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Whatever you want, whatever you like, whatever you say February 22, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.
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 Pat Rabbitte’s recent conference address, in particular the proposed cut in the standard tax rate met with predictable disdain from non-Labour leftists and was hailed as a masterstroke by those more interested in elections than politics.  Interestingly, though, it’s been received quite poorly by many of those whose sympathies would tend to lie squarely with Labour.  Gerry Quigley is “uneasy” about the proposal, the Progressive Gardener asks “how did they get it so wrong after getting it so right” and Michael Taft sums it up with the title “Unsolicited, Unnecessary, Unwelcomed” (as an aside, if you’re not a regular reader of those blogs, start now).

Admittedly, Cian over on IrishElection makes a valiant stab at defending the proposal against the (clearly hypocritical) argument that Labour is engaging in ‘auction politics’ in this regard.  Unfortunately, though, the defence seems to be that while it is tarted-up clientalism, it’s no different from what everyone else is doing, and what everyone’s done previously.

While those listed above make persuasive cases in many respects, they do seem to share a broad view that the 2% promise is a vote-grabbing stroke, but that the rest of Labour’s platform is fundamentally sound.  I’m not so sure.  To my mind, it appears very much in line with the position Labour under Rabbitte seems bent on adopting in the Irish political marketplace (that ugly term chosen deliberately).

It seems to me to be the logical terminus of the kind of thinking that gives us a slogan like ‘But are you happy’?, rather than a diversion from it.  It’s completely in keeping with the way Labour seems to be grappling with the politics of happiness that the Progressive Gardener talks about so eloquently in the post linked to above (and which, in a different sense, boy-faced New Labour former Mandelson-crony Derek Draper touches on here).

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favour of happiness (and I’m a miserable sod).  It’s a welcome development that political and economic discourse now incorporates a serious approach to rather nebulous concepts such as happiness, or wellbeing, rather than just number-crunching.  What I’m disheartened by is the way the current Labour Party seems to be taking a very cynical line of this – engaging with progressive concepts, but using them to tart up the same old empty clientalism (Cian was more right than anyone would like to think).

Look at the ‘Commitments for Change‘ Labour is proposing: more hospital beds, pre-school education, increased Guards, no means test for carers and (as far as I can understand it) an improved version of the shared ownership scheme for first-time house buyers.  All very laudable, but pretty limited.  Apart from the pre-schooling (which I’d hope is more than just a sop to those who want ‘something done’ on childcare costs) there’s nothing original there, and nothing that would raise eyebrows at any other party conference.  It’s hardly the foundation for radical change – rather, it appears to be a manifesto for ‘more of the same, only better’.

Most depressing of all is the way these proposals are framed – they are, apparently, what “you” are thinking and represent what “you” want.  Rabbitte tells us that he’s been up and down the country, and these issues are what ‘the people’ are concerned with.  And whatever you want – Pat delivers.  You don’t like the way hospitals are run? Labour will fix it.  You’re worried about crime? Labour has it under control.  You want happiness? You got it.  Oh, and you don’t want to have to pay for it? Well, I think Labour can manage that as well.
At the risk of sounding paternalistic and elitist, are the random desires of participants in focus groups really the way a supposedly progressive party should decide on its priorities for action?  What happened to, if not telling people what they should want, then sticking with your principles and tring to bring people along with you: changing people’s minds rather than prostrating oneself before the opinion of whichever random yahoo happens to open the door when canvassing?

The problem, I think, isn’t Labour’s adoption of the politics of happiness; it’s the failure engage with such a politics deeply enough.  The main concern seems to be happiness of those most likely to vote, or whose votes are most required, rather than those (to flog this dead horse of a concept even further) who are most unhappy.  It’s selling an easy idea of happiness, selling easy solutions to difficult problems rather than really debating what the right solutions might be.

For all his faults (amply catalogued previously by this site) Nick Cohen makes some interesting, and related, points in an interview with Little Atoms last week.  While the context is different (he’s talking primarily about critics of US foreign policy) Cohen suggests that the fall of the Berlin and the subsequent death of what might be termed  ‘traditional socialism’ as mainstream political ideology (who now seriously advocates nationalisation of banks, or workers’ control of industry) was almost a liberating experience for certain elements of the left.  It allowed them to be critical of things they didn’t like, without having to offer any kind of alternative political platform.  He likens this to political consumerism, where people can pick off-the-shelf opinions, without having to make any effort in developing something better.

This, I fear, is what Labour risks falling into under Rabbitte, the only difference being that instead of being consumers, Labour becomes the political version of McDonald’s.  What matters most is that you sell, rather than thinking about the quality of what you’re selling.

So what could Labour do differently? I’m not expecting to see Rabbitte popping up in a pre-election broadcast, rising the starvelings from their slumbers.  And the ‘happiness’ approach has potential. So why not take it further? Why not talk about ‘happiness’ for all – prioritise ending child poverty, tackling climate change, looking at how best to integrate new communities into Irish society (all areas which I know are important for many Labour members, even if they’re not what we hear Pat Rabbitte shouting about, and which mightn’t be as electorally popular as vague noises about ‘change’) but incorporating these into a real ‘happiness’ framework? Why not lead by example, and explain why you think these issues are important, and give voters the credit of some intelligence, rather than telling them what you think they want to hear and hoping to sneak some serious politics in through the backdoor.

Eoghan (The Dread) Harris once infamously spoke to the Workers’ Party about the ‘socialist fist in the social-democratic glove’.  How depressing is it to think that we’ve come to the ‘social-democratic glove in the vaguely-liberal-but-essentially-empty-of-substance glove’? It’d like to think that Labour could do better than that, but under the current leader I won’t hold my breath.

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1. Damian O'Broin - February 23, 2007

There’s two seperate issues here smiffy – the pros and cons of the tax cut; and the value of the Labour’s ‘happiness’ platform.

On the tax cut (and I speak as a Labour member): as a political tactic it worked perfectly. It was a defensive swerve, ducking out of the way of a FF/PD attack campaign on ‘higher taxes’ and unbalancing them in the process. On that level I have no problem with it. That line of attack is now neutralised. And hopefuly it will clear the way to try and shift the debate back to quality of life issues.

As some who favours progressive taxation, however, it has its limitations. Yes, broader tax bands, improved tax credits (or even refundable tax credits) would all be far better. But it has to be seen in the context of what passes for political debate in this country: headline rate cuts trump tax credits and bands every time – even if they are of less value to the voters.

We can complain about this all we like, but if we’re to be realisitic, we have to deal with where the deabte is at.

As to the happiness platform. Again I think we have to look at a balancing act between the politically pragmatic and the vision of a better world.

The five commitments will improve things. They may be targeted at those most likely to vote, but that’s politics. Every party (and politican) does that. And while thay may read a little superfical, if implemented they would make a big difference.

Yes, I would love to see more of the meaty issues that you mentioned and hopefully we’ll see it in the run-up. But I wouldn’t be too dismissive of the policies already outlined. The climate change policy is surprisingly good, for instance.

Your mention of Harris reminds me of another old sticky maxim – about the need for the leadership to be one step ahead of the people, but never more than one step.

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2. Gerry O'Quigley - February 23, 2007

I wouldn’t say that the rest of the Labour platform is absolutely fine but I’ll live with it – for now. What’s fundamentally lacking is a good, old fashioned critique of political economy. Only then can you link the misery of the marginalised and excluded with the insecurity of the floating voter salariat that is their target of choice in that ‘marketplace’ you’re talking about. And extending the marketplace a little further, there’s a big difference between a market-oriented approach such as New Labour’s finding out what people want and serving it up to them, and a sales-oriented approach, which would mean that you have key policies you want to ‘sell’ to the voter and then you do your research and find out the best way to do this. The latter is compatible with conviction politics while the former is just auction politics.

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3. WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2007

That’s a very interesting and thoughtful response Damian, however, it’s seems that effectively you’re saying that since the debate is limited to something along the lines of ‘cuts, yea verily, and more cuts’ Labour too must join the debate on those terms. The tactic of silence surely would be preferable, particularly for those of us including yourself who don’t fetishise tax cuts for the sake of them. Or even a stirring defense in favour of rebalancing taxation and explaining that there is no such thing as a free lunch in a modern society. To me it seems as if this is yet another sop to FG, and yes, also a tactical move that unfortunately for a left party has immense strategic implications by effectively limiting it’s room for action in the future. I’d also suggest that taxation policy has had little to do with Labour’s woes up to here and will prove to have little effect in the future. I may well be wrong on that score, but it’s my gut instinct for what it’s worth.

I really dislike the ‘happiness’ ‘platform’. It strikes me as too open to begging the question. The problem is that this is, despite a lot of rhetoric, a largely contented society, certainly vastly more so that a decade or a decade and a half ago. Now that doesn’t mean a whole lot in many respects, but… I can’t help feeling that it appears shallow and glib particularly when introduced a wet weekend before an election. There appear to be no conceptual or principled political roots to it. And the concept of principled left politics (however awry it went in practice) is also something of an old WP maxim…

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4. Michael Taft - February 23, 2007

There is much to empathise in Damien’s point re: a defensive swerve. In that sense, it is successful. But his point – ‘we have to deal with where the debate is at’ – begs a deeper question: where has the Left been all this time in the debate. Labour has not produced an economic, fiscal or enterprise strategy in some time (the last time was in 2000 I believe, dealing with fiscal policy). If we haven’t tried to move the debate, if we have allowed others to run riot without contradiction, if we haven’t put forward our own perspective – then a large part of ‘where the debate is’ is our fault. I don’t underestimate the problems with moving that debate, even slightly, but we haven’t even tried.

I understand people’s scepticsm about the whole area of ‘happiness’ economics. It’s rather ill-defined, and is rootless insofar as it deals with a contemporary phenomemon. There’s also the manipulation of its themes by political parties without addressing the core issues it raises (imagine that). Happiness economics is potentially quite progressive – it poses the notion that most people are not agents of capital or income acquisition, that they don’t satisfy their desires in the marketplace beyond a certain level, and that beyond that they seek other things.

Among those other things is security – dare I say ‘social’ security – and what creates problems is when they try to acquire that in the marketplace (or forced to by the ‘system’). Other economists have used the term ‘uncertainty avoidance’. Again, this points to avoiding uncertainty through the public space and social provision. There is much fertile ground here for progressives. We shouldn’t allow those who would exploit these themes in a content-less programme to put us off. We should give some meat to the bones. There would be no better place to start than smiffy’s ‘happiness for all.’

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5. Alex Klemm - February 23, 2007

Smiffy – while I’d agree with much of what you say, I think you’re a bit hard on the ‘Committments for Change’. Soundbitey? Undoubtedly – soundbites tend to proliferate in the run-up to an election. But at least some of the committments are backed up by substantial policies. For example, the pre-schooling committment (which, if one reads the document produced by Kathleen O’Meara, is not only about a year’s free pre-schooling, but – as importantly – about expanding the state provision of early childhood education) would make a real difference to parents and their children and, if implemented in conjunction with Jan O’Sullivan’s document on tackling educational disadvantage, would have a long-term impact on social exclusion. That’s not to endorse all the policies in these documents – for example, the whole childcare subsidy malarkey is daft and calculated to push up childcare costs. But at least Labour has recognised that early childhood education (as opposed to child storage facilities, which is what childcare is often reduced to) can have a far-reaching impact on children, their families and communities. In that sense, they’ve gone further than any other party, albeit not far enough.

Damian – I’ll leave it to others to comment on the economic implications of the tax cut proposal, but what bothered me about it was that tax had not been an issue until Rabbitte’s bolt out of the blue. Sure, FF and the PDs had murmured about Labour being a high-tax, high-spend party, but that’s all it was – murmuring without conviction. As World by Storm says, the tactic of silence would have been preferable.

World by Storm, you suggest that “this is, despite a lot of rhetoric, a largely contented society”. I’m not sure about that. There is a sort of national smugness at the moment, of the “sure, aren’t we a great little country” sort, and some people in the Shiny Smiley SUV set are doing extraordinarily well. But there’s also a lot of individual discontent among those who know that a few extra Euro (or even a 2% tax cut!!) won’t buy them a childcare place, or top-quality care for their elderly parents, or a home close to where they work. There’s discontent among women and young people relegated to low-paid service sector jobs. And that’s where social solidarity comes in, which also relates to happiness economics: recognising that society is about both ‘happiness’ and Euros. Has Labour got the message? We live in hope.

One final point on the ‘But, Are You Happy’ slogan. I’ve only seen one of those posters – on a heavily congested stretch of road last weekend between Dublin and Lucan. I’d bet that the people in the cars in front of and behind us were pretty discontented …

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6. WorldbyStorm - February 24, 2007

Alex, I can only speak for myself, but having good reason to be in a lot of areas across Dublin Central I’m struck by how the ‘Shiny Smiley SUV set’ isn’t restricted to Blackrock or Sutton and how that has proliferated across the city into lower middle class and upper working class estates. I’d be the first to crow if it were otherwise, but it isn’t. And discontent isn’t enough in any case. What’s required is a comprehensive vision of a better society, one step or perhaps two up from the SP, but certainly a world away from the nostrums of the center/center right. Now back in the day the WP, again for all it’s faults, articulated a strong coherent message, that was entirely oppositional to the mainstream ideologies of the time and it gained votes and seats. I see little of that in contemporary Labour, for all the undoubted sincerity of those involved in that project.

I suspect that the ‘happiness’ message is going to fall on deaf ears because the reality is that the people you mention are largely those who are least interested in political activity. That’s by no means Labours fault, but it points up the reality that political activity of the ‘happiness’ sort is restricted and restrictive to a very small wedge within the electorate and has little traction amongst those who need it most.

And to add a bit more, I fear Labour is diminishing into just another niche party and I’m not entirely certain why. But it’s telling that for many on the Irish left it remains the party that, as the saying almost goes, they’ve left, they never joined or never would…. a situation that I think has increased over the past decade or so.

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7. Where next for Labour? Or the new party system. 2 and one halfs and two quarters and a twentieth… and counting. at Irish Election - February 25, 2007

[...] smiffy’s post here and some of the responses to it, what strikes me most forcibly about this period of Labour history [...]

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8. Lorenzo - February 26, 2007

Re: diminishing into just another niche party, there is a perception – and it is one I partially hold myself – that Labour is first and foremost the party of the public sector worker. In that regard they have alway been as ‘clientist’ a party as Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. There is nothing especially wrong with this but this is a proportionally declining segment of the voting population.

A lot of the issues that making people ‘unhappy’ (transport, housing, health, prices) are in the realm of the public sector – and require some reform of it, for them to be resolved. There are a lot of potential Labour voters in the centre ground that would be circumspect about Labour’s ability to face down their core and push these reforms through if they were to get elected.

Labour could address this by either putting some ‘clear blue water’ between them and some of the wilder union demands (what *is* their position on the nurses demands, by the way?) or by demonstrating that they could lead the public sector into a more customer friendly state of operations.

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9. Sipaliwini - February 26, 2007

I’m sure there’s plenty of Labour members who see the big picture.
(Struggle between International Finance, Entrepreneurs and Workers being won by International Finance).
Obviously the leadership of the LP has decided that picking up that fight would be detrimental to them getting in government.
Opportunism and cooptation are nothing new, there’s two solutions for Labour people: change leaders or start/join a new/different formation.

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10. WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2007

To me the point is that there is a discourse or space on the left between slogans and mild social democracy. It’s a difficult path to follow but it’s worth it. But starting new formations isn’t of itself going to work. The history of the last decade and a half is littered with the bones of such enterprises.

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