Whatever you want, whatever you like, whatever you say February 22, 2007Posted by smiffy in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.
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.