The voice of Labour speaks, or does it? March 7, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
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.