I know some breakfast roll men. I meet them every morning at my local newsagent. They’re building workers. They’d be surprised to learn they are one of the most important political categories today, their lifestyles and electoral choices the subject of endless punditry. Indeed, you’d think, from the commentary that the only debate in the embryonic Labour leadership race is which candidate is best placed to win the breakfast roll man’s vote. The lads I meet every morning would be amused – and will continue to vote Fianna Fail until the sites close down. Or . . .
Spare a thought for the members of the Labour Party. Many sections of the media are determined to define the debating points despite widespread ignorance of economic reality and the Labour Party, in particular. And since much of the debate in Labour will be articulated through, and commented on, by much of this same media, party members and candidates will have to fight hard to get to grips with the real challenges facing Labour.
Everyone has a theory. On the evening of Pat Rabbitte’s resignation, the Sunday Tribune’s Shane Coleman stated on RTE that the failure of Dominic Hannigan to gain a Labour seat in Meath East was symptomatic of Labour’s failure to relate to the new Ireland as defined by the ‘commuter class’ – a bellweather category in these changed times. Never mind that Labour took seats in North Kildare, Wicklow (where its vote is concentrated in North Wicklow), Dun Laoghaire and the western Dublin constituencies – all containing significant commuter belts. Never mind that Labour’s presence in Meath has been in decline since the Tully days – to the point where they won no local council seats in 2004. Never mind that Dominic was elected as an independent and only barely – winning 8% first preferences and scraping in on the last count by a hundred votes. Never mind that Dominic was struggling in a difficult three-seater with an organisation only a pale shadow of its former strength. Given the difficult odds, Dominic’s result, disappointing insofar as he didn’t gain a seat, was still credible. But don’t let any of that muddy pure conjecture.
Or Mr. Coleman again (I don’t mean to pick on Shane, it’s just that he’s most insistent on this subject):
But the undeniable reality is that the one time the party’s poll rating seriously jumped was when Rabbitte announced that he would cut the basic rate of income tax.
Never mind that this assumes a cause and effect (and note that there is no analysis of why Labour, having adopted a tax-cutting stance, eventually declined). In early 2003, Rabbitte called for the introduction of a wealth tax. Only weeks later Labour ‘seriously jumped’ to 22% in the polls, in second place well ahead of Fine Gael and advancing on Fianna Fail (this serious jump was also facilitated by Labour's leading role in the anti-war marches - one of those old fashioned values the Left insists on: peace). Read in all this what you will.
There is laziness among many commentators who have read the sexy parts of David McWilliams’ The Pope’s Children while ignoring the hard economic bits. They bandy about terms with little understanding of their social context (‘decklanders’, ‘HiCos’, ‘DIY man’ and, of course, ‘breakfast roll man’) and indulge in soundbite analyses which get them invited on to Morning Ireland.
All this might be mere sport except that if party members start buying into this truncated thinking, they should at least know where these commentators are leading them. Mr. Coleman states that the next Party leader’s success will be determined by whether s/he gets them into government in five years time:
'Even a disastrous election where Labour came back with 14 or 15 TDs would still leave it as the third largest party, with an even-money chance of being government.'
So, Labour could go belly up but if the Dail arithmetic is right and Fianna Fail needs Labour, the new Party leader will be judged a success: lose seats and still win. Labour members need this advice like they need a hole in their political head.
It’s not that Labour members should sequester themselves from media punditry. Nor should candidates ignore the issues such commentary throws up. Merely, that they need to be selective and on guard. There is one commentator whose analysis should be addressed. Indeed, it goes to the very core of Labour’s dilemma – its lack of an economic policy, its failure to address the wider issues of enterprise development and wealth creation. These are the issues raised by Paul Tansey.
Mr. Tansey did not seek to intervene in the Labour leadership race. He didn’t even mention Labour. But he cogently outlined the issues the party will have to confront in the years ahead. Mr. Tansey rightly states that the early years of Celtic tiger growth were dominated by foreign direct investment – our exports and productivity increases were almost all down to the high-tech multi-national sectors that the IDA worked so hard to coax into Ireland (though some would not readily dismiss the role of indigenous industry).
Then we lost sight of the game. Exports and output in previously high-growth areas began to wane. This was replaced by an unrelenting surge in construction, property investment and consumer spending. Our trade balance turned red, our export sector stagnated (relatively) and inflation rose.
Now we have a situation where enterprise and export growth is sputtering and those sectors that recently contributed to growth - construction and consumer spending – are falling off. The economy, in effect, doesn’t have a direction and its platform for future growth is decidedly warped.
To highlight Mr. Tansey’s argument doesn’t mean accepting his prescriptions. His over-emphasis on wage increases (wages make up only a fraction of production costs in high-tech sectors), his support for cuts in PRSI as a trade-off for lower wage increases, the reductionism that equates competition with price; all these are highly contentious and miss the mark. No matter. Mr. Tansey’s description of the problem is correct.
Enter the Labour leadership race. Party members will choose their leader on the basis of many factors. But surely one of them must be which candidate addresses Labour’s failure to construct an independent and progressive analysis of our economic failings. While it would be unrealistic to expect one person to come forward with a prescription, party members should expect of their candidates to at least have a deep and informed appreciation of the issues and a concrete programme to address them.
This requires more than just ‘proposals’. It requires an analysis that understands that the Celtic Tiger economy didn’t take off because of tax-cuts, or regulation-cuts or any other neo-liberal prescription, but rather because of a direct intervention by the state (however limited) to promote enterprise development – whether foreign or indigenous – in key economic sectors. It will require a programme to get us back to that policy framework which was jettisoned by the irresponsible actions of Fianna Fail and, in particular, Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey.
Most of all, it will mean ignoring huge swathes of media commentary that is focused only on symptoms and labels, promoting palimpsest analyses without the energy or imagination to peel away even one thin layer, never mind get to the core of our problems.
If party members find such a candidate willing to take on this issue then they should seriously consider him or her. For that candidate will have shown themselves to be ready for that most difficult task of all – making Labour relevant on the economy. If that happens then the lads down at my local newsagent – sorry, the ‘breakfast roll men’ – might start taking Labour seriously.