In a TV debate with Joan Burton recently, the former leader of the Irish Labour Party made a point that is of interest in terms of how politics is conducted in Ireland, and elsewhere, today. The debate was about the direction of Irish politics and where a real alternative to address inequality and deprivation might emerge from. But that is for another day. For now, what interests me about this particular debate is something Ms. Burton said towards the end of it.
I had set out some of the issues that I think need to be addressed to build an alternative. I had also set out my view of the way in which Fine Gael and Fianna Fail governments, throughout our history as an independent state, have looked after the few at the expense of the many. While agreeing on the importance of the issues I set out, Ms. Burton bemoaned the fact that I thought the Labour Party could not deliver this alternative. In fact she, quite legitimately, listed a range of social reforms that the Labour Party have supported going back decades. She spoke about divorce, contraception, the equality referendum and even Repeal, and held them up as issues that the Labour Party have gotten behind as evidence of that party’s worth and usefulness. It would be churlish to debate the extent to which this one party played a role in these changes. That would be a largely subjective analysis anyway. Whatever about that, I readily acknowledge that these issues hold within them evidence of real progress on what I call ‘social’ issues. Changes in these areas, and public support for those changes, is social liberalism in action.
Just how significant progress on these issues is was demonstrated to me at a recent event in Ballymun in which I participated. This was a ‘cross community’ event with representatives of communities in Dublin and of Northern Ireland’s unionist community. It was striking to note how the new right to gay marriage here, and even having a referendum on repeal of the 8th Amendment, is very far ahead of any similar legislative or constitutional changes in the North around LBGTQ rights, abortion rights and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Yes, despite decades of often repressive and even abusive social conservatism here, we are indeed moving forward and seeing real progress in some of these areas and potential progress in others. This is positive stuff.
But what about change in our economic direction? It is clear that changes in the area of personal rights like these are absolutely no indicator of fundamental change in how society is structured economically, and in whose interests it is so structured. In that respect, not only are we not making progress, but we are going backwards at considerable speed. While social liberalism has seen slow but steady progress over the last number of decades here, economic conservatism ‘rules ok’!
You don’t really need a very scientific analysis to prove this.
So clear is the growing divide between those that have, and those who can only dream, that a very short trip down memory lane is all that is needed to emphasise the point. In 1992, when I first threw a mailbag into a train carriage on Platform 2 in Dundalk Station, the Dublin porter who caught it recognised a new face on staff and uttered the now almost implausible words, ‘well done, you have just got yourself a good stable pensionable job’. Now, we’ll leave aside any assessment of the CIE pension scheme and how ‘good’ it is, or otherwise, to make a wider point. How many of our young people are now getting good, stable, pensionable jobs? The next time Richard Bruton and his spin machine make an appearance telling you about all the jobs we now have, just remember that we need them all, and more, because for the first time I can remember we actually have people working 3 and 4 jobs who still can’t pay their bills. I am old enough to remember something called ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. Economic conservatism has destroyed that quaint notion for most. And that isn’t all it has destroyed.
Healthcare? We had a hospital in Dundalk then too. A busy one, that you got into if you were sick, and waiting on a trolley for a bed was just unheard of. Oh yes readers, before the current phase of economic conservatism commodified everything including our health, we had a public health system that almost worked!
We had roofs over their heads too, all of us. Public and private housing was ample and affordable, and homeless children were just not an issue. Hotels had tourists in them back then, not families with nowhere else to go, ‘living’ four to a room.
Do you want a measure of how economically conservative we now are as a nation? If we want our children to have a steady job, a home, healthcare when they are sick, and a pension when they retire, we are now considered radicals. Expecting the most basic and rudimentary needs to be met, and even expecting rights – decent work, healthcare and a roof over our heads – is now considered unreasonable and radical, luxuries unobtainable and unaffordable for vast chunks of our population who are not viewed as having any right to expect them. It is, in fact, the absence of these basics that is now considered normal, even acceptable and to be expected. As someone who finds himself arguing publicly for such basic needs to be met, and basic services provided, on the airwaves from time to time, I am always struck by just how readily my opponents in such debates – not to mention the presenters in many cases – start from the position that the absence of universal healthcare, affordable housing and properly-paid work is now the ‘norm’.
That is the triumph of economic conservatism.
So back to Joan Burton? Maybe. But not just her or Irish Labour. No, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are up to their necks in this. Consider our Taoiseach. He is a gay man who put himself at the centre of the ‘Yes Equality’ debate by strategically declaring his sexuality on the airwaves and campaigning vigorously and openly for a ‘Yes’ vote in that referendum. Good for him. He is socially liberal. And he is now espousing a strong ‘Yes Repeal’ position on the abortion issue. I agree while him fully on that too. I am socially liberal, always have been, and I think that people should be able to live their lives as they see fit. They should be able to make choices about their bodies, adults should be free and able to express their sexuality as they see fit provided it is legal, to separate and divorce in a breakdown situation, remarry if they choose – as I have myself – and basically make personal choices about how they live their lives. These choices should be freed from the judgements of others, and not imposed upon by a religious doctrine that they may not agree with through the law or constitution. I am glad that I now live in a country where our Taoiseach shares my view on these issues.
But none of these issues challenge the economic doctrine of neoliberalism one iota. None of them require Ireland to stop being a sordid little tax haven, or to tax wealth and capital at something like, eh, maybe the European average? None of them require us to establish a single-tier health system based on the health needs of our citizens, not the profit-driven needs of private shareholders. None of them require us to abolish effective zero-hour contracts in the workplace and strengthen our labour and union laws, or address the gender pay gap. None of them require us to engage in a massive programme of public housing construction, the only possible solution to our current housing emergency. None of them require us to put the needs of our own sustainable small and medium business sectors above the suffocating and unsustainable demands of multi-national speculative capital. None of them require us to close the gap between the rich and the poor by one Euro.
Socially liberal economic conservatives don’t really care what you do in your private life, you see, and they will often support your right to equality on social issues because they can. Because it doesn’t challenge their far-right neoliberal hegemony. It doesn’t challenge or threaten a model of economic structuring of society that daily delivers the most obscene economic inequality since slavery, that turns basic needs into pipedreams or luxuries, and that actually has people dying on our streets for the want of a roof over their head.
Socially liberal economic conservatives may agree with your rights on social issues, but if every economic policy they espouse and impose results in keeping you relatively poor, and further embeds an already unsustainable wealth divide that is leading to social breakdown, whose side do you really think they are on?