Despite the many criticisms of our new government and the way it was formed, at least we have one. On this score one might argue we are better than Spain where, after almost five months of efforts, they return to the polls on June 26th for a second try. Or are we better?
Comparing the multiple deals that have allowed the formation of a government in Ireland (deals with Fianna Fáil and with multiple independents that involve a smorgasbord of issues, from ones of national import to ones clearly calculated to satisfy particular interest groups) with the issues that dominated attempts at government formation in Spain tells us a lot about the nature of our politics. And, it raises fundamental questions about the future of our society.
The word smorgasbord comes from the Swedish and means a buffet full of a wide variety of different dishes, some hot, some cold, some savoury and some sweet, appealing to different tastes. It is a nice metaphor for deals which include some broad principles (meet domestic and EU fiscal rules, budgetary process to accord with OECD review, ‘an open approach to avoiding policy surprises’), some very detailed promises (increase Garda numbers to 15,000, GP training places up by 100 over five years, create 200,000 jobs by 2020, and reduce to €100,000 the cap on Basic Payments for farmers), and much aspirational window dressing (NAMA to be more ambitious in providing housing, reduce waiting times for emergency departments, ‘tackle the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work’, and increased investment in the Irish language).
Since, in Spain, Podemos was in the position of kingmaker, a comparison between that party’s 20-point plan and the principles underpinning it, and the deals that allowed government formation in Ireland is instructive. Of course, the main difference is that the failure to reach agreement on this plan scuppered the possibility of government formation in Madrid.
The document entitled ’20 proposals to unblock the political situation and make possible a government for change’ has a number of elements that distinguish it radically from anything proposed in the Irish context. Firstly, it is truly a programme for government, covering in a comprehensive way a broad range of the most essential elements to be addressed by the next Spanish government. It is far from the patchy agenda of the Irish talks.
Thus Podemos begins with an analysis of the gravity of the economic, political, and institutional crisis of Spain. This forms the backdrop for the 20 key proposals on which the plan is based. Some of these address issues included in the Irish negotiations (education, health, basic income, employment creation, pensions, and housing), but it goes much further and has sections on a national plan for an energy transition, on a new industrial policy, on political decentralisation, on addressing corruption, on progressive tax reform, and on equality between men and women. All of these are issues that are of equal importance in the Irish negotiations but are addressed only in the most tangential way, if at all.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the different way in which the Podemos document addresses the issues that are common to both sets of negotiations. For throughout the document, what is specified is the percentage of the GDP that needs to be spent on education, on health, on housing, and on social protection, and the increase to be achieved over the present percentage. The section on reform of the labour market specifies the content of a new Workers’ Statute, contrasting with the vagueness of the promises in the Irish deal to address workers’ casualisation.
A section on reform of the public service to ensure a balance is achieved between an effective service responding to the needs of society and protection of the rights of public service workers, adopts a reform taken from the programme of the neo-liberal Ciudadanos party. And the document includes a section on regulating to extend and clarify the incompatibilities between holding public office and then moving swiftly into the private sector.
There is much that we can learn from the vision and coherence that informs the political debate in a country like Spain. The comparison highlights the lack of ideological politics in Ireland and the pragmatism and fragmentation that results in designing policies to address the major challenges of social change facing all our societies.
So, the trade-off right now seems to be between a pragmatism that allows a government be formed, as has happened in Ireland, and the realities of a society in which two political visions, one on the centre right and the other emerging out of the new left, have effectively led to an impasse. Which is better for the longer term future health of society can only be answered in time.