Monday 16 September 2019

Ministerial mishandling creates another bout of protest politics

Paul Murphy. Photo:
Paul Murphy. Photo:
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Back in 1980 (Jesus wept - 37 years ago), I was a raw 20-year-old callow Enniscorthy urban councillor trying to build a local political base.

On summer evenings I went door-to-door to seek signatures as part of a young Fine Gael nationwide petition to abolish the legal status of 'illegitimacy'. It sounds absurd now but then children born outside of marriage were so classified.

I wanted to get to know people in council housing estates. I needed them to know me. Wannabe TDs must build a personal rapport with householders, earn their trust. To break the ice you need a campaign pretext.

I always carried a notebook to write down problems about leaking gutters, broken footpaths or any council issue of concern. By pursuing these, in correspondence and follow-up calls/replies, public representatives build a client relationship.

This groundwork turns generic electors into supportive voters.

The anti-water charges campaign represented the best ever opportunity to conduct a doorstep political sales spiel - cold calling on steroids. It had the direct benefits of harnessing common community esprit de corps of anti-establishment protest; plus the potential of direct cash savings. Public meetings and protest marches solidified mutual connections among people who were normally the most apathetic, cynical and disconnected from politicians.

The left in this country is most effective when at the heart of protest politics, mobilising alienation into action and ultimately votes at the ballot box - harnessing issues of inequality into organised anger. Whipping up a frenzy of civil disobedience to determine which laws they will and won't obey.

No one does this better than deputy Paul Murphy with his loudhailer, slow marching and sit down of obstruction.

The Jobstown anti-water protest doesn't rate on the social injustice spectrum compared with ANC marches in Cape Town against apartheid, black protests in Alabama against systemic racial inequality, nor the civil rights campaign in Derry. But hey, it put the Shinners on the back foot in Dublin south-west. It contributed to cannibalising 30 Labour TDs. It meant that for many the last General Election became a referendum on household water charges.

Botched attempts at revenue raising by Irish Water was manna from heaven for the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People before Profit. The political establishment and civil service elite forgot that only the Revenue Commissioners ensure national compliance for tax collection. Instead of tweaking the Local Property Tax to fund water/sanitary services, they got into contortions over meters, wavers and crazy grant schemes.

Bin charges mean more manna for the hard left. Irish Water started out as an environmental debate: infrastructure investment required over decades to provide sustainable clean water; prevent untreated effluent polluting waterways; conserving water resources through elimination of leaks; providing the most efficient delivery systems. Whereas it morphed into the simplest slogan "No Way, We Won't Pay".

Domestic refuse collection charges are now about environmental concerns: charging by weight to make recycling more cost efficient; promoting householder awareness of optimal usage of black/brown/green bins; reducing dependence on landfill sites.

Ministerial mishandling manufactures another bout of protest politics - to renationalise waste collection through local authorities, followed by populist refrains that it should be free.

A 'right to refuse' campaign has the hidden central tenet of being paid for out of central taxation.

Water and waste campaigns sell false illusions that householders don't have to pay household bills.

Free stuff is the ultimate Irish electoral elixir. Not a race to the bottom, a race to a banana republic.

The sad irony is such short sighted escapism is not in the best financial interests of blue-collar workers. Some 96pc of all income tax receipts are paid by 50pc of the population - the very rich and poor don't contribute.

Half-year income tax returns just published confirm that 40pc of total Exchequer revenue comes directly from pay packets.

More household services paid for centrally removes the scope to reduce the €19bn of income tax take. Ordinary working men/women carry the costs of free stuff.

The 'Jobstown Six' trial and bin charges debate are defining opportunist issues for left-wing parties.

Defiant, even triumphalist, proclamations about new prototypes of protest arising from the correct acquittal of dubious DPP overcharging, suggest street politics is their best growth strategy. The new bin charges regime can't come quick enough. The typecast oppressed must overthrow price gouging, profiteering, capitalist bin collectors.

This mentality is the definition of puerile politics. It will never deliver power.

The elephant in the room for socialism is the incredibly destructive fragmentation of representation. For a left-wing led government to ever happen here, the internecine warfare among themselves must be replaced by consolidation.

The profile of socialist TDs in Leinster House is: Sinn Féin 23; Labour 7; Solidarity 6; Independents 4 Change 4; Social Democrats 2; Greens 2; Independent left TDs Catherine Connolly, Maureen O'Sullivan, John Halligan and Thomas Pringle. Outside the Dáil, additional competitors include the Workers Party and assorted hybrid reds. If you want to vote left, there are eight menu options.

Like greyhounds scrambling at the first bend, they destroy each other's chances by bumping each other.

This ideological intensity and close combat rivalry is a zero-sum game.

Take Dublin West last time out - Joan Burton, Paul Donnelly (Sinn Féin) and Ruth Coppinger was probably the nastiest nationwide.

Brendan Ogle's Right2Change campaigns (water and housing) haven't secured left unity. Mandate and Unite trade union support was partly predicated on screwing Siptu, more especially Labour.

While the constituency focus of taking out Labour TDs remains, total market share of its ideology is stunted, remaining within a glass ceiling.

Protest as a raison d'être also suppresses policy development inside a time warp. Solidarity's modern answers? Pavlovian. Accommodation crisis - more money for social housing; trolley crisis - more money for hospital beds; all public services - renationalisation, greater personnel numbers, better pay and conditions. Globalisation, Uberisation of work and digital revolution have irreversibly changed consumerism.

Socialist answers are still wedded to the same old 1960s command economy rhetoric.

Breakfast-roll man is back. He/she is aspiring again towards enhanced individual living standards.

Class politics thrives best amid the pain of austerity. If the future is to be socialist, rather than another futile false dawn, then Paul Murphy and Co must create a collective social contract around which 60-plus TDs are elected. That's as far away as ever.

A refuse regulator seems a small price to pay for politics as usual.

Irish Independent

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