment as a career choice and that protesters who claimed to be unable to pay water charges could nonetheless film their antics on expensive, top of the range, smartphones. Those on the left who saw these positions as betrayal and those on the right who interpreted them as evolution both missed the point. Burton was a doctrinaire leftist, but never one of the "bleeding heart" or "something for nothing" variety. She had seen the rough edges of life and while the liberal professionals and technocrats who had come to dominate her party could believe that the social welfare sponger was a right wing myth and that one never had to be cruel to be kind, she couldn't and, to her credit, didn't.

It is an interesting hypothetical exercise to ask what Labour would have looked like if Burton had led the party in 2011 instead of Gilmore. I believe it is unlikely that she would have shared her boss's enthusiasm for campaigning based upon a personality cult (there would have been no "Burton for Taoiseach" posters) and she would certainly have been less likely to pivot towards a coalition option mid-campaign, as Gilmore did. A shrewder politician than Gilmore, with a better feel for the dynamics of electoral sausage making, she would have been wiser to the dangers of campaigning on a left wing platform and then coalescing with Fine Gael. Certainly, I doubt that she would have believed, as Gilmore did, that delivering tokenistic victories on social issues would constitute a viable substitute for the delivery of a coherent economic agenda. Certainly, she would never have given two fingers to the party's working class supporters by saying that the "civil rights issue of our generation" was gay marriage and not jobs, living standards or some other more tangible and practical issue with more resonance in the minds of those living on the economic margins.

As a politician, perhaps her ultimate tragedy was that by the time she reached the pinnacle of her political career, it was too late for her to enjoy any serious success in either electoral politics or the achievement of significant and substantive public policy goals. By the Summer of 2014, she was stuck with a campaign based upon social virtue signalling and economic water-treading and could do nothing to change it. In the end, there was probably no formula that could have delivered her anything but the ignominy she suffered and the dignity with which she has exited stage left is laudable - and stands in marked contrast to her erstwhile coalition partner, who shamelessly hangs onto an office for which most of the country thinks him unsuitable.

In the end though, what is perhaps most memorable about Joan Burton and most depressing about her departure is the personal story which her long and distinguished career represents and how it contrasts with the politics of an emerging zeitgeist. In a modern era in which politics is increasingly becoming dominated by career politicians from professional backgrounds with families willing and able to subsidise years of unpaid internships, Brussels Stagiaire placements, low paying campaigning and parliamentary work and ludicrously expensive campaigns, I confidently predict that not until a new political age will we ever again see a girl from Stoneybatter growing up and rising to the second highest rank in national politics via a successful career in accountancy and academia - and that is something that should give us all pause for thought.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The New Government - (Irish) Water Under the Bridge

So Ireland's seventy days without a government have ended as they began - in farce. The Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition that was inevitable on the numbers basically happened - though none dare call it coalition. For a party whose founder trafficked in such terms as "external association", "envoys plenipotentiary" and "empty political formulae", the distinction will be Jesuitically and prudishly observed. However, any controversial decision on which Fianna Fail chooses not to bring down the new minority government will, effectively, be spun by the true opposition as being an act of tacit support. Perhaps Michael Martin has some workable plan to produce a clever "constructive" opposition, whereby he can frame public policy by reference to (a) policies he would ideally like to implement; (b) sub-optimal policies which he will support for pragmatic purposes; and (c) red-line issues over which he is prepared to take a government down. However, the level of nuance which Martin will need to communicate to voters in order to square this circle exceeds anything that Ireland's Punch & Judy system has ever allowed for in the past. Ireland is not America, with its separation of powers leading to divided government or France where so-called "cohabitation" has been well know since the days of Mitterrand. It is thus far from clear that Ireland's political structures can accommodate this arrangement without mangling the supporting party.

In Ireland, Benjamin Disraeli's dictum that oppositions must always and everywhere oppose has been observed by every peacetime leader of opposition bar Alan Dukes in the late 80s. Even Dukes, a man whose Dickensian appearance and hectoring affectations gave him a manner that exuded political principle could only maintain his composure for two years before the tides of political history washed the so-called Tallaght Strategy away. Michael Martin has many powerful virtues as a politician but a reputation for principle is not one of them. His seventy days of strangely unriveting drama have done nothing to imbue the public with a sense that Fianna Fail has the depth of principle to make a system of "constructive" opposition work.

Indeed, nothing typifies the sordid nature of the negotiations like Irish Water, a utility which was effectively the brainchild of the Cowen-Lenihan government of 2008 to 2011. With water charges now suspended, we are seeing the opening up of a new fissure between those who paid their charges and are unlikely to get their money back and those who didn't and are unlikely to be chased for arrears. We are also seeing a return of the anomalous position whereby those on group water schemes will continue to pay for their water while those originally covered by local authorities will not. Galway East Fine Gael TD and sometime PD leader Ciaran Cannon recounted a conversation with a constituent who complained that as a group water scheme member, he would be subsidising people in Finglas. One suspects that the heavily rural Fianna Fail bench will soon be having many conversations of just this variety.

To make matters worse, in order to avoid the taint of coalition, Martin has insisted on subjecting the country to a minority government held to ransom by a motley crew of independents, including a former member of the Workers' Party (John Halligan), an open admirer of Fidel Castro (Finian McGrath) and an acolyte of Luke "Ming" Flanagan (Michael Fitzmaurice). Moreover, in a bizarre twist, after being the beneficiary of a turn by traditionalist rural voters against the last government's fanatically PC social agenda, Martin will be supporting a cabinet which includes Katherine Zappone - a person who typifies more than any other (bar perhaps Aodhan O'Riordain) the new model political left which prefers virtue signalling to representing the economic interests of lower middle and working class voters. A coalition deal could have been sold to Fianna Fail voters as a bitter pill that they needed to swallow to prevent precisely this form of incoherent pork barrelling administration from being elected. Martin's problem now is that, having refused to contemplate coalition, he has thrown his weight behind something that combines all of the worst aspects of coalescing and not coalescing with Fine Gael. Only time will tell whether or not the voters see it that way.  

Meanwhile, Irish Water will present precisely the same acid test to the work of the new government as it did to the conclusion of this week's deal. Why? Because it represents two uncomfortable truths about the Irish political system which should trouble the moral certainties of populists and elitists alike.

The first uncomfortable truth is that while Irish people appear willing to spend money on things that give them consumptive pleasure (like cars, food, drink, cigarettes, holidays and nights out), there is a prevalent attitude when it comes to basics (like medical care and education), that people must have but do not enjoy consuming, that the wider world somehow owes it to them for free (hence the fury when Joan Burton had the temerity to observe the expensive smartphones used by Right2Water protesters to film their exploits). It seems water is something for which the Irish resent paying and in abolishing local authority rates in 1977, introducing free college fees in 1996, medical cards for seniors in the Celtic Tiger years or the same for under-6s in the last Dail, the "responsible" people in the political establishments have spent decades appeasing precisely the phenomenon that has led to the anti-charges protests in the first place.

The second truth is that imposing measures such as water charges becomes difficult and perhaps impossible where the political establishment has so justly acquired a reputation for incompetence, dishonesty, cynicism and double dealing that would disqualify any private citizen or company from the used car trade. The problem is that deals like the one just made have a viciously circular effect, in that they signal to every aggrieved or potentially aggrieved political constituency that the political class will not stand up for any principle or policy. This, in turn, generates a rational incentive on the part of every voter to resist every sacrifice. After all, if the fruits of your sacrifice will be used to appease a less reasonable constituency, the irrational becomes rational and the unreasonable reasonable. This will be the legacy with which the new government will have to grapple.