Now ‘new politics’ really does mean something

The UK election gave us a night of electoral drama so unique for its unpredictability and upending of deeply held assumptions that it is impossible to find anything comparable. This truly was ‘new politics’, not in the Irish sense of a political cliché to hide paralysis, but in the sense of people, particularly the young, galvanised by a vision that things could be different and defying the carefully crafted regime of the privileged.


It is difficult to remember a political leader so vilified and insulted by a large swathe of his country’s media, so demonised and dismissed not just by opponents but by many in his own party as is Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, amid this, he built a base of solid support, honed a message of hope and change, and within a few weeks turned the tables on the establishment. And all was done with calm and courtesy. Yes, this truly is new politics, and it is here to stay.


The slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ summed up succinctly the essence of the message that came to mean so much to so many over those few short weeks because it got things back to basics and cut through the obfuscating hype which so dominates today’s politics. Behind the slogan was a return to old-fashioned social democratic policies of redistributing from the wealthy to the less well-off, decent funding of public services accessible on the basis of need and not income, and giving priority to the common good of public over private interests.


To this extent, election 2017 was a return to old politics, the sort of politics that used to matter to people, that cemented life-long loyalties and identities because it protected against the ravages of the market and invested in bettering the livelihoods of the many. This was Corbyn’s success, to do the unthinkable and return politics to what really matters to most people, wrenching it from the grip of high finance and big corporations.


And it is telling that, in doing this, he also overcame the fragmentation that has come to characterise so many political systems as extremes of left and right seek to respond, often in crude, antagonistic and even violent ways, to the vacuity of mainstream politics. Labour showed that, when a major party begins again to stand for the interests of the majority, there is no further need for fragmentation, and a clear divide between the interests of the many and those of the few defines the political contest.


Though the Tories remain in power, nothing can hide the fact that election 2017 marks a fundamental shift in power. If leaders define eras and build new electoral coalitions and possibilities, then Corbyn now looks very likely to define a new era just as Thatcher and Blair have done in the past. But if their legacy was the imposition of neoliberalism by Thatcher and the attempt to give it a human face by Blair, then Corbyn’s emergence marks its decisive demise. How this happens over the coming years is not at all clear; what is clear is that he is putting in place the necessary elements – a strong and energised base of support, a political party being re-formed, the seeds of a post-neoliberal project – to bring it about.


And in the person of Theresa May we are reminded once again of the dangers of political hubris, of refusing to engage with citizens, of taking power for granted. Her day is over and she may go down as one of the shortest-serving leaders in British electoral history. It is all her own doing, in the belief that she could hoodwink the electorate. Without an opponent of the calibre of Corbyn, she might have succeeded.

After the French and British elections, it is now clear that if the narrative of 2016 was right-wing demagogic populism, the narrative of 2017 is shaping up to be the re-invigorating of politics. Macron and Corbyn are very different figures, with quite opposing ideologies, but the similarities hold important lessons. Both are outsiders that built a social movement to propel them to leadership and both have had unpredictable impacts on the politics of their countries. Each looks likely to reshape their societies in different ways; how they do it and what the outcomes are will be fascinating to watch.


This is the ‘new politics’ we so badly need in Ireland. However, Leo Varadkar became leader of Fine Gael on an ashamedly neoliberal platform and his failure to win the support of the party membership both mark him out as being of the old elitist and neoliberal style of politics. It is ironic that Fine Gael opts for the most overtly neoliberal leader ever to have led a major Irish party, just as other countries are moving beyond the neoliberal era. As always, Ireland arrives ‘a little breathless and a little late’.


France moves into a new political space

So, the French have shown again that politics really matters and has become the space where different visions of the future are being fought out. And, while the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron now appears certain to be France’s next president, the first round of the 2017 presidential election has already brought massive changes.

As we have seen elsewhere, voters are decisively rejecting long-established mainstream parties and giving support both to new parties and, in increasing numbers, to parties on the extreme right and left. France has now demonstrated these tendencies more strongly than has any other country.

Neither of the two parties that have dominated the politics of the 5th Republic, the centre left and the centre right, made it to the second round. Perhaps the greatest disaster was the 6% vote received by the ruling Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hammon, but the travails of the centre right candidate, Francois Fillon, and the fact that the vote he received was similar to that of the far left candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon, also marks a political earthquake.

Attention now turns to the clear option presented to the French in the second round of voting, the centrist vision of the relative newcomer Macron, optimistic but vague and ill-defined, and the firm right-wing, inward-looking and fearful message of Marine Le Pen. Both will face much harder questioning over the next two weeks about the sort of France they want.

Is Macron, as Paul Mason is tweeting as the results come in, the candidate of the ‘global-liberal elite’ or can he offer a credible project of social change that can combine elements of liberal economic policies with strong social supports? If Macron manages to do this, it has implications for centrist liberal politics throughout Europe and beyond.

Two other factors deserve mention in relation to Macron. One is that his campaign has mobilised a new social movement, En Marche. This, then, is a different form of centrist politics based not primarily on an established party but on mobilising especially young people who have been largely alienated from politics. How this movement institutionalises itself as Macron goes on to become president has potential to renew French political life.

The second factor is that Macron signals a generation change in French politics. Having someone who is 39 years of age reach the highest political office, is symbolically important in a Europe where politics remains dominated by leaders who are in their 60s or even 70s. These leaders who politicised within stable systems dominated by the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. With Macron we have a political leader who has emerged as these systems unravel. How, or if, a new politics coalesces under his leadership will be fascinating to watch.

And then there is the Front Nacional. Though we can breathe a sigh of relief that Marine Le Pen will not make it to the Elysee, election 2017 confirms yet again that around a quarter of the French electorate continues firmly to support a party that wants to go back to an imagined past and that plays loose with our liberal democratic order. It remains a reason for profound concern.





Ireland’s mitigation planning: where are the big ideas?

The publication of Ireland’s first draft national mitigation plan as mandated by the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act of 2015 may in time be seen as the Irish state’s first attempt seriously to face the enormous challenges of decarbonising our economy by 2050 as we are now legally obliged to do under the 2015 Act. Yet, it shows the state has a very long way to go in finding responses adequate to the challenges.

Examining Ireland’s record on facing the challenges of climate change since the early 1990s, what leaps out again and again is the complete failure of policy makers to accept realities. As a result, this draft plan has to make the shameful admission that we are so far off the target of 20% emissions cuts by 2020 over 2005 levels that the likelihood now is that all we will achieve is a 6% cut.

In at least acknowledging the enormous scale of the challenge Ireland now faces to cut emissions by 30% by 2030 as a way of advancing towards cuts of 80 to 95% by 2050, may we now hope that finally some awareness of the realities of the task facing policy makers and the general public is beginning to dawn?

Yet, what leaps out of the document is the disjuncture between the scale of the challenge and the piecemeal list of policy measures that are presented as the response. Lacking entirely are any big ideas and one gets the impression again and again that what is being attempted is decarbonising within the confines of Ireland’s low-tax development model. Low-cost options within the current model fill this draft plan.

The lack of ambition and any novel ideas is evident throughout. While Ireland has been relatively successful in beginning to decarbonise electricity generation, it is still likely to just fall short of its legally binding target of generating 16% of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020, with a trajectory of 15.5% predicted.

Yet, despite an emphasis on the role citizens have to play in making the energy transition, this mitigation plan makes no reference to a key pledge in the 2015 Energy White Paper. This promised to widen the opportunity for participation by ‘facilitating access to the national grid for designated renewable electricity projects, and developing mechanisms to allow communities to avail of payment for electricity, such as the ability to participate in power purchase agreements.’  The failure to honour this promise is a major disappointment for those of us who are working to develop citizens’ energy generation projects, emulating the example of the success of such an approach in Germany.

However, the two sectors that pose the greatest challenge for Irish policy makers are transport (19.8% of total emissions) and agriculture (33%). Here particularly, one would have expected some big innovative ideas but one reads the two final chapters of the draft plan on these sectors with growing disappointment. The problems that a scattered population and the lack of a firm spatial national strategy over many decades have caused are acknowledged, yet surprisingly public transport system is given only a modest role in meeting emissions targets, all within existing policy options.

Yet, even more disappointing is that the plan raises no questions about Ireland’s ability to continue its commitment to a cattle-based agricultural model heavy in emissions. Here the achievement of flat-lining Ireland’s emissions is presented as a great achievement, rather than any ambition of reducing them. And, though behavioural change among citizens is seen as playing a role, our policy makers don’t dare to even mention any ambition of weaning us off our high meat consumption, as the world’s scientists recommended in the 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There is one huge elephant in the room in this draft plan. It acknowledges what the Environmental Protection Agency has already stated, that Ireland only succeeded in meeting EU targets (under the Kyoto Protocol) because economic growth collapsed; as growth has picked up again, so have emissions. In other words, Irish growth, as is the case worldwide, is carbon-intensive. Yet, this plan is full of positive references to Ireland's economic growth without anywhere discussing the enormous challenge of trying to decouple growth from emissions. In other words, without massive investment in clean technologies, decoupling is impossible and growth itself, as the 5th assessment report of the IPCC stated, becomes one of the principal causes of growing emissions. How Ireland's low-tax, low-spend model of development is going to achieve both growth and emissions reduction is the enormous question left by the draft plan. 

So, Ireland’s first draft national mitigation plan is sadly lacking in imagination and new ideas. Yet, this is presented as a draft plan as the Government is inviting citizens to make submissions to influence the final plan which is due to be published in June. Obviously, lacking ideas itself, our state hopes the rest of us might oblige. Let’s challenge them to get ambitious!





2016: Moving (finally) beyond neoliberalism, but where?

For all its surprises, 2016 will go down as the year that finally marked the death knell of neoliberalism. It had seemed to survive the financial collapse of 2008; indeed, the main responses to this collapse, most especially in Europe, served to strengthen market players and further weaken both states and civil society. But it cannot survive the political shocks of 2016.


This is for two principal reasons, one bottom up and the other top down. From the base of society has come a ‘revolt of the dispossessed’ that found expression in the Brexit vote in June and in Trump’s election in November, and that has emboldened right-wing forces in Europe and beyond as we enter 2017. This, at long last, is forcing the issues of obscene levels of inequality, of the social sectors bypassed by neoliberal globalisation, and of the ‘iron cage’ of an inhuman technical rationality on to the political agenda.


The second reason that this marks the beginning of the end of neoliberalism is that right-wing elite forces have recast themselves as the champions of the dispossessed, willing to offer simple slogans as responses to the anxieties and fears of those being left behind. In Brexit UK, in Trump’s US and maybe in the Netherlands and in France in coming months, the attempts to be seen to be making decisive reforms that change the social situation of marginalised sectors will further strain the consensus that has underpinned neoliberalism.


The primacy of open markets, of economic efficiency over social equity, of the subservience of social and environmental policy to corporate interests now runs into a counter-force demanding limits, protection, support for livelihoods, secure identity. Even the current dominant responses being offered which focus on limiting immigration or curbing some trading freedoms (such as Trump’s pledge to stop the offshoring of jobs) mark a retreat from the neoliberal project that has been the dominant political economy project since the 1980s.


Of course, the irony is that it is corporate elites that are literally seeking to cash in on the discontent of growing social sectors. In doing so, they are playing with fire as they strengthen the emergence of political forces that are willing to use state power in unpredictable ways, and that do not share the liberal economic consensus which neoliberalism required to flourish. And, as is all too obvious as we enter 2017, the response of the centrist politics that has underpinned this consensus is to seek to emulate the appeal of the right.


Trump’s incoming administration is a fitting end to decades of corporate politics, as political leaders ceded power to global market forces, restructuring the state so that it served corporate interests rather than the interests of citizens, especially the most vulnerable. This shift in political power is well expressed in the move from the welfare state that had grown up in the post-war world to the competition state as favoured by neoliberalism. Many US voters seem to have decided that, in this situation, why not just hand over the state to corporate leaders. So we have a new Trumpian view of government as corporate ‘deal making’ over any concept of the public realm.

The dominance of far-right responses to the revolt of the dispossessed serves to occlude the fact that there have also been left-wing responses, from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US. These offer more substantial responses to growing inequality and social marginalisation, responses that centre on strengthening state power and forging a new social contract with civil society.


Yet, it must be admitted that a coherent left-wing alternative has so far failed to be able to compete with the post-truth slogans of the far right. This remains a huge challenge, forcing the left back to basics as social democracy collapses and loses its traditional support bases in country after country. This process, happening over decades, requires a much more radical response in the forging of a new and distinctive social project, not least to respond to the challenges of climate change.


The collapse of neoliberalism should also embolden the left, freeing it from the constraints of deferring to market interests. For example, the new conjuncture now requires a forceful political response to the growth of inequality, adopting such robust policies as a return to genuinely progressive taxation, as the re-invention of a strong welfare state, as mandatory pay limits reducing the obscene gap between the highest and the lowest paid, and as supporting strong countervailing forces to the power of capital. All of these are outlined in Professor Anthony B. Atkinson’s latest book on inequality; with the demise of neoliberalism they should be seriously and forcefully promoted by a rejuvenated left, and implemented in full once they win political power.


As we enter 2017, the world is being shaken up. We clearly are moving beyond the centrist consensus that helped create the successful social market capitalism of the 1950s to the late 1970s, and then underpinned the emergence of a hyper-financialised neoliberal capitalism. Our future is far less clear than for many decades, and the urgent challenges of climate change are fast moving us into completely uncharted territory. All we can say for sure is that radical change is in store; its content and direction has to be fought for. A forceful progressive response and mobilisation is more needed than ever.   


Making sense of the Trump victory

Yet again, the polls are blamed for getting it wrong. Just as with Brexit and the Spanish general election last June, polls seriously misled us on expected outcomes. So the time has come to move beyond a focus on the polls to the phenomenon they are missing. And what a phenomenon!


It is hard to grasp the extent of the shifts taking place as a sector of the electorate whose frustrations and anger previously seemed to be very poorly represented within the political system suddenly finds a voice that galvanises them. And they erupt on to the political stage.


This is a classic definition of revolution, and to an extent this is what happened in the US on November 8th. But, of course, we normally think of revolutions in a positive sense, as the eruption of the disaffected in ways that are going to change the system radically for the better. Clearly the xenophobic, racist and misogynist rhetoric that has dominated the Trump campaign, contrasted with the almost complete absence of any policy platform other than vague sloganeering, offers little hope of a presidency that will do anything except further deepen and poison the US body politic.


But amid the shock of the Trump victory we need to remember that we have also had more progressive and disciplined versions of the eruption of the disaffected, manifestations that are much more hopeful. The emergence of Sanders and Corbyn as figures that have catalyzed a strong base of support, and the breakthrough of Podemos, do offer the prospect of more positive revolutionary change.


Labelling all this as populism, as has become quite commonplace, is very unhelpful to gaining an understanding of what is going on. Firstly, it is used in a dismissive way that seems devoid of any precise meaning except that certain leaders seem to have popular appeal. That this is then dismissed as somehow not serious politics has the effect of presuming that the mainstream parties of centre right and centre left are the only reliable and effective vehicles for political change.


Nothing could be further from the truth, and this is the lesson that these seismic shifts hold for us. As was correctly identified by Ireland’s two centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the last budget, the centre ground is under threat from the emergence of anti-systemic politics, either of the right or of the left. Where they are wrong is to believe that the only way forward is to try to shore up the centre ground. This only further delays the inevitable.


And the inevitable is that we now fast entering an era when more extreme positions on right and left are going to reshape political discourse, political parties and political systems. As has happened this week in the US, it can erupt with surprising speed, once the disaffected find a leader figure that seems to give them a voice. To this extent, one of the few certainties that can be affirmed in this time of rapid systemic change, is that the political systems that provided stability and solidity to western societies in the post World War II world are imploding before our eyes.


It is far too early to know what might replace them, but their essential failure has been their inability in recent times to respond effectively to the basic needs of a large sector of the population for some security of economic and social belonging. As neoliberal politics systematically eroded the economic and social model that underpinned some expectation of security and progress, most starkly exposed in the obscene levels of inequality that have come to characterise so many of our societies, many people lost faith in the system. This has been happening quietly over decades, certainly since the Thatcher and Reagan era, but it has now become the tidal wave that hit the US system this week.


So, dismissing this phenomenon, as somehow a populist gesture that is bound to fail, is to miss the point entirely. Yes, of course, the sloganeering that passes for policy in Trump’s rhetoric, offers no basis for satisfying the frustrations that it gives vent to. But once galvanized, this new ‘movement’ as Trump calls it, is never going to go silent again. And his oppositional rhetoric, like so much rhetoric of the right over the ages, will find many enemies to blame for his lack of effective policies.


The important think to realise is that a space is opening up here challenging those who want a more progressive transformation of our society towards greater equality, justice and sustainability. Indeed, everything is now to play for as our systems erode and open new spaces, sometimes with surprising speed. How can we sow the seeds of a new disciplined politics, a radical politics of equality and respect that mobilises people around a project of true transformation, and indeed education. As Sanders and Corbyn are trying to do, we need to fashion progressive movements that occupy the political spaces now opening up.


This is the lesson of Trump. We have no idea how toxic and divisive it is going to get as he realises that he cannot run the US government like he runs his companies. But this is the context in which the battle for ideas and for a progressive project becomes all the more urgent and immediate. Instead of lamenting, we need to begin some radical utopian planning and thinking.