In a recent compelling but largely ignored speech, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe made a strong claim to the political centre ground, heralding, in his view, the rise of the moderate.
In the face of increased nationalism, populism, and cynicism in politics globally, Donohoe is seeking to lay claim to the middle ground upon which any civilised society relies to function and succeed.
In the speech, entitled ‘Renewing the Centre’, Donohoe said that despite the ongoing challenges in health and housing, he and his party are succeeding in making Ireland a more equal, more prosperous country.
He also set out five principles for the future which, as he argued, would help keep Ireland on the right path.
Those principles are:
“At its heart, centrism is a political philosophy that incorporates ideas from both the left and the right of the political spectrum,” argued Donohoe.
He acknowledged, however, that for many, this is evidence of its inherent inauthenticity.
“By seeking to reconcile what are claimed to be irreconcilable tensions between labour and capital, state and markets, and local and global, critics of both left and right often characterise centrism as a cop-out,” said Donohoe.
He said much that is now deemed incommensurate between the left and right of the contemporary political divide — state and market, individualism and collectivism, free trade and economic sovereignty — in successful economies is more notional than real.
“As such, in renewing the centre we must seek to reform both the State and the market in the interests of the common good,” he said.
Donohoe also pointed to some of the challenges faced by him, his party, and other moderates in seeking to lay claim to the middle ground.
He pointed to what amounted to the wholesale hollowing out of the middle classes in developed countries, while those individuals of high wealth have seen their incomes soar.
Between 1946 and 1980, the incomes of the poorest 50% of the US population rose by 102%. Between 1980 and 2014, they rose by just 1%.
Meanwhile, top incomes skyrocketed. Today, median household incomes in the US are lower than they were in 1999. In Britain, the real wages of the median worker have fallen by 10% since 2008.
In an Irish context, Donohoe’s party, Fine Gael, has been in power since 2011 and while the economy is certainly in a better state than it was, the impact of the recession and the failure of the main parties to protect the centre has made it a more unequal society.
Critical functions of our State simply do not work.
This week we saw schools, recently constructed buildings, having to be closed because of safety concerns.
We have a health system, now costing up to €17bn a year, which remains deeply dysfunctional and inaccessible to many.
Why is housing provision so chaotic?
Why do we spend enough money to have a first-class health service but end up with waiting lists that will top a million patients this year?
For the economic success the country is currently enjoying, Fine Gael should by rights be achieving poll numbers nearing 50% and should be reaching for an overall majority in the next Dáil.
Near-full employment, skills gaps in sector after sector which means jobs for anyone who wants one, wage growth — all, in turn, lead to more money being provided to the Government to deliver better services.
But Fine Gael’s popularity has peaked at 36% in recent polls, and while it retains a commanding lead over Fianna Fáil, we must ask why, when it is clearly seeking to be a voice for the middle ground, can it not command the support of the middle ground?
The truth is that for all of Donohoe’s lofty principles, Fine Gael, in office since 2011, has been an enemy of middle Ireland.
It raided private sector pensions in 2011 and has prioritised the super wealthy over the lower and middle classes in its budgets between 2011 and 2016, even with the Labour Party in Government.
It gave ridiculous tax breaks to vulture funds who, in turn, have exploited their privileged position at the expense of families who have been forced into homelessness.
Up until this year, it has continued to pander to easy political interests like the elderly (who need a leg up the least in society) while continuing to screw the class of people who pay for everything and get little or no relief.
For example, in the latest budget, despite warnings from its own officials not to do it, the Government went ahead and gave another €5 on social welfare payments, including the pension.
It restored the Christmas bonus, at a cost of more than €200m, despite warnings again that we as a society are “over-reliant” on welfare payments.
The main reason why the centre is struggling to hold is that the three main reasons for people to play by the rules are disappearing.
Job security, pension provision, and the ability to buy a home — access to all three have been removed from the youngest generation of people now in the workforce.
The idea of a job for life is now, by and large, a thing of the past.
Zero-hour contracts and ever-increasing workloads have replaced the Monday to Friday, nine to five routines for so many.
As alluded to above, the scale of the housing crisis means many people in their late 20s and early 30s have no hope of securing a home.
Either they cannot afford to rent and save or they do not have the option of tapping up the bank of mum and dad to help them get on the property ladder.
Thirdly, the disappearance of decent pension funds for so many workers is the single biggest ticking time bomb facing Ireland.
Gone are the defined benefit pensions where one would have a guaranteed retirement fund once they finished work.
Now many are left with much lower value pensions which will in no way be sufficient to sustain them in retirement or with no pension at all.
My point is that with these three pillars of what used to be the middle ground either missing or severely weakened, the reasons for buying into the centre are eliminated.
If Donohoe’s hope of rescuing the centre is to be successful, and if he is to beat the radicals and the populists, he must properly tackle all three.
If not, his lofty ideals will remain just that.
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