Wednesday 13 November 2019

Dr Shana Cohen: 'Wave of global protest could hit our shores unless politicians can stem tide of mistrust'

Turbulent world: A woman holds a placard reading, ‘Better pensions or euthanasia’ during a protest against Chile’s government in Santiago this week. Photo: Reuters
Turbulent world: A woman holds a placard reading, ‘Better pensions or euthanasia’ during a protest against Chile’s government in Santiago this week. Photo: Reuters

Dr Shana Cohen

FOR months we have been reading daily reports about protests erupting around the world, from India to Lebanon to Chile. The Chilean government pulled out of hosting two major international summits, including the UN climate change conference, because of the ongoing unrest there.

In Chile, the catalyst was subway fares. In Lebanon, protests erupted as a result of proposals to tax WhatsApp messages. In India, it was the price of onions. In France, last year, the government's proposition to increase tax on diesel sparked the gilets-jaunes movement. Brexit itself was probably more accurately a protest referendum on the cost of living and the perception that political elites did not care, than membership of the EU.

Yet these protests railing governments all over the world are not new. The protesters are not making fresh demands. Rather, they are repeating, with accelerating frustration, demands that have been made, in some cases, for decades.

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When I was conducting research in Morocco in the 1990s, young men and women who had attended university or vocational school were regularly protesting in front of parliament in Rabat for jobs. Having a degree had not led to social mobility.

Perhaps the only difference today is that the population claiming they are under financial stress is growing to include not just the young and lower income households, but also the "squeezed middle" and older workers angry at cuts to public services and afraid for their pensions.

The protests occurring now can be visible, as in Algeria or India, or more subtle, such as the boycott in Morocco since last year of specific products (for example, Danone) to criticise the porous relationship between business monopolies and political power.

In Ireland, we experienced widespread protests against water charges. These protests reflected at the time frustration with the financial crisis.

However, the particular circumstances of the backlash against water charges do not preclude protests happening again.

From our own research at Tasc, the combination of the high cost of living in Ireland, especially in Dublin, the housing shortage, health inequalities and the prevalence of low paid, precarious work among young people could reasonably provoke similar discontent to what we are witnessing elsewhere.

Protest may not just be confined to young people, who make up over 33pc of the population. Carbon taxes and other climate policies to compensate for Ireland's slow progress will present difficulties to farmers and rural business owners, as well as the employees of companies in the frontline of climate policy, like Bord na Móna.

As politicians and candidates around the country prepare for what looks like a spring 2020 election, they cannot afford to discount what they are reading about "over there". Instead, politicians, political parties and policy-makers should be thinking about the policy vision required to address uncertainty and anxiety provoked by rising costs of living and insecure work here.

Such stress will not be placated with minor concessions aimed at short-term fixes. Rather, policy-makers need to be reflecting on sustainable strategies and policies that are rooted in investment in public wealth and public services and will convince the public that the government is acting on their behalf.

Pursuing a policy vision means not trotting out more statements about employment rates to indicate the health of our society. People need more than employment. They need to know that their employment will actually provide them with a viable standard of living and confidence in the future.

For at the moment, this confidence is not a given for many in Ireland. In one of Tasc's current projects, on the top 10pc income group in the EU, we are seeing that even people in high-paying jobs are concerned about the cost of living.

Of the four European countries we look at for this study, people in Ireland feel most insecure when it comes to the affordability and sustainability of life.

As Ireland prepares for a crucial turn-of-the-decade election next spring, policies need be bold and, for once, transformative and public-interest focused.

First, worker rights and economic democracy have to become priorities, not only to potentially raise wages but also to demonstrate that supporting political engagement, ensuring corporate accountability and fighting inequality are important for the next government.

Second, despite the looming risks posed by Brexit and a global economic slowdown, investment towards universal healthcare - at least for children under 18 and possibly under 25 (as they may still be at home) - as well as social housing and childcare will help reduce the cost of living and indicate that the government wants to protect the population from potential external shocks by seeing that basic needs are met. Our research over the past few years shows that healthcare, housing and the steady growth of precarious work practices affect younger people most - the very cohort that has largely led the protests in other countries.

Third, issues that have polarised voters in other countries or provoked resistance, like migration and climate action, should be addressed in part by replicating at a local level Ireland's very successful exercises in national deliberative democracy (eg citizens' assemblies). Local communities need to know that their voices are being listened to at a moment when they are being asked to make significant changes in their lifestyles and livelihoods.

Ireland shares the same problems causing unrest elsewhere but, unlike other countries, still has an opportunity to face them before they become part of a bigger crisis.

  • Dr Shana Cohen is director of Tasc, the Think-tank for Action on Social Change

Irish Independent

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