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Could we learn from the liberal agenda? October 10, 2011

Posted by Tomboktu in Economics, Feminism, Social Democracy, Social Policy, The Left, Unions, Workers Rights.

The liberal agenda has been very successful in Ireland over the last forty or fifty years. Headline issues include securing the availability of contraception, access to abortion, the right to divorce, decriminalising homosexuality, and lifting the ban on same-sex marriage. Other items on the agenda would include equal pay for men and women, the criminalisation of rape within marriage, abolishing illegitimacy, Garda practices concerning rape victims, the right of a married woman to have her own legal domicile, Garda procedures in cases of domestic violence, sex education in schools, and (more recently) gender recognition for trans people.

Not all of those goals have been achieved, but given the progress that has been achieved, it is worth asking if the Left in Ireland today could use the same strategies.

The first thing to notice is that the list is a list: a set of individual items. A source of motivation might have been the overarching concepts of “women’s lib” or “gay rights”, but progress was not made by simply demanding that women be liberated or gay people be given rights. Instead, the overarching goal was broken down into distinct objectives.

What would be on a similar list for the Left in Ireland? A first draft of such a list in three areas might include the following.

Wages and incomes

  • the minimum wage tied to the average executive salary
  • replacing (most) social welfare benefits with a universal basic income

Corporate governance

  • worker directors in all firms with more than 25 employees (as is the case in Sweden)
  • half the board of large firms to be worker directors (as is the case in Germany)
  • executive pay subject to annual approval by the employees
  • tax incentives for co-ops over other firms (as is the case in Italy, although it is abused through firms registering as a co-op but not operating internally as one)

Housing and accommodation

  • rent increases in all accommodation tied to inflation, not “market” prices (as was — and may still be — the case in Denmark)
  • 12 months’ notice required to end all private tenancies that were not originally established (and proven to be) bona fide short-term rents (in the case, for example, of students) (also from Denmark)
  • obligatory requirement on landlords to prove eviction is for serious breach or for them to move back into the property as their primary residence and to prove that rent will not be increased in the case of a new tenancy (also from Denmark)
  • requiring all mortgages to for primary residences be at fixed rates of interest (I don’t know if it is the law, but it I believe it is standard practice in Germany)

To be clear, this is not a definitive statement of the Left’s agenda. There are key items missing from it, and some on the Left would probably object to the inclusion of some items. However, a lot could be gained by identifying a set of key concrete changes and making each of those the focus of a campaign.

That does not mean achieving change would be easy. The experience of the liberal agendas was that the arguments on the issues were explained, criticised, defended, argued, and then explained all over again, on TV, in policy reports, on radio, to the Supreme Court, before the European Court of Justice, at the European Court of Human Rights, to TDs, in submissions to the Law Reform Commission, on street protests, at photo-opportunities — and once even with a famous train journey to Belfast — and back again through many of those activities, over months that turned into years, that turned into decades.

Of course, the idea that the Left could use this approach isn’t novel: I recall taking my now 20-something nephew when he was about eight or nine on a protest calling for the introduction of a legal minimum wage, organised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and held outside low-pay fast-food outlets in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. (I wasn’t a particularly good political educator: when the protest finished, he asked if we could go into one of the outlets to get a burger.)

If a core set of specific and concrete objectives is identified, how would the work of achieving those items be organised? A second characteristic of the liberal agenda was that separate organisations were formed to work on most of the key issues: the Divorce Action Group, the Irish Family Planning Association, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the Rape Crisis Centres, Woman’s Aid, Marriage Equality, Transgender Equality Network Ireland.

That approach might not be adapted as easily for the Left’s agenda. There already exist organisations that are (or are supposed to be) working to achieve the objectives that would be in the list — the unions and the parties of the Left. Further, the prospect of a range of new single-issue organisations raises many questions: would it take activists and workers away from the existing organisations. Rivalries between parties and organisations mean that efforts to set up stand-alone campaigns would — in fact, already have — been viewed with suspicion: is that really a campaign about topic x or a front to recruit support for a party or a candidate at the next local elections? On the other hand, disagreements on strategy, ideology — and even rivalries based purely on personality and working styles — existed (and still exist) between activists in the liberal agenda, so that is not a reason to eschew the use of separate organisations for individual goals.

Adopting an approach that looks to non-party and non-union organisations to lead different campaigns for issues of concern to the Left could simultaneously be both a risk and a benefit. The core of that dilemma is that it could create the impression for some people that at their core these are not political issues. One the one hand, de-linking them from the identity of the Left could make them more attractive to people who are uncomfortable with that label. It might create the possibility of sufficient support for many of the issues, but do that by drawing different sets of people who have differing views or levels of comfort with different issues: not all supporters of linking minimum wages to executive salaries, for example, might be happy with an automatic right to worker directors in all firms, just as not all supporters of lifting the ban on divorce were necessarily comfortable with decriminalising homosexuality. However, that ‘depoliticisation’ is deeply unattractive precisely because it is false. And, to boot, it is the strategy that the Right has used to pursue the changes that is has lobbied for, not just domestically and at the level of the EU, but globally through GATT and the WTO. Just now in the USA, Spain and Greece — but less so here, I think — there has been a change, with growing popular acceptance that the ‘free’ market approach is not ‘natural’, is political.

It would stick in my craw to adopt IBEC’s strategy, but if that is what it takes to make progress in Ireland, then maybe it’s what has to be done.


1. Phil - October 11, 2011

No comment on the substance, I’m just stunned (in a mostly-favourable way) to see someone taking it as read that “the liberal agenda” and “the Left” are two different things. There was hardly anyone thinking like that in Britain 20 years ago, and numbers haven’t grown since then.


Ghandi - October 11, 2011



Chet Carter - October 11, 2011



LeftAtTheCross - October 12, 2011

It’s not that “the liberal agenda” and “the Left” are the same thing, clearly they’re not, but there’s a subset of common purpose which allows common cause to be found. I’d like to hear an argument that socially progressive “liberal” gains don’t benefit society, or even hinder it, to the extent that the resulting changes are to the detriment of the Left’s long-term project. Do people think that the overturning of religious imperialism in the past decades has somehow pushed back the date of the revolution? Do people disagree that ending the domination of the state and society by the RC church has brought benefits to people’s lives?


workers republicu - July 9, 2014

One of my pet hates is how the word Left is so often used for causes that are not socialist . For example in one (maybe more than one) of Maeve Binchey’s books about a woman whose unmarried daughter becomes pregnant, and suddenly all her liberal values go out the proverbial window: Maeve wrote that this, the mother, had campaigned for all “leftwing causes” which Maeve named; whilst some were human rights cause ie anti-apartheid, most were what would be called “liberal agenda” not one socialist issue.
James Connolly criticised an English writer who wrote about nudism ,vegetarianism , and the like, calling them Socialism, I can’t recall who this writer was, but he wasn’t Wilde . But Wilde wrote “the Soul of Man under Socialism, mostly G,B. Shaw’s ideas. It wasn’t about Socialism at all, but was bohemianism. Socialists often differ on “moral ” or “social” issues; ie two militant Anarchists Emma Goldman and Lucy Persons had very different views on these issues.
Re. the most important subject of how we can learn from the sucsess’s of the social liberals, I’ll comment on that later as I’ll falling asleep on my feet now.


Gerryboy - July 9, 2014

The DDR, East German communist state, frowned on homosexuality, and communist Cuba has sent many gay men to jail; so calling gay rights a leftwing cause is a misnomer too. I think many left wing activists have diverted their energies into liberal causes since the ’70s and found centre-right governments some decades later passing laws to legally bring in the reforms.


2. WorldbyStorm - October 11, 2011

I think parts of the liberal agenda, a phrase which I dislike, are clearly of a piece with the Left. That said I also think there’s room for people to demur on issues. I’ve always argued that one of the problematical aspects of the Irish left has been the substitution of social policy for economic policy. I believe they should have run in parallel rather than one supplanting the other. But I find Tomboktu’s argument very compelling above. Not least because I’m of the mind that any gain for us is a gain and that it broadens the chance that left wing approaches get a currency they otherwise won’t have.

I’d add to the list above universal pension provision and universal health provision.


Tomboktu - October 12, 2011

Universal pension provision would not be an addition to the list: the universal basic income include replace it.


EWI - August 1, 2013

You need to staple “efficiency”, “reform” and “fairness” on to those proposals, front and centre, to pre-empt the bootboys of the right getting stuck in.


3. make do and mend - October 11, 2011

When I read the proposals, I thought them rather modest. Given the times we’re in though, it wouldn’t hurt anti-capitalist formations from adopting some, if not all, of them in a short term strategy.

There is one proposal, however, that stands out for me. The implementation of a Universal Basic Income would attack one of capitalism’s main instruments of keeping the population in constant turmoil via constant financial insecurity. It also allows our parties to use the intense centralisation that the gaurdians of capitalism have constructed in Ireland against those very gaurdians. One would be simplifying social payment structure, creating efficiency in the civil services and so on.

I’ve recently read where Canada experimented with the concept in one town in the 1970s. They destroyed the records but some ancetodal evidence still exists that confirms many unexpected benefits arose from the experiment. Once freed from financial insecurity people actually became rather busy about earning money.

Such a proposal from my viewpoint would raise capitalist hackles to no end. Expect a dirty fight on this as it attacks the foundations of capitalism.

I would add a proposal for a Universal Land Tax. From a UK Green Party site:

“But the reason I like land value tax is that I believe it would operate like a transitional demand. While it could be seen to be part of a market approach to the economy, in fact land ownership enables people to escape the market system and meet their needs directly from the land. Hence any move that suggests that land is a public resource, rather than a private one, and implies the value of land as a part of the common wealth moves us towards the non-market society that will maximise human happiness and protect the planet.”

Obviously, there is more to this proposal and its eventual implementation could take many forms with varying outcomes, but the aim is to allocate resources via need, use and sustainability rather than by the size of one’s income.


Lastly, get rid of GDP as an economic metric.



ivorthorne - October 11, 2011

Any more information on that Canadian survey?


make do and mend - October 11, 2011

I’m wracking my feeble memory for the source. It was only a mention in a rather long economics article that I read some while ago.

If I can get the town’s name, I might be able to get a direct link to the info.



CMK - October 11, 2011

MDAM – the town was, from what I can see, Dauphine Manitoba.


I know, I know, it’s wikipedia, but it might have some useful pointers.


workers republicu - July 12, 2014

According to the Wikipoedia account the experiment of a basic income was a great success from my understanding. Mothers spending more time with their newborns, more teenagers in education, less work related accidents and less car crashes. All good.
Weflare rather than workfare.
In Belfast in the 19th
Century, catholic workers were paid such low wages
that both parents were forced by economic circumstances to work


Tomboktu - October 12, 2011
EWI - August 1, 2013

There is one proposal, however, that stands out for me. The implementation of a Universal Basic Income would attack one of capitalism’s main instruments of keeping the population in constant turmoil via constant financial insecurity.

I endorse this statement!


4. Tomboktu - October 11, 2011

Micheál Collins of the Congress Economic Research Unit (although they don’t brand it as a Congress entity) has done some rough estimates on the Basic Income for Ireland which he presented at a TASC seminar the week before last. The slides are here: http://www.tascnet.ie/upload/file/MichealCollins.pdf

(My opining on the unCongressness of the ERU is here: https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/wp-admin/comment.php?action=editcomment&c=106457)


LeftAtTheCross - October 12, 2011

Very useful, if only partial coverage of some of the numbers.

I’d like to see some analysis of how the €30bn injection into the economy would work out in terms of multipliers, and also how the tax take as a result of the increased economic activity would offset the cost.

It would also be interesting to hear some views on how a universal basic income could tend to reduce employer costs through deflationary pressure on wages, presumably. Could we see IBEC lobbying in support? Hardly, as it fundamentally changes the nature of capital-labour relations, but it would be interesting to hear the arguments all the same.

What sort of tax increases (VAT, income tax & PAYE, CGT, corporate tax) would be necessary to close the gap?


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7. workers republicu - July 20, 2014

Full marks to Tombucto for clarity and comprehensiveness , it’s an extremely well crafted blog.
On the question of when so many ” Liberal Agenda” campaigns were success ful, I’ll make a fee suggestions and point out , or rather it will,I hope,be obvious that for class a d historical reasons it is more difficult for us, though we can learn from the liberal Agendists.
(1) Cross class support: Liberal agenda campaigns enjoyed cross class support because they it affected people of all classes. There is a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, and not only in the Swiss Guard. I know “devout Catholics” who changed their views on contraception when their daughter became pregnant.
(2) Incrementation: progress was
made in small steps over a long
time.There was a focus on goals

achievable in present circumstances, achievable goals. When these were achieved they raised their sights and set new goals.
(3) they had large sections of the news media on their side and almost no opposition in the media , certainly not in editorials or leading articles.
Mostly ad hoc single issue organizations
(3) and no mercs and perks ,or pensions

which attract careerists .
(4) No rivalry between groups competing for members or votes. No historical ideological differences.
This doesn’t exhaust the difference of course.
The main opposition here in Ireland d has been the Catholic Church Bishops and Vatican, which have lost much of their power, whilst most lay Catholics and many priests and nuns have become more broad-minded.
In contract, Capitalism has become more aggressive, more bloody minded and is following the Shock Doctrine, not
missing the opportunity to use “a good
crisis” to hammer the Working Classes
and drive back their hard won gains.
Today the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the TTIP) is a huge and threat to workers rights and conditions.
The LP sees the TTIP as an opportunity according to Sean Sherlock.
Another threat to workers and National Sovereignity is being pushed by Corporate Capitalism, where Corporations can sue National governments for loss of profits due to laws it passed; the judgement would not be made by a court of law but by three adjudicators appointed by the Corporations. You can find out more from Attac and Comhlamh.


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