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