Left wing shows its populist credentials

If there is to be greater equality, the price will have to be paid by ’middle income’ earners, writes Michael Clifford.

Left wing shows its populist credentials

THE two politicians were angry. They were addressing a crowd outside Leinster House last Tuesday. The gathering had come together to protest about the shocking state of homelessness.

People Before Profit councillor Brid Smith said there would be a demonstration on December 1 — the first anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie, the homeless man who had died a few yards away. “We want to see loads of people coming on board,” she said. “Nobody owns this issue. In solidarity we need to stick together and fight this Government really hard.”

The other politician to speak was Paul Murphy of the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA). He framed his thoughts on homelessness around the prosecution he faces for false imprisonment of Joan Burton at an anti water protest last November.

“I want to talk about the false imprisonment of over 1,000 children at the moment in emergency accommodation, the false imprisonment of 3,000 people in emergency accommodation and the false imprisonment of thousands upon thousands of people in entirely inappropriate accommodation,” he said. Both politicians received a positive response.

Last year, when deciding on a reduction in the property tax for the Dublin City Council area, members of People Before Profit, including Smith, and the AAA, opted to reduce the tax rather than divert the money into services for the homeless.

Jonathan Corrie
Jonathan Corrie

On Tuesday, these entities, along with Sinn Féin, joined Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in again voting to reduce the tax by the maximum 15%. The funds foregone were again to be used for services, although the city manager had indicated that homeless services wouldn’t be affected this year.

The only dissenters were members of the Green party and Labour, both of whom have ironically been attacked in recent years by other so-called ‘left wing’ parties as having sold out. The only selling out going on during Tuesday’s vote was by those who claim their political compass is driven by a desire to redistribute society’s wealth in a fair manner.

Apart from the AAA and People Before Profit, Sinn Féin, which claims to be pursuing a ‘fair recovery’, opted to throw a few hundred euro at homeowners in salubrious areas of the city, rather than divert funds to services which are disproportionately use by those most in need.

In reality, this vote of maintaining a 15% reduction represents a transfer of wealth from those most reliant on State services to those who can well afford to look after themselves. This approach is diametrically the opposite of what left wing politics claims to represent ever since Karl Marx first took up a pen.

The song remained the same in many other local authorities. On Monday, South Dublin County Council voted to retain the 15% discount at the cost of €4.6m in revenue. As elsewhere, the chief executive of the authority pleaded with the members not to vote for the discount as services in the area were hard pressed.

The only dissenter on that authority was former Green party TD and now independent, Paul Gogarty. He pointed out that the money being forgone could have been used to to “further our commitments to homelessness and the housing crisis”, among other things.

That stuff wouldn’t cut mustard with right wing politicians fashioning politics for their middle class voters. Cutting taxes at the cost of services is a staple of right wing politics. In relation to the property tax, however, it is also the way to go for those who claim to be on the left pursuing a ‘fair recovery’.

The property tax is progressive. The more valuable your biggest asset, the more you pay. Those who own what socialists like to describe as ‘trophy homes’ pay the most. It’s a simple formula that is accepted throughout the developed world as being a fair policy instrument.

In Irish politics, however, fairness is one thing, but the real driver is populism. And that’s where the entities of the left which are challenging establishment politics fall down. By and large, they are driven by populism rather than any other ‘-ism’. Hence the complete opposition to the property tax.

It is notable that policy platforms which are focused on equality in society, such as Social Justice Ireland, TASC and the Nevin Institute, all agree with the concept of a property tax. But those bodies are primarily interested in sustainable solutions for the long term, rather than rooting around for votes at the next election.

The property tax fiasco illustrates the bigger issue that those who claim to challenge establishment politics refuse to grasp. If there is to be greater equality in society, the price will have to be paid not just by the ‘rich’, but by those who are ‘middle income’ earners.

The redistribution of resources will have to include a greater tax take from, for instance, those who earn more than €50,000. According to a study by the Nevin Institute in 2014, 62% of households have a gross income of less than that figure.

Yet, all the so-called left wing parties propagate the notion that the ‘rich’ — which they generally define as those earning more than €100,000 — can foot the entire bill to ensure that there is a more equal society.

In this scenario, the big divide in Irish society is between those who earn that sum and own a home or assets worth more than €1m, and everybody else. This is what Murphy frequently characterises as the 1% against the 99%.

It is, of course, nonsense. There is major inequality within the so-called 99%, but to address any of that is to risk losing popularity with a great body of the electorate. Such a course of action breaks the first rule of populism.

There is good reason why the so-called anti-establishment parties refuse to grasp the economic reality of their stated agenda. Every section of society, apart from those at the very top, suffered discernible pain as a result of the recession. For some, that involved a drop in living standards. For others, the recession devastated their lives. And for many in between there were varying degrees of financial hardship.

The outstanding feature of it all, however, has been a dearth of social solidarity. Every sector, even those impacted in a relatively minor way, has felt their own pain keenest. Nearly everybody believes that they have been put upon the greatest.

In such an environment, there is no stomach for introspection by any group as to the fairest way forward. Neither is there a willingness among the left to argue for their agenda in a realistic manner.

Instead, the anti-establishment groups attempt to hoover up as many votes as possible by claiming that everything can be paid for by the ‘rich’. Then, when afforded the opportunity to exercise power to reshape society, in even a relatively minor manner, these groups prefer to stick with populism rather than effect real change. Same old establishment politics, really.

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