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The voice of Labour speaks, or does it? March 7, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
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An apologia of sorts from someone purporting to be from inside ‘the Labour bunker’ in the SBP this weekend in the Backroom Column. I’m cautious about this because I don’t know whether Backroom actually is farmed out to different voices from the parties. Could be, but equally it might not…

The truth is that, while we do get a healthy vote from public sector workers, there is a divergence of views in here on what to do with the public service. There are some who do indeed see us as the parliamentary wing of the public sector unions, and believe our job is to protect their pay and conditions at all costs. Others here see it a little differently. Social democrats (yes, that’s us!) believe in a strong public sector with services such as education and health provided equally to all by the state, and with public regulators policing markets preventing swashbuckling free-enterprisers (think bankers, property speculators) from wrecking the place for the rest of us.
For a strong state sector to exist, it needs to be funded, and for it to be funded, it needs the support of those who provide the funds – the public. If the public are to support it, they can’t see it as a haven for lay-abouts on long coffee breaks, short working days, long holidays, fat pensions and myriad exotic allowances. By and large, it isn’t, of course, but the public are told otherwise by people who write elsewhere in these pages and in other fine newspapers. So public sector reform is essential if the public are to acquiesce to funding it. While some of our comrades wring their hands and say we wouldn’t be doing this except Olli Rehn made us, others of us are pleased to get the chance to reshape it.

There’s a lot there to consider, but let’s be straight about one thing. It is an argument based on a year zero approach, i.e. that everything started only when the LP and FG arrived in government. But that doesn’t make any sense because Croke Park I was agreed by the previous government and that suggests that there were reforms aplenty going down. And that’s what makes the idea that ‘public sector reform is essential if the public are to acquiesce to funding it’ something akin to ‘We have always been at war with Eastasia’. When does ‘reform’, capital ‘R’ end? And it doesn’t. That’s the problem. Indeed it points to – assuming any sincerity on the part of the writer – a remarkable fear on the part of the LP of the media narrative. And also – and this is crucial, an unwillingness to address that narrative head on.

I’ve no illusions about the public sector, when I arrived there almost a decade ago to work on contract, as I still do, I saw some interesting sights. But no more interesting, and arguably less prevalent than I’d seen working in the private sector for the best part of a decade and a half before that. Indeed broadly speaking I’d argue that the PS is fairly well structured given its size and that in the main it works reasonably efficiently – though given that we’re talking about humans here there’s always going to be issues of one sort or another. But exaggerating these issues so that they become the major component of the narrative is to a disservice to everyone and, of course, is part of a very deliberate political approach.

And there’s another point to be made which is directly linked to that. The anonymous writer argues correctly that given that ‘while Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats ran the country and the public service for 14 (yes, 14!) years from 1997 to 2011, we were told that somehow it was the Labour Party that was the brake on public sector efficiency’. But this too is an argument rooted in an idea that per definition the PS is a problem, that ‘reform’ is an unalloyed good and beyond question.

Indeed the curious thing is that the writer doesn’t actually do any more than offer that list above as issues that are problematic, and even then resiles from many of them in doing so. And worse again by ignoring the fact that it was FF and GP who dealt with pensions, etc s/he undercuts their own argument. And the interesting thing is that – and this is in no way diminishing much of the absurdity of CP2 and the very real negative impacts that flow from it which have to be resisted, there’s remarkably little left to deal with in terms of what could reasonably be regarded as ‘genuine’ reforms.

All of this too before we get to a fundamental point. What profits the government if it imposes CP2? What is the clear economic benefit of doing so at this point in time? Time and again the actual economic outcomes have slipped out of focus in terms of the arguments for public sector ‘reform’. And that is because CP2 is not in truth an economic ‘reform’ so much as a political mechanism to deflect and defang lines of attack on the government. Attacks which the government itself won’t tackle head on as being in the main incorrect and self-serving on the part of those making them. It is a political response to a political problem. And in a sense that is the truly cynical aspect about it.

Note too that for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the situation in the private sector in the run up to CP2 there’s been absolutely nothing done to ameliorate the situation of private sector workers in relation to pensions, etc. Indeed in sectoral terms Irish workers will remain in precisely the situation they have been before, isolated from each other, indifferent or ignorant to each others genuine shared interests.

That tells its own story.

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Comments»

1. john.c - March 7, 2013

So is he saying the public sector isn’t inefficient but we should treat it like it is to pander to the media?
If that is what he is saying it is an intersting analysis of democracy if the private capialist media hold such power over elected reps.
Overall its a very spineless piece anyway

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paul b - March 7, 2013

That seems to be exactly what he is saying. Which fits perfectly with gov actions overvthe last few months.
One aspect of this that is very depressing is that it depicts the LP as competing with fg for fg votes, but they are never going to get them. All they will achieve is the further fracturing of the left

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CMK - March 7, 2013

Good analysis WbS and the SBP was worth shelling out for on Sunday. There may well be very few ‘Backroom’ columns left if today’s news about the SBP signals the beginning of the end.

Thinking about CPII and the sequence if it is rejected. A pay cut is implemented say of 10% across the board as a punitive measure from a government spurned. Now, the union leaders are clear that industrial action won’t achieve anything but will makes things worse. But if, as I think there will be, demands for industrial action following a unilateral paycut the stage is set for a Britain ca. early 1980s style confrontation.

My hunch is that the FG backbenchers, IBEC, ISME, RTE and the print media don’t have the stomach for a prolonged campaign of industrial action. That flies in the face of those who argue, with some justification, that PS workers won’t be able to sustain a prolonged struggle. But, in the present climate, with property tax demands less than a week away, even the onset of serious industrial struggle would bring into very sharp and rapid relief the degree to which workers, regardless of sector, are being forced to carry the burden of th crisis.

The Right in this state (‘Right’ being shorthand for the pro-austerity perspective) are lazy and coddled. Their ideas are never seriously challenge and, more importantly, the presuppositions of their analysis of the crisis and their prescriptions for resolving it, while failing at an empirical level as austerity and depression continues, have never been subjected to a societal level political struggle and held up to the light.

If serious strife breaks out in the PS, much more likely this year than last the certainites that inform the consensus will be seriously compromised and with that the hold that the orthodoxy have on people’s understanding of the crisis will diminish to a politically significant extent.

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ejh - March 7, 2013

By and large, it isn’t, of course, but the public are told otherwise by people who write elsewhere in these pages and in other fine newspapers. So public sector reform is essential

Which is one of those bullshit “perceptions” arguments that I personally associate with the nastier elements of the UK Labour Party. I think I’d rather have “we want to do this because they’re all a bunch of lazy bastards” than “they’re not lazy bastards but we all have to go along with the idea that they are because that’s what the public thinks”.

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2. EWI - March 7, 2013

The perils of being in government , but against ‘government’.

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3. Noreen Byrne - March 7, 2013

The idea that ‘the public’ is homogenous is laughable and really silly coming from a political person. Every single person who lives in Ireland has had dealings with the public service and has negative comments to make about it, so what it goes with the territory. Of course, some of us who know it ‘up close and personal’ could write a book about the lack of accountability, the ideological attitudes directed at poor people etc etc. The most worrying thing about this piece is the absence of any attempt to defend public services. Have we reached a stage in Ireland where even social democrats believe that there is an alternative to providing education, health, social welfare etc through the public purse? WOW, that reminds me of one of the most unequal countries in the so called western world – the good old USA.

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4. Ciaran - March 7, 2013

Spot on, Noreen.

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WorldbyStorm - March 7, 2013

Definitely. It’s essentially a situation, and this we can judge from more general examples, there’s no effort to defend public provision of services as a good in and of itself.

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