Friday 31 October 2014

The 'working poor' are legion, and they're not happy

This grouping includes the working classes and the middle classes in the public and private sectors

Published 25/05/2014 | 02:30

Citizens struggle to sustain 2006 commitments on 2014 salaries
Citizens struggle to sustain 2006 commitments on 2014 salaries

IF NOTHING else, it is at least entertaining to watch the gyrations of our political parties as they attempt to cherish what they vaguely call 'the squeezed middle'.

Or that at least is the message that our political class is trying to get across to 'the squeezed middle, the coping classes' and whatever definition it can find to cover the increasingly surly electorate.

Sadly, it has been remarkably unsuccessful to date for the lambs of the squeezed middle appear to see wolves rather than nurturing sheep when our political class bounds over, bearing its kindest regards.

In fairness, one problem our political elite has is that no one has defined precisely who this grouping comprises. This difficulty has undoubtedly been accentuated by the previously happy scenario where, during the era of the Tiger, we believed Ireland had transcended the issue of class.

If the Ireland of that time was too modern and too wealthy for such dated notions, in the wake of the great fall, class has made a serious comeback.

It has become somewhat more amorphous since the simple days of Monty Python when a bowler-hatted John Cleese could claim he was middle class and Dudley Moore could say he was of the working class stripe. Today, however, in a development mirrored across the Western world, the squeezed middle incorporates a previously upwardly mobile working class and the old already-there middle class.

This forced merger has created a new grouping bigger than the squeezed middle for whilst the phrase is popular, it is far too reductive a description of the scale of the number of our citizens who now live in a permanent state of suspended alienation from the political process. Instead it might be more accurate to suggest the class which has been failed by our political elite should be termed the new 'working poor'.

Those who are puzzled by the rise in support levels for Sinn Fein and Independents to 50 per cent in the polls should note that this new class of 'working poor' is legion.

Significantly, the 'working poor' now incorporates the working classes and the middle classes in the private and the public sector.

In spite of the belief in Labour that the new 'working poor' consists of teachers, nurses and what used be called the 'caring professions', low pay is not just a public sector issue.

The new 'working poor' include the unwilling non-working tradesmen, the credit-starved small business owners and those self-employed white collar professionals who all know from bitter experience the State swiftly becomes their enemy when they become unemployed.

Intriguingly, a substantial group of the 'working poor' consists of the newly employed, be it those 'fortuitous' interns in Googleland or our tremulously returning main street retail economy.

The bad news on that front for a coalition banking on a jobs recovery to save its political hide is that this particular wing of the new 'working poor' is not terribly grateful for its subsistence wages.

The Singapore-style economics of being the best small country in the world in which to do business, Mr Kenny, is far less popular amongst those who experience it as distinct to those, like your good self, who merely talk about it.

That is not the end of it either, for one measure of the absence of political intelligence that is dogging this administration is that 'breakfast roll man' and his country girl fiancee in the retail trade would scratch their heads in collective astonishment at the notion that they are cherished by the Coalition.

They, along with our public sector workers and the other aforementioned classes, are instead part of the new Irish economic phenomenon of the cashless recovery where at a time when all economic indices are rising, the 'working poor' have no disposable income.

The Government may claim these are the citizens whom they prioritise but every policy they engage in appears to harm the interests of this class.

This dissonance between the Coalition's amorous declarations of desire to seduce the coping classes and the reality is now evolving into the Achilles heel of the Coalition.

As citizens struggle to sustain 2006 commitments on 2014 salaries, the current political three-card trick where the Government's claims that there have been no income tax increases is qualified by the raft of tax increases by stealth in health insurance, property taxes, water charges and VAT is running out of political road.

The Government may desire to court the squeezed middle but one feature of any successful seduction is the capacity to listen to the temporarily desired one, no matter how stressful it may be.

The absence of this empathy gene within the ranks of the Grumpy Old Men means that the very classes that swept them to power in 2011 are experiencing not just fiscal hard times.

They are also experiencing an ongoing spiritual and moral crisis that has left them in a state of fermenting fear and fret over their current and future status in the Republic.

This, alas, is not good news for the safety-first merchants of the Coalition for the one thing that should be – and in some cases is – exercising the minds of our politicians is the fact that there is no more terrifying revolt than that led by the petite bourgeoisie.

It is that mix of upwardly mobile middle and working poor classes who introduced Madame la Guillotine and Robespierre to the world and followed that up with the rise of fascism and Stalinism.

In Ireland, it, of course, was the alliance that destroyed the Irish Parliamentary Party and, after a 90- year period of quiescence, indulged in a good old run at Fine Gael in 2002 before it practically defenestrated Fianna Fail in 2011.

Labour, in this regard, would do well to note that when the Irish petite bourgeoisie decide to murder for sport, their most vicious killing field is Dublin.

Intriguingly, it is a location where both Sinn Fein and the Independents are concentrating their strongest resources.

Sunday Independent

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