Tuesday 15 October 2019

Leo can win without giving the voters all that they want

To govern is to choose - and the Taoiseach should pick policies that provide solutions to Ireland's real priorities, says Ed Brophy

Careless Whispers: Leo Varadkar felt the wrath of the predominantly middle-class media for coming across as too middle-class. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Careless Whispers: Leo Varadkar felt the wrath of the predominantly middle-class media for coming across as too middle-class. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke

Ed Brophy

Seven years into his term as Taoiseach, as the Celtic Tiger moved into its catastrophic "boomier" phase, Bertie Ahern was vilified by the Left for suggesting that he was Ireland's only true socialist. Last week, as signs of our new boom proliferated, Bertie's successor felt the wrath of the predominantly middle-class media for coming across as too, well, middle-class.

The return of such frivolity to public life shows that our lost decade of crisis, near ruin and recovery is now fading into memory. A sense of crisis still surrounds our housing and health systems - the former cyclical and the latter perennial. However, when it is the bank of mum and dad rather than austerity, bond yields, mass unemployment and emigration that dominates pub talk and phone-ins, then it is clear that a corner has been turned.

In case we needed any further reminder that we have entered a new phase, the latest Ipsos/MRBI poll for the Irish Times confirmed the trend evident since last autumn of Fine Gael maintaining a comfortable lead over Fianna Fail together with a big leap in Leo Varadkar's personal support, making him easily the most popular Taoiseach since Bertie in his heyday.

More significantly, a consistent majority believes that the country is going in the right direction. The last time that the stars were in such alignment, Bertie saw it as licence to deliver his unique version of "socialism in one country". Massive, permanent increases in the size of the state were financed by a credit-fuelled bubble, including, of course, the 100pc mortgage Varadkar took out at the height of the boom. Bertie-style socialism took us down a fatal economic path. However, as he told the Banking Inquiry, it was what the people, the Opposition and the whole supporting cast of social partners wanted at the time. He was merely the conduit, whose job was to know what the people wanted and then make sure they got second helpings.

A lot has changed since those days of wine and roses. Unlike our closest neighbours, who are exposed to bad governments unlike almost anywhere else and will be even more so when they leave the EU, there are now clear limits on the damage that populist politics can do to our economy and society. The European rules that we strongly endorsed mean that Bertie's unfunded spending hikes and tax cuts are now the ultimate fiscal faux pas. And yet, evidence that the requirement for responsibility has translated into a more mature politics remains pretty thin on the ground. In the main, the Opposition parties continue to fulfil the role of spokespeople for the various advocacy groups, for whom the answer will invariably be "More, please".

To govern is to choose. For Varadkar and his Government to see their role now, just as billions of euro in surpluses become available, to say yes to everything, as Bertie did during the last boom, would be a bad political choice. It would also be the wrong choice for the country. Having been brought to ruin by governments that couldn't say no, guaranteeing good government that puts stock in identifying and providing solutions to our national priorities might well translate Varadkar's personal popularity into a winning platform for the next election.

When he became Taoiseach, there was much talk that Varadkar would give us what George Bush called his "vision thing", by putting some flesh on the bones of the ''Republic of Opportunity''. While there has been no one big speech, there have been plenty of hints. Under Varadkar, Fine Gael is moving into the mainstream of European Christian Democracy - a social market economy, a generous but contributory welfare state, and a strong emphasis on rights and responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is busy forging new alliances with the small, open, liberal states like Holland, Finland and Sweden who will act as a counterweight to both the revived Franco-German motor and the increasingly illiberal Eastern European states.

Donohoe is right to identify this 21st Century Hanseatic League as our natural allies post-Brexit, not least because, like Ireland, they manage to pull off the rare feat of combining a dynamic economy with an inclusive society as the World Economic Forum confirmed last week.

There will be the predictable objections that this agenda lacks ambition and Fintan O'Toole will inevitably bemoan the absence of what are sometimes called "big ideas". However, when it comes to big ideas, the Irish electorate may not differ much from journalist Danny Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Holocaust, when he said: "Big ideas drove my family from their home and their country, murdered my grandmother, starved my mother, imprisoned my father and stole our property. So I like pragmatic, small British ideas, our quiet suburbs and our stable institutions."

Whether the ideas are big or small, all governments need a theme. Bertie's famous "A Lot Done, More to Do" was that rare slogan that both created a political advantage and provided a governing agenda. As we face into an era of huge change and expectation, a contemporary restatement might well be "Making Ireland Work Again".

While the advantage is clearly with Varadkar, many obstacles stand in the way of Fine Gael winning the next election and replacing Fianna Fail as the natural party of government. Some, like complacency or a failure to deliver tangible improvements to public services or living standards, could be self-inflicted. The other is the mere fact of seeking re-election for the third time.

The economy remains the most important fundamental and the incomes of voters are particularly crucial. Elections can be forecast with a large degree of accuracy by knowing the direction of real income growth in the few months before a vote.

Superficially, the current steady rise in median incomes is to the Government's advantage. Against this, the failure to index tax bands, welfare rates and inflation in key areas may well diminish any gains on paper. Prioritising real and sustainable wage growth should be a key issue for the Government in the year ahead.

However, all elections are now in some way "change" elections, which puts any government - even one seeking re-election against a positive economic backdrop - at a significant disadvantage. In these circumstances, Varadkar will have to pull off the trick of presenting himself as a credible change candidate, while running as the incumbent. The newness and freshness of the Government help in this regard, but he also needs to stand authentically as the agent of change and modernisation that the country needs.

The Opposition can still win an election in a strong economy if it can find an issue in which it holds the advantage and thereby change the question. This is why Fianna Fail is unlikely to go near the economy - its entire focus will be on under-investment in public services and fairness. As I have written before, in doing this, it may well end up fighting the last war, in circumstances where voters are looking for a modest payback.

Ultimately, the deciding factor may well be leadership. As we have seen time and again in the past couple of years with Trump, Macron, Brexit and last year's British election, in an era of uncertainty and volatility, voters are increasingly turning to leaders whom they feel speak for them rather than to particular political ideologies. The trick for Varadkar will be to campaign in a way that authenticates and copper-fastens the positive views the electorate already has about him and his leadership. Unlike Bertie, he may ultimately succeed by not giving them everything they want.

Eoghan Harris is on leave. He will return next week

Sunday Independent

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