TASC Presentation to the Ireland Institute

Transcript of a paper given at Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies on 22 November 2007

Author: Paula Clancy, TASC

Firstly, I would like to introduce TASC, the organisation I represent, for those of you who may not be familiar with it.

TASC is an independent progressive ‘think-tank’. It has been in operation for 6 years. Its primary aim is to carry out and assemble research and critiques which are aimed at campaigners and policy makers. The intent is to achieve greater equality in Irish society. TASC is quite commonly described in the media as left of centre. This is a moniker that many of the people associated with TASC, including myself, have no quarrel with.

When I speak about ‘left’ in the current debate I mean it in the broad sense. In European terms, it includes several centrist or liberal parties; the social democratic parties which make up the PES group in the European parliament; green parties of varying shades; and alternative left parties grouped around the European Left Party and the GUE/NGL Group. It also includes some regionalist and other smaller unattached left parties and independents. Finally, it includes a number of increasingly influential and widely supported social movements and campaigning NGOs.

For the purposes of this discussion, it is not useful for me, as an outsider, to speculate on possible areas of left cooperation in the Dail or on electoral strategy for left of centre parties and independent TDs. Decisions on areas such as this will be taken at national leadership level and they’re unlikely to look to me for guidance. In any event, I don’t think that the reason why the message of the left went unheard, or was dismissed as irrelevant, in the recent election had much to do with electoral strategy per se. I think we need to look to wider economic, social and cultural trends if we are to begin to understand the quagmire that the left finds itself in.

The primary challenge facing the left in Ireland, and in Europe and elsewhere is in the area of economics. The demise of ‘actually existing socialism’ marked the victory of more-or-less unfettered capital. Since then, no party on the left has been able to present an economic policy alternative to the neo-liberal version, which seems to convince even themselves. Some Social Democratic parties have campaigned on the basis that they would manage neo-liberalism better, or that they would soften its edges and make it more responsive to social needs. Parties in the Alternative Left group have a very extensive critique of the failings of the existing model. What they don’t have are significant proposals dealing with a reorganisation of the economy.

In virtually all cases, when in power, parties on the left have adjusted to the neo-liberal pressure. The irony is that most of these parties have now been ejected. The main reason for this is their failure to deliver on their electoral platform and the resulting disillusionment of their own core electorate, a fate which may well be that of the Greens come the next election here.

In Ireland in particular, but also in other European countries, the fear and the failure of the left, and of the centre-left in particular, to challenge the lower-tax/smaller state thesis, has cut the left off from the one area where they could promote greater equality within existing economic parameters. The provision of resources adequate for high-quality public and social services means taking on the tax debate. Of course, the widespread public scepticism regarding what even a well-funded public sector would achieve is a major obstacle. I will come back to this.

A second challenge is posed by the changing nature, attitudes and relationship systems of society and how these translate into behaviour on the part of the electorate. In a recent paper to a social democratic audience, Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute made a number of very interesting points – somewhat depressing to a traditional leftist but nonetheless persuasive. He argues that the dominant feature of developed-world democracies is now affluence rather than poverty and the dominant problem is alienation rather than injustice. While I disagree with his thesis that the poverty which still exists for a minority, in some cases a substantial minority, is no longer an inherent part of the economic system, he has put his finger on a major, if not the major trend, to shape politics in this first decade of a new century.

He charts this trend from the successful liberation movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. These movements broke the social expectations, norms and constraints that had previously governed people’s lives. Once achieved, this new self-determination was most in tune with the politics of Thatcher and Reagan. Instead of people forming their sense of self from the cultural norms and behaviours of the community around them, we entered an era of ‘individualisation’ where a personal identity was more likely to be constructed by the mass media, instant and inexplicable celebrities, and the brands with lifestyles attached, of modern consumerism. This is the kind of world described in David McWilliam’s books. It’s all a long way from the communities, clubs and unions which used to shape many people’s lives.

This individualisation has had two major effects. The dominant view now, particularly among under-35s, is that we are responsible for, and can shape, our own lives. If we work we will succeed and, furthermore, we don’t need to feel compassion for the ‘losers’. The ‘losers’ in turn must internalise their failure rather than blame the boss, the government or the class system. As a consequence, the old idea of solidarity and class struggle which powered the left has less and less meaning. Instead, most people aspire to a position superior to their peers or at least differentiated from them. This is an aspiration which consumer capitalism and neo-liberal ideology is perfectly positioned to feed and to feed upon! [The market for education grinds is a good example of this].

The second effect is that this apparent individualisation has in fact homogenised society at another level. Identities based on products from the market are not really one’s own creation but are instead manufactured by ‘popular culture’ and promoted and adjusted by marketing. The political implications are profound: socialists can no longer take for granted their ability to connect or find common cause with individuals who identified themselves as members of a class engaged primarily in an economic struggle. Today those same individuals go to the market to adopt a persona that reflects their desired self, to be projected to the world.

Hamilton ends on a more optimistic note in taking the view that participation in politics tends to be cyclical and that it will come round again. Following on from the inward-looking 40s and 50s, there was an explosion of activism in the 60s and 70s which exhausted itself when the liberation revolutions were completed. This was followed by the 80s and 90s when the newly liberated retreated to ‘tend the garden’. The inevitable outcome of a lifestyle which sees happiness achieved by ever increasing conspicuous consumption is disappointment. And optimists will see signs now of a new period of engagement. Recognition of the emptiness of the consumption project, and the looming catastrophe of global warming could, it is hoped, prompt a process of citizen engagement. The questions are will the left, and for us specifically the left in Ireland, be ready with a relevant message? And will it be able to organise to deliver this message?

On the first question, ironically, the left’s opportunity to develop a credible alternative economic model seems to be emerging from what is a great danger. Climate change and ecosystem collapse are demonstrating that there are clear planetary limits to growth. The assumption that more wealth equates with more happiness has also been shown not to hold water. Past a certain, and in reality low, level of income there is no correlation.

Against this background there are progressive economists and organisations, for example, the New Economics Foundation, based in the UK who are seriously engaged in formulating a new economic model which will as they say ‘serve people and the planet, not consume them’.

On the question of effective delivery of the message, the issue is how to create a common progressive agenda. For various reasons, durable left cooperation on any basis is not going to start with formal alliances or coalitions at the national level: our electoral system is too competitive and promoting of self-interest for that. Instead, the notion of working together can only begin through cooperation on issues, probably at the local level and, in the first instance, perhaps outside of the political party structures themselves.

There is an example in Norway of how such a cooperative movement achieved what would be regarded as spectacular success if it were to happen here. In 2005, the most right-wing government in Norway’s history was replaced by a centre-left government which was elected and now governs on the most progressive political platform in Europe today. This progressive coalition was formed out of the ashes of a Labour government which was ejected from power in 2001. Its ejection was primarily because of the disillusion of its own supporters with its neo-liberal programme. The decision of influential trade unions to push for more progressive political representation was also a significant factor.

The emergence of this progressive government can be traced directly to initiatives begun at the local level. Prior to the local elections of 2003 in the city of Trondheim, a broad coalition of trade unions plus social NGOs and public service defence organisations put together a comprehensive city-government programme. This programme was centred on the promise of high-quality, publicly-delivered services, with the quid pro quo that they would be both efficient and value for money, and that they would be transparently so. It was sent to all the local political parties with the message that support and campaigning for parties in the election would depend on their support for the demands in the programme. This strategy forced a change in the traditional approach, in particular of the Labour Party. The upshot in Trondheim was the ejection of the Conservative party after 14 years in power, and its replacement by a broad coalition of Labour, Socialist Left, Red alliance, Greens, pensioners, independent progressives, as well as the Centre Party. Together they had more than 60% of the vote. Their performance in government plus other local government initiatives such as the Model Municipality Project in turn inspired, and in many ways forced, a radical realignment at national level. This produced the most progressive and best example of left cooperation at national government level in Europe today. Apart from the example of successful cooperation, the essential lesson from Trondheim was that defence of public services must be accompanied by the guarantee of efficiency and value for money – the wider public will not buy into a policy designed for producers rather than users.

Could such an experiment succeed or even be tried in Ireland? Is it conceivable that in Galway, Limerick, Cork or Fingal for example, a progressive programme could be formulated, sourced in the trades councils and local NGOs and community development groups and delivered by a progressive coalition. If it is conceivable and works it would demonstrate that progressives can cooperate, that progressive government works, and that taxes invested in public services can deliver high quality and value-for-money outcomes.

I don’t know the answer to that but it seems to me that talk of left cooperation centred on electoral arithmetic and opportunist alliances is a waste of time and unlikely to convince the ‘MySpace’ generation that the otherwise killjoy left has anything to offer them.

Paula Clancy is Director of TASC, The Think Tank for Action on Social Change.