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The politics of ‘austerity’? Really? May 28, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

Pat Leahy suggests that ‘the politics of austerity hang onto poll position’ in the latest SBP at the weekend. He substantiates this, to his own satisfaction, from the fact that:

Support may be moving between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but on the big macro-economic questions, the picture is actually more stable. The three ‘establishment’ parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour – are, to a greater or lesser degree, on much the same page economically. They all believe the EU/IMF bailout plan has to be followed. They are committed to deficit reduction, and accept a programme of public spending reduction and restraint to achieve it.

This is a most interesting analysis, but does it quite hold up? Let’s consider the useful overview in the Phoenix from a few weeks back which argued that on all the major issues of the day Fianna Fáil was shifting – rhetorically – towards the centre from the right (the Phoenix argues that it is to the left, but I think many of us would be a bit leery about characterising it in such terms). And this isn’t without import. Consider where FF is shifting its rhetoric. Croke Park 2, the property tax and increased taxation for higher earners. All of these are fundamentally economic issues. Now in fairness Leahy notes:

Sure, there are differences, and because Fianna Fáil is in opposition, it must claim to be opposed to many of the things that the government is doing – just as Fine Gael and Labour were opposed to Fianna Fáil policies but ended up having to implement many of them.

And he takes an odd line on this…

The far left, Sinn Féin and many of the independents regard this as a monstrous betrayal. But actually, most of the public is in broad agreement. It may not like austerity, but it shares the belief there is at least some need for it. Consequently, about two-thirds of them support the ‘pro-austerity’ or ‘fiscal realist’ parties. That proportion is pretty much stable.

It’s not so much a monstrous betrayal as a depressing indictment of political activity in this state where supposedly fixed positions are – very cynically – anything but once electoral campaigns are out of the way. Moreover I’m not as sanguine as he that public opinion is anywhere as tilted towards ‘pro-austerity’ as he suggests. FF’s support is growing as it puts a more populist and mildly dissident message before the people. That would seem to indicate a sentiment amongst the people for a considerable weakening of the austerity line – at the least.
Yet Leahy counts FF as part of the ‘austerity bloc’.

Today, among committed voters who express a preference, the divide between the ‘austerity’ block and the rest – including the far left, Sinn Féin and the independents of all stripes – is 63 per cent to 37 per cent. In September of 2011, it was 64-36. In March of last year, it was 65-35. In November of last year, it was 62-38. That divide ain’t moving much.

I think that’s unsustainable, not because FF is changing but because it is increasing support as its rhetoric changes – a subtle distinction. And that rhetoric is increasingly anti-austerity. And whatever FF eventually does it seems that the solidity in favour of austerity is decreasing markedly.

He then continues:

Of course, this may not persist. It is not unreasonable to expect that it will change if no recovery materialises. But if the country exits the bailout and economic recovery – as a raft of recent forecasts suggests – begins to take hold, this sort of binary politics may yet endure.
That would see the left, Sinn Féin and independents largely scrapping among themselves for a third of the vote, and Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour fighting it out for the other two-thirds. And from those three, two will form the next government.

This seems almost panglossian. Put aside the news yesterday that the government envisages austerity throughout the decade. Only last week in the very same paper Cliff Taylor wrote the following:

The gap is growing. International investors continue to pile money in, most recently to an auction of our treasury bills. Commentary refers to an economic pick-up, but anyone you talk to in the domestic economy just isn’t seeing it. With merchandise exports now slowing, you would have to ask: where is the economic impetus to come from?

Run that by me again…

Commentary refers to economic pick-up?

Presumably he is referring to one P. Leahy this weekend. But if Talyor isn’t seeing it then I suspect its a chimera.

And I think there’s a further problem to Leahy’s thesis. Austerity is under threat on a conceptual level in almost all quarters. This, of course, doesn’t mean it will be jettisoned, and the idea of an Irish exceptionalism where even if Europe discards it this state must retain it will persist. But of this not a mention in the article.

Finally, Leahy ignores one piece of polling which would suggest his argument is incorrect. That is the much more widespread sympathy for the public sector in relation to CP2 than was imagined. This might be fleeting, but it suggests that there has been a fundamental shift away from the resignation previously felt, the corrosive TINA line that has stymied alternatives.


1. Irish Labour Party crisis for joining austerity coalition government | Dear Kitty. Some blog - May 31, 2013

[…] The politics of ‘austerity’? Really? (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) […]


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