Stephen Collins should be Professor of Rational Politics in UCD. (or in University of Ulster)

The Irish Times – Saturday, February 11, 2012

Misuse of political labels can lead to bad politics

STEPHEN COLLINS

ANALYSIS: IN THE course of taking a swipe at Joe Higgins in the Dáil
during the week, Enda Kenny asked how people who claimed to be
socialists could be opposed to a property tax. Labour TD Emmet Stagg
nipped in to dub the far-left critics of the Coalition “tea party
socialists”.

The ensuing raucous exchanges about political labels may not have
meant much to people outside Leinster House but they raised issues
about our political system which have consequences for the way the
country is governed.

Kenny was right to suggest that only in Ireland could people who
oppose a property tax describe themselves as socialists. Much of what
passes for left-wing politics here would be regarded elsewhere in
Europe as sectional self-interest or reactionary populism.

The other side of the coin is that those who believe in a
properly-funded state that provides good quality services like health
and welfare are routinely described as right wing because they insist
that the money to fund such services should be provided through a
broadly-based taxation system.

In other EU states supporters of this approach to government would
usually be regarded as left wing, while such views would be regarded
as rank socialism in the US.

The right-wing Tea Party campaigners in the US who don’t believe in
taxes are at least consistent as they don’t believe in state spending
either.

Does it matter whether labels like left and right are misused or
misrepresented? Well it does if their misuse leads to bad politics and
misgovernment.

One of the reasons why politics failed the country in the first decade
of the 21st century was a lack of coherence in the Bertie Ahern-led
government about what it stood for. Ahern famously described himself
as just one of two socialists in the Dáil, the other allegedly being
Joe Higgins. At one level Ahern did follow a left-wing path. During
his tenure in office the State funded generous pay increases to public
servants, huge increases in welfare entitlements and a massive
expansion of the public service.

The problem was that this policy went hand in hand with cutting taxes
for rich and poor alike to dangerously low levels, a range of tax
incentives for property developers and speculators that fuelled the
property boom and a lack of effective regulation at all levels.

The incoherence of the approach brought the State to the verge of bankruptcy.

Since the crash the efforts, firstly of the government led by Brian
Cowen and now of the Coalition led by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, to
put the State back on a sustainable financial footing have been widely
denounced as right wing and reactionary when they are nothing of the
kind. People on the right like Shane Ross don’t believe in a
well-funded State at all, hence their rejection of the EU-IMF bailout
and their insistence that the exchequer should renege on its debts.

One of the reasons the country got into its current mess was the
ambivalence on the part of many politicians and a substantial chunk of
the electorate to the State itself. While the exchequer was widely
regarded as a source of largesse to be exploited by fair means or
foul, there was no corresponding loyalty to the State as an
institution.

Now that they are in government Labour and Fine Gael are following
orthodox policies but in opposition not so long ago they too opposed
property taxes and virtually everything else that was suggested to get
the State out of its current mess.

This ambivalence towards the State probably goes back to the Civil War
when the institutions established by the winners were rejected and
reviled by the losers.

The fact that the losers took the reins of power a decade later, and
held on to them for the bulk of the period from 1932 until 2011,
institutionalised that ambivalence.

A member of the last Fianna Fáil government noted that one of the
features of his party was that its members had a deep sense of loyalty
to the party and the nation but not to the State. The cavalier
attitude adopted to the State and its institutions by some of its
leading members during the good times ultimately proved fatal for
Fianna Fáil.

In its final two years in office the party struggled to rectify the
situation and that struggle is now being waged by the Fine Gael-Labour
Coalition. There are signs that the strategy is beginning to pay off,
despite growth in Europe remaining very sluggish.

While the cynics in the political world and the media are still
predicting doom at every turn, the unfolding events in Greece should
be an eye-opener for people tempted to believe the seductive arguments
of those who have consistently argued that we should default on our
debts and spurn the EU-IMF bailout.

The people of Greece, whose pay and welfare levels are much lower than
ours, are facing further living standards cuts if they want to remain
in the euro and potential chaos if they can’t meet the conditions.

As a result of the relatively much milder medicine we have taken here,
Ireland has now put deep blue water between itself and Greece and is
in a much better position than Portugal which is struggling to meet
its obligations.

Writing in the Financial Times a few days ago, Harvard’s Prof Ricardo
Hausmann cited the Irish model of an export-led economy as an example
for Greece. Sadly that is no solution for Greek woes in the short
term, but it should induce an element of realism here about how far we
have come as well as how far we still have to go. Abandoning flawed
notions about what constitutes left and right might help us on our
way.