As Labour consults survival handbooks, it's less spin, more action that's needed
Published 12/05/2014 | 02:30
Back-to-back masterclasses in self-preservation dressed up as democratic accountability were demonstrated yesterday. They could have been taken from 'Survival – The Politician's Essential Handbook'.
The lessons, courtesy of Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, came from a chapter advising on measures to follow when electoral humiliation threatens.
Step one: send out a senior figure, preferably a government minister, to address the public directly. He or she tells the people their cries have been heard. Mr Rabbitte did that with an interview with the 'Sunday Independent'.
Then he proceeded to step two: imply that a number of remedies are on the horizon. But this part must be kept vague. Talk about how "current tax rates are just not tolerable", without actually promising tax relief.
Next follows step three: suggest the situation is about to improve and recommend patience in the short-term.
During this performance, it is crucial to ignore the fact that distress calls have been ringing out unheard for more than three years. The minister must pretend they didn't float up to the ivory tower in which he or she has been comfortably nesting.
Repeat each of the above steps with other key players as necessary.
If the situation looks particularly grim, use the party leader. Have him or her promise something nebulous but upbeat, such as "renewal of purpose". Even better if the leader can piggyback off a symbolic occasion such as the 1916 commemorations.
At all times, bear in mind the purpose of the spindoctoring exercise: to persuade people to keep taking the medicine, as opposed to sacking the doctor.
Adopt an empathetic tone with the public's struggles – but do nothing differently.
And so it was that Communications Minister Rabbitte checked the relevant chapter in the handbook, and set about telling us that, all of a sudden, the party feels our pain. Just as the Tanaiste did yesterday during a speech in Arbour Hill.
Miraculously, impending elections have cleared the wax out of Labour's ears. Clearly, it's not the misery of the austerity-flattened Irish people bothering the party, but its own impending misery at the polls on May 23.
What took Labour so long to get the message? People's distress about property tax didn't do it? Especially people whose homes are in negative equity, or who paid huge amounts of stamp duty a few years before.
High unemployment rates didn't do it? They stand at 11.7pc. But let's remember the emigration pattern of recent years, so those rates don't reflect the full picture.
The Universal Social Charge didn't do it? For the past three years, the Coalition has retained Fianna Fail and the Greens' policy of an additional austerity tax.
Visitors from other countries are astonished to hear the Irish pay 52pc tax on income as soon as it reaches the modest level of €32,800 a year. How do people live, they ask? Good question.
Here's the maths: the top rate of tax is 41pc, plus 7pc USC on all earnings above €16,000, followed by PRSI at 4pc. Total: 52pc. Annual average earnings in 2012 were €36,000. So, the average worker is taxed as if he or she is a high-earner. It's rather late in the day for Labour to grasp that it's unacceptable.
Here's what Mr Rabbitte said: "The Universal Social Charge is punitive. It is not acceptable in any democracy, where you are dependent on the allegiance of the people, that citizens become liable to the top rate of tax at the industrial wage."
Absolutely, minister. Your solidarity with workers is commendable. Nothing to do with the Euro, local and by-elections, I presume?
He claims voters are telling him water charges must be the last piece in the austerity jigsaw. I suspect his ears are deceiving him – water charges are a piece too many in a great number of cases.
Granted, the party argued for water standing charges to be abandoned. But does anyone imagine that would have happened if not for elections brewing?
It strikes me that this administration is not reacting well to the absence of the troika. Since the bailout ended, the Government has drifted, to use Mr Rabbitte's description – distracted by fire-fighting on controversies surrounding the gardai.
The Coalition seems unprepared for the shift in responsibilities as EU and IMF officials downgrade their involvement – the lack of someone else to blame for austerity measures. "The big bad troika made us do it" is no longer available as an excuse. Why is Labour only now waking up to the realisation that citizens have had enough? And not only because of taxes but because of mismanagement. Take water charges. Even those not opposed to their implementation are angered by the sloppy way Irish Water is being set up.
Some 4,000-plus water workers have been absorbed into it from every local authority in the State. That's a monster-sized state body – reminiscent of the Health Service Executive. Noises have been made about a redundancy programme but we'll have to take that on trust. Like so much else.
And how much confidence can anyone have in the body's efficiency when €85m will be gobbled up by consultants and external contracts by mid-2015?
It will be 2016 before the majority of households has a water meter, we're told. Meaning guesstimate bills for many users in the first year of operation. Here, as in other spheres, all the tough decisions are one way – and directed towards hapless citizens.
Meanwhile, a PR strategy is being played out by Mr Rabbitte and Mr Gilmore, and no doubt other senior Labour figures will soon pop up, reciting lessons gleaned from 'Survival – the Politician's Essential Handbook'. The electioneering is blatant. Ministers, what the public wants is less spin and more action.