Monday 16 September 2019

Leo? Simon? Does it matter a damn?

The figures on low pay are shocking, but the politicians really just don't care, writes Gene Kerrigan

Leo and Simon are front-runners to replace Enda Kenny. They are competing, on their politics, for the leadership of a major party. Polls suggest we prefer one to the other
Leo and Simon are front-runners to replace Enda Kenny. They are competing, on their politics, for the leadership of a major party. Polls suggest we prefer one to the other
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's quiz time, folks - let's see how knowledgeable we are about the current state of political play.

First: can you name three major political differences between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney?

Leo and Simon are front-runners to replace Enda Kenny. They are competing, on their politics, for the leadership of a major party. Polls suggest we prefer one to the other.

So, how will having one rather than the other in charge affect our lives? Name an issue on which they disagree. Take your time.

Some aspect of public transport development, maybe? Housing? Health? Banking? Not a difference in tactics or timing, but a flat-out deal-breaking divergence.

Equal Pay? The EU? Tax? Services? Crime? Nama?

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm guessing you're having trouble coming up with three major political differences.

How about just one major policy difference?

OK, then; one minor policy?

Not easy, is it?

Now, think of a single deal-breaking policy difference between any senior FG and FF figures. Oh, I know they contrive little political melodramas one week after the next, where they shout and point fingers - but that's Punch and Judy stuff.

Think of a single policy difference guaranteed to keep Brendan Howlin from joining Simon in Government?

Apart from occasional "moral" issues, which are usually dodged, there are no substantial differences between members of the major parties.

It's not that these people don't have politics. But, rather than argue on issues, they play the I'm-a-better-manager game.

Let's look at just one single issue that made the news last week, a major issue, and see how politicians contrive to distance themselves from the consequences of their policies.

Something that affects us all - pay.

Last week, the Low Pay Commission suggested a lousy 10c increase on the minimum wage.

As it happens, the Tasc think-tank published a report on inequality, which gives us some background.

The minimum wage of €9.15 an hour is 20pc below the recommended living wage of €11.50 an hour. The living wage, on a full week's work, is just enough to pay for the essentials of life.

It's not too much to expect that a full week's work should at least ensure you can afford the essentials.

You might think so, but the Low Pay Commission wouldn't agree. It thinks an extra 10c should be enough for you.

This will bring your salary to a whopping €18,759 a year (up from €18,556).

Even this was too much for the Small Firms Association. They came out fighting, insisting that an extra 10c an hour would be bad for the country.

The SFA's mothership, Ibec, has recently been calling for cuts in marginal tax rates and "curbing costs" (nudge, wink).

The Tasc inequality figures show where this has led. In time, our descendants will look at these figures and wonder what kind of people we were.

In 1987, an ESRI study estimated that the top 10pc of earners, the elite, owned 42pc of the country's wealth.

The bottom 50pc of earners shared just 12.2pc.

Today, the top 10pc own 53.8pc of the nation's wealth.

And the share of the bottom 50pc has been forced down to a mere 4.9pc.

In Ireland, 23pc of workers - almost one in four - is low paid, one of the highest rates in the OECD.

This didn't just happen - it isn't a natural process, it has involved the manipulation of social groups, pitting us against one another, the denigration and shrinking of trade unions (this has been helped by the weakness and "partnership" mentality of the union leadership).

And the cooperation of the major political parties.

Today, the growth in the wealth of the elite depends on a sweatshop culture. In areas such as construction, workers who once had jobs are increasingly used as single-trader contractors, beholden and vulnerable.

Because, it isn't all about money. Not alone have the elite, with the support of the politicians, driven down the share of income going to hard-working people; they have introduced the concept of "precarious work".

That is, they've contrived to destabilise the workplaces of the lower paid. They do this by making the workplace a place of unease. This is done by subverting the concept of a job.

Permanent, full-time jobs are not for the lower paid.

Increasing numbers of workers have become casual, part-time hired hands, at the beck and call of the employer, working irregular and uncertain hours. You lose employment rights and survive on the grace and favour of the managerial layer that protect the elite's privileges.

This encourages deference, meekness, reluctance to demand your rights lest you be seen as a troublemaker.

People who tugged their forelocks in the presence of landlords' agents in the 19th Century would recognise the syndrome.

But isn't this a global phenomenon? Yes, it is. Across the world, the elites have been grabbing an ever-larger share of the wealth we all produce. Those who once would have got comfortable rewards now demand extravagant benefits. Rewards are vastly out of proportion to profit, let alone social value.

Millionaires are commonplace. And when you have that kind of wealth, you get the pick of the inside information and advance notice of the most lucrative deals. And that's why the world now has so many billionaires.

And our elite are very, very good at it. The top 20pc across the Euro area own 67.6pc of the wealth. In Ireland it's 73pc (up from 59.6pc in 1987).

So, here we have a grievous degeneration of a fundamental element of society, the rewards for work. And the systematic destabilisation of workplaces.

Who among the political elite - Leo, Simon, Enda, Michael etc etc etc - has stood against this? Occasional lip service to fairness suffices, while the sweatshop culture thrives.

Such issues are kept off the political agenda.

It's not like Leo says 'Make me leader and I'll seek to reverse this degradation of the workforce', while Simon argues that it's a good thing.

Such developments are simply not part of the political debate, which is confined to grandiose PR campaigns and Punch and Judy role-playing.

Last week, when Coveney launched his housing project, Councillor Oisin Smyth, Green Party, tweeted that the Construction Industry Federation had been consulted 63 times on the issue.

In the bad old days, politicians sent proposed legislation to the bishops, to get the okay. Today, legislation is run past the "public affairs" departments of consultants, the palace guard of the private sector, to ensure no paragraph impinges on the elite's right to extract maximum value.

It's widely understood that gross inequality destabilises an economy; and that it leads to social instability (Trump and Brexit are consequences of grossly unequal societies, where disaffection, racism and seething nationalism are opening dangerous paths).

Party leaderships and general elections are fought on makey-up melodramas, while the political choices that shape society are made in private.

Sunday Independent

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