Election 2016: Is a new ‘demos’ being born?

As we enter the last days of Election 2016, it is already clear that Irish politics is entering a new era no matter what voters decide next Friday. Not only has the campaign failed to ignite idealism and vision, but all the main parties seem to have badly misjudged the public mood. No matter who wins, all emerge as losers.

As different opinion polls show slight swings both up and down for each the four main parties, none of them has managed to make any decisive impact on voting intentions. So, it appears that many voters are left with a decision between the least worst option as they see it, possibly swayed more by fears than by hopes.

This election, then, marks a failure not just of different party campaigns but of the whole political system, unable to understand an electorate that wants a lot more from its politicians than they seem able to offer. In offering nothing more than a spate of confusing promises about taxes and subsidies, reliefs and abolishing charges, all the main parties are seriously misunderstanding the level of knowledge, the real concerns and the public values of most citizens.

It seems doubly ironic that just as we are involved in a public conversation about the ideals of 1916 and what kind of society its participants aspired to, our political parties have been so deaf to the deeper questions raised by the centenary celebrations. How revealing of the paucity of social vision of our political class!

If we can raise our heads from the narrow parochialism that has so marked this campaign, it is also very disturbing that climate change has been almost entirely neglected. As was made evident at the climate summit in Paris just two months ago, political leaders in other countries are at last awakening to the fact that his is the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, risking the survival of our species if we don’t take decisive action. We seem to have no political leaders who have yet woken up to this reality.

In this sad situation, it is the Social Democrats who seem to have best engaged with the concerns of the electorate. Stephen Donnolly’s critique in the leaders’ debate at UL of the contradiction involved in cutting taxes while promising to improve public services, all in a context of what he twice described as ‘the gathering international storm clouds’, injected a rare note of honesty that was a breath of fresh air. It is not surprising that his is the only party that seemed to show some upward trend in the opinion polls though, of course, from a very low base.

The fact that the most supported group in many of the opinion polls, increasing their support during the campaign, were the independents is a searing indictment of the main parties. What it shows is the lack of any party capable of responding to the public mood, offering an honesty, a vision of a realisably better society, and an acknowledgement of the real difficulties involved.

What makes this all the more worrying is that there is a lot of evidence that young people are, for the first time in decades, re-engaging with politics. This is one legacy of the enthusiastic mobilisation generated by the marriage equality referendum.

It is also is an echo of a new phenomenon evident in other countries, from the large number of young people who joined the British Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, through the youthful base of support for Podemos in Spain, to the growing base of youth support and engagement with the campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US.

A similar potential seems to be evident here and parties like the AAA-PBP, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin are benefiting from it to an extent. Yet, we are very far from the wave of enthusiasm evident in the cases just mentioned. For young people awakening for the first time to the importance and potential of politics, it must be crushingly disillusioning to hear nothing more than jaded soundbites and incredible promises.

Election 2016 may go down as the first election to show just how unable is our political class to engage in a serious and adult dialogue with a mature electorate, to develop projects for Irish society that are visionary yet credible, and to engender a confidence that they can implement a project of real transformation.

For citizens are crying out for some serious transformation of a society that is badly broken, blind to the grave risks that threaten it, with high levels of inequality and low levels of trust, growing ever more violent, and with a quality of public services that is far beneath what we should aspire to. These are the real concerns of the Irish demos; Election 2016 shows that we urgently need a political force capable of responding to them with vision and credibility.





Election 2016: Are we all neo-liberals now?

Never has the commonplace assertion that Irish politics lacks a left-right divide been more true that in election 2016. Indeed, the campaign so far has been characterised by a complete absence of political ideology which has been replaced by an obsessive attention to technical details.

All the main parties are focusing on a complex mixture of how much they will cut taxes and how they will spend the estimated surplus (the dreaded ‘fiscal space’) to the extent that the average person must end up completely confused about what it will all mean for their income.

At best, most people would benefit by a meagre amount every month so that the amount of attention being devoted to these proposals – the central features of the campaigns of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin – seem so much to do about next to nothing. More importantly, none of the sets of proposals on offer would have a significant redistributive impact, despite claims to the contrary by the likes of Sinn Féin.

So, in effect, what are technical means (rates of tax and spending) are being presented as if they were ends in themselves while the vision of society they might help to promote is entirely absent from discussion. Yes, we have some claims about ‘ending inequality’ as the AAA proclaims on their posters, but absolutely no discussion about how this might be achieved.

Only three parties with low levels of support can be distinguished from this deadening discourse. The most striking is Renua which at least is offering a radical idea, a flat rate of 23% income tax combined with something close to a guaranteed income. This has made little impact and the party has failed to show how it would not be extremely regressive in distributional terms but at least it is showing some alternative, though a very neo-liberal one.

On the more progressive end of the spectrum, the Social Democrats are to be commended for trying to break the mantra of tax cuts that so obsesses Irish parties, putting the focus clearly on the ways in which people’s real spending power can be improved through investment in public services. They deserve a greater hearing than they have been getting. And the Greens’ idea of a ‘citizen trust fund’ is a worthy attempt at some generational redistribution that brings a new theme into the debate.

However, as the Irish Times put it in a hard-hitting editorial on February 13th, all of the main parties are addressing citizens as if they were simply ‘narrowly self-interested individuals’. This is a telling phrase, drawing attention to the extent to which the reductionist and radically individualist view of the human person as a homo economicus, a view which lies at the heart of neo-liberal economics, is now dominating Irish politics. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s assertion ‘there is no such things as society’ (1987).

To the extent therefore to which Election 2016 has so far focused on trying to win support through a bewildering array of detailed technical proposals while lacking any vision or debate of what might constitute the good society and how we might move more in that direction, based on a reductionist and individualistic conception of the human person, we can say that this has been a thoroughly neo-liberal campaign so far.

And not only have vision and values been absent, but so has any consideration of a world mired in deep crisis and with signs of fundamental systemic breakdown ever more evident. These include the dramatic migration crisis and its impact on the whole European project, the glaring levels of inequality that are undermining prospects for a whole generation of young adults, the speculative activities of a financial system that is far from being robustly regulated after plunging us into a crisis equivalent to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and the rise of a worrying new-right in most European countries undermining consensus and dividing society.

More threatening than all of these are the impacts of climate change to which we need radical and urgent responses. Do our political leaders imagine Ireland is immune from all this? On the evidence of Election 2016 so far, the answer must be Yes.

Yet, I had an experience last week of how politics at local level is far richer and more social than anything we are experiencing at national level. A well attending meeting in Cloughjordan, at which six candidates in the Offaly constituency made their pitch and engaged in a lively discussion, showed that individual candidates do have a real vision for the sort of society they want to build and a commitment to high ideals of public service. In their honesty and willingness to engage in a lively debate, they showed politics at its best.

Our society requires far more of these qualities of honesty and vision at national level. Having sacrificed so much to salvage our banks and our property sector, we now need a public debate on the kind of Ireland we want and the values that should guide it. We need a vision of a better future rather than a rush to re-create a past that failed us so disastrously. This is the essence of democracy yet how are we going to ensure such a debate happens?



Election 2016: Trading on ignorance and make-believe

About the one certainty we can take from the first days of election 2016 is that it is far from being a coronation of Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. Already under pressure from the virtually meaningless concept of ‘fiscal space’, the Irish Times opinion poll showing a drop in the party’s support set the entirely wrong mood music for the party. It all serves to enhance the spectacle of politics as spectator sport.

Nothing happened in the early days of the campaign to suggest that there is anything serious happening here, apart from the likelihood that we will see at least some new faces around the cabinet table next month (that is, if we even get that far). Gerry Adams’s claim at the launch of the Sinn Féin campaign that the election offers an opportunity ‘to elect a government that will end inequality and unfairness, to elect a government that will put the rights of citizens over the rights of the elites’ shows the extent of the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality in this election.

Indeed, it would be great if the election were to be about ending inequality and challenging the power of the elites who dominate Irish society. However, this would require a very different sort of politics, and indeed a very different sort of society, and there are no signs that we are even taking the minimal first steps towards such a politics. Using such rhetoric but being unwilling to take any serious steps towards giving it substance further cheapens politics and plays into the hands of elites who know they face no serious threats.

If we were to take seriously such aspirations, our so-called left-wing parties could take a leaf out of the election campaign waged by Podemos in Spain at the end of last year which explicitly identified the major economic interests that heavily influence the decisions of government. Indeed, they suggested that it might be more real to have the CEOs of these big companies debate their visions for the future of Spanish society in place of party leaders.

About the only words that brought some reality to the campaign in its opening days where those of President Higgins who asked the obvious question: ‘Is it possible to have a decent society and at the same time continue to lower taxes for the purposes of securing the best short-term benefit?’ It is a question screaming for an honest and detailed answer from our political leaders as they all (with the exception of the Social Democrats) seek to fool voters that both can be done at the same time.

All of this is a great disservice to citizens. It contrasts with the device that Podemos put on its election website which allowed citizens to see what the cost in terms of social investment would be the result of lowering taxes. So for each percentage cut in taxes, the impact on social investment was made clear. This educates citizens to the trade-offs that are the essence of politics; our parties prefer to trade on ignorance and make-believe.

Added to the unreality of the promises being made to voters is the unreality of the electoral arithmetic that is likely to result, barring some dramatic shift in public opinion. It is obvious to all that on current opinion poll evidence, no grouping is likely to be able to form a government. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP are simply failing to answer questions on how they might get their hands on the levers of power while Fine Gael and Labour are hoping for a miracle.

Again the Spanish example is instructive and we are very likely to end up in the same situation after February 26th: six weeks after the Spanish election there continues to be complete stalemate in attempts to form a government with the likelihood of a new election looming closer by the day. And if this happens, the only significant shift being predicted by opinion polls is that Podemos will wrest leadership of the left from the PSOE.

It will be interesting to see if any sense of reality enters the Irish campaign as it develops, both on the extent of change that is on offer and on the likelihood of who might form the next government. While we wait for this, all we can do is enjoy politics as light entertainment while the elites who run our society sleep easily knowing that the current configuration of power faces no threat whatsoever.

Spain's election: Is a new political force born for Europe?

The results of yesterday’s Spanish elections leave politics there in a completely new situation with no clear government on offer, but they also mark the breakthrough of a new left party into mainstream politics in a European country with Podemos defying the pollsters and getting more than 20 per cent of the vote.

The final count shows the outgoing right-wing Partido Popular with 123 seats, having lost a third of its seats but still coming in as the largest party. The socialist PSOE also had the worst election since the return to democracy in 1978 winning only 90 seats, down from the 110 it had in the last parliament. The winners were the new parties, Podemos with 69 seats and Ciudadanos with 40. These results mean that no grouping, neither right not left, comes near the 176 seats needed to form a stable government.

While much attention was devoted to the victory of Syriza in Greece a little less than a year ago, what happened in Spain yesterday is even more significant. This is because Syriza is basically an old left party, formed out of small left-wing groups that have been around for decades. Podemos, in contrast, was formed less than two years ago by a group of university professors in Madrid very influenced by the new left in Latin America and fashioning a new form of bottom up politics.

Having fought their first election for the national parliament with a highly imaginative campaign that focused on the power of big capital over Spanish politics and society, and having been treated by most of the media as a spent force being overtaken by the young neo-liberal party Ciudadanos, winning over 20 per cent of the vote is a major achievement. And, even more significant, is the fact that Podemos came within a whisker of beating the PSOE socialist party for leadership of the Spanish left.

While the governing right-wing Partido Popular (PP) won most seats last night, it now faces a very difficult situation to form a government. Ciudadanos, the new party that the PP had hoped would provide them with the additional parliamentary votes to form a government had a much worse result than they had hoped for. They got less than 14 per cent of the popular vote when then had been expected to beat Podemos and come in with around 20 per cent. These elections therefore have been a decisive defeat for the Spanish right.

Listening to the speeches of all the main party leaders last night, it was clear that the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, holds the initiative. He was the only one to lay down a series of red lines, principles that his party will insist on in any negotiations. These include an end to evictions, additional support for public health care and public education and a reform of the electoral system. Laying down these firm principles sends signals to the PSOE that any coalition with Podemos will require a fundamental reform of the way politics is done in Spain. It was a masterly performance from a young political leader (age 37) who decisively won all the political leaders’ debates during the election campaign.

What is striking about Spanish politics is the generational change that has happened in a short space of time. Apart from outgoing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is in his 60s, all the other main political leaders are in their 30s or 40s. Even the new head of state who took over from his father last year, King Filipe VI, is in his 40s. This again distinguishes Spain in the mainstream of European politics.

Interestingly also, yesterday’s elections saw Podemos win the largest vote and number of seats in Catalonia, beating decisively the parties that have been pushing for independence. This builds on the victory of the coalition formed by Podemos for the Catalan elections last September which saw them winning the mayoralty of Barcelona though they lost out to the nationalist parties overall.

As Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy begins the effort of forming a government, he faces an entirely new situation. Not only has there been a fragmentation of the bi-party system that has ruled Spain since 1982, the ‘cast’ as Podemos labels them, but he faces an electorate that has shifted decisively to the left, beyond the moderate social democratic left represented by PSOE and attracted by the much more racial and imaginative popular politics represented by Podemos.

In this situation, it may well be that Spain faces months of political instability and a new election in the near future. Commentators were already predicting this as the results came in last evening. In the meantime, the even more interesting battle being waged concerns leadership of the Spanish left. Yesterday’s results give Podemos the initiative to project a new left-wing project that could eclipse the PSOE which emerged badly weakened from these elections. If this happens, it puts the whole of Europe on notice that a new form of politics is being born.  

The Paris Agreement: a major step forward or ‘worthless words’?

Amid the widespread welcome for the Paris Agreement, what is striking is the lack of consensus on just how significant it all is. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and regarded as one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, went so far as to call it ‘a fraud, a fake, worthless words’ while Cara Augustenborg, chair of Friends of the Earth Ireland, said in Paris that ‘the gap between ambition and action in the deal is too big.’ So should we welcome or denounce this long-awaited global treaty?

The Agreement itself is just 11 pages long and contains 29 articles. The accompanying text on the adoption of the Paris Agreement and the decisions to implement it is longer at 19 pages and contains more detail on matters in the text of the treaty. What the critics focus on is the weakness of the wording on targets and the means to deliver. For example, the key goal is stated in Article 2:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

As the New Internationalist put it in an analysis of the text, the emission reduction pledges already made by over 180 countries ‘go nowhere near far enough to achieve’ these goals. Furthermore, ‘the provision of scaled up financial resources’ by developed countries to developing countries mentioned in the text is regarded as being too vague, even though the accompanying text does specify ‘a floor of $100bn per year’ as the goal by 2020.

The critics also highlight the lack of a firm commitment to decarbonize the global economy. Instead the Paris Agreement states that countries ‘aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible’, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries, and ‘to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science’. Even the timeline is left vague with the text mentioning achieving ‘a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.

In pointing to the vagueness of the commitments made, the critics are correct. But the expectation that a treaty could be negotiated between 196 countries which would contain far more precise targets and timelines was always unrealistic. And we already saw in Copenhagen in 2009 what can happen when careful diplomacy fails to find a middle ground that can keep all countries on board. More importantly, however, the focus of the critics on the weakness of the text overlooks what is the great breakthrough of Paris, namely that a process has begun that might just lead us toward a low-carbon society.

For there are some firm pledges here that are immensely important. Among them is the commitment to a ‘global stocktake’ in 2023 and every five years after that. The purpose to inform countries ‘in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support’ to meet the targets specified in this agreement. Even before 2023 there is going to be a ‘facilitative dialogue’ held in 2018 ‘to take stock of the collective efforts’ of countries to meet the goals. Furthermore, the IPCC is ‘to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.

The accompanying text to the treaty opens with an expression of ‘serious concern’ about ‘the significant gap’ between the aggregate effect of countries’ emissions’ reduction pledges and keeping temperature rises well below 2°C. Therefore, the treaty builds in mechanisms not only to review targets but to ratchet them up every five years. In what is perhaps the most important commitment in the whole treaty, it is pledged that each country’s successive emissions’ reduction target ‘will represent a progression beyond’ what it had previously pledged.

Paris is therefore more like a beginning than an end. It lays out a process that recognises the need for ever more ambitious targets and actions, not just in terms of reducing emissions but also in a host of other areas and progressively enhancing what it calls ‘long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies’ which countries are being asked to submit to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat by 2020 so that they can be published. The treaty contains a lot of aspiration towards the development and sharing of appropriate technologies, towards enhancing countries’ capacity to develop low-GHG development pathways, and towards building resilience. While these may seem vague and aspirational, they are commitments contained in the treaty and have the potential to galvanise action in a progressive way.

Finally, the commitment to transparency, to ensuring countries don’t ‘double count’ their emissions to claim higher reductions than they are actually achieving, and the establishment of a ‘public registry’ where all countries’ pledges are open to public scrutiny, allows civil society to hold countries to accountability. For, as the accompanying text makes clear, civil society, local communities and indigenous peoples all have a major role to play in helping achieve the ambitious goals set. Our political leaders have stepped up to the mark in Paris but the role of civil society is crucial in ensuring the ambitious goal now set in an international treaty can be met.