Between Bernie Sanders strength in the American Democratic primaries and Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the British Labour Party, there has been a surge for left wing politicians challenging the establishment. In Ireland, following the Labour Party’s embrace of austerity, there is a gap in the market for a centre-left party and the Social Democrats aim to fill this.
- Create an Irish NHS
- No tax cuts
- Repeal the 8th Amendment
- Increase public investment
As the newest Irish political party, the Social Democrats aim to be a fresh alternative to the establishment and the clearest example of this is their tax policy. They criticise the “auction politics” and “recklessness” of the other parties who are competing to see who can cut taxes the most. They warn that “Fine Gael and Labour are proposing to massively erode the tax base” and in a refreshing change for Ireland, the Social Democrats actually have an opposing ideology. In their view
“This is exactly what Fianna Fáil did before the crash in 2008 – they ignored all the warnings, and pointed to the good news . . . The result of all of this was a lost decade, and a great deal of hardship for millions of people.”
They are the only party not promising to cut USC or any other tax, preferring to invest the money instead. It is good to see Irish political parties to actually have a different view of things rather than just different personalities.
“We are proposing the tax base be maintained, with some minor adjustments. Instead of stripping out billions, we should be doing things like creating a modern healthcare system, putting in place the infrastructure needed to support business for years to come, sorting out the housing market, rebuilding communities and supporting parents in areas like affordable childcare. €4 to 5bn a year would let us do a lot of very good things in the short term, and let us start planning for big long term challenges like pensions, flooding and climate change.”
One of the main issues of the Social Democrats is to completely reform the healthcare system and introduce universal healthcare.
“We must ensure there is a publicly funded, universally accessible, high quality healthcare system along the lines of the NHS model in the UK when it was properly resourced. This, in time, would end the current two-tier health service and reduce the need for private health insurance in Ireland by making public and private healthcare effectively equivalent in terms of quality and accessibility.”
This is an ambitious goal, but they seem to be aware of this and have a detailed plan. It is a welcome change from most political talk which is comprised of rhetoric that comes to nothing and defeatist feeling that nothing can be changed. Countries that have universal healthcare are able to provide better healthcare for all their citizens for less than private systems like America, which is much more expensive and excludes the poor.
However, this (and the manifesto overall) isn’t costed and no details are mentioned of how much will be invested. Now economic forecasting is an incredibly complex topic even for professional economists and are only accurate in the short run. Anything longer than a year or two is basically a guess and there is a lot of room to play around if you want. However, costing are still useful as an estimate, not just of costs, but how seriously the party takes the issue. Anyone can throw a few nice sounding words together, but backing it up with serious figures shows that the party seriously intends to implement it.
They draw a clear line between themselves and the other parties and seem to be the only people who learned anything from the crash. They reject the government’s narrative that the worst is over and the future is bright, warning that reckless policies could leave us dangerously exposed.
“Ireland is still firmly locked into a repeated sequence of pre-election budget giveaways and promises that erode the tax base and set the country up for a fall. The worst example of this was Fianna Fáil during the bubble, leading to economic instability, recession and high levels of public debt. This allegation of irresponsible fiscal policy by FG/Labour is now being reported on by the EU.
Fine Gael / Labour are now repeating exactly what Fianna Fáil did – they’re using one-off revenues, largely from unexpected corporation tax returns, to fund large scale tax cuts. The results can already be seen in things like increased child poverty and people on trolleys in A&E Departments.
The size of the crash could be bigger under Fine Gael / Labour, as the various safety mechanisms that kicked in at the time of the last recession are gone. Public debt is too high for any serious future borrowing, households have nothing left to give, businesses have nothing left to give, public services are already severely cut-back.”
Interestingly, they are also focusing on reducing the cost of living, which is interesting in a time of low inflation. They propose to do this not by reducing taxes (which they argue would only make the problem worse) but by expanding the services offered by the state. They believe that reducing prescription charges, ending water charges, reducing public transport fares and extending free GP care to all children will result in savings for consumers.
An interesting proposal is for an Independent Anti-Corruption Agency to tackle corruption and white collar crime. Considering that this is Ireland, this is an excellent idea. They set themselves the ambitious goal of ending child poverty by 2021. They believe that SME’s can create 100,000 new jobs though the details aren’t clear and there is no reason why that number was chosen. They promise to actively intervene in the housing market and set themselves the target of reducing the housing waiting list by 10,000 per year. They also promise to increase rent supplement allowance.
They aim to expand credit unions and post offices into real banks with full current account facilities, debit cards, online banking and even mortgages. This is an interesting idea as the credit unions have great potential that could be tapped into. Community banking could be an excellent alternative to the disastrous speculative banking. Unfortunately, the manifesto makes no mention of the major banks or what will happen to them. Nothing is said about whether they will be sold off, broken up etc. More promising is their promise to refute the €25 billion Anglo promissory note seek burden sharing, while this doesn’t make the news too much anymore, we are still paying a huge amount of debt and have little to show for it.
They promise to invest in education by reducing primary school class sizes to 20, funding school books, transport and restoring capitation grants to 2010 levels. They promise to reduce college student fees to €2,000 per year. These are all positive proposals but it is worrying that no mention is made of the costs involved or if this is possible without raising taxes. Reducing student fees is a good policy, but why only to €2,000? It feels half-hearted. They also promise that all new schools will have a patronage representative of local parents, which sounds good, but doesn’t explain how it will be achieved. Will the local parents vote? Will it be a majority decision or a form of co-denominational?
“Ensuring pluralism in schools, by ending the practice of children being refused a place in a school because of their parents’ belief system”
Other promises include: Increasing maternity benefit from 36 to 52 weeks. Increasing funding to childcare providers but also introducing price controls to stop them overcharging. Raising the pension and all other social welfare benefits in line with inflation. Banning zero hour contracts. They promise to a living wage but are vague on the details of how much it will be and how it will be calculated. They say it will be the result of discussion and consensus involving employers, though I can’t imagine they would be too enthusiastic about the idea. They oppose TTIP because of the danger to consumer protection laws, the power given to corporations and because it takes power away from national parliaments. They wish to promote agricultural co-operatives. They promise to promote wave energy and to create specific targets on emission reduction, although they are vague and don’t say what the targets will be.
“Phase out state subsidies for carbon-intense forms of electricity generation, favouring the subsidisation of renewables where appropriate.”
They want to abolish Official Secrets Act which they claim is too restrictive of whistle-blowers, end political appointment of judges and creation of an independent Electoral Commission to monitor election campaigns and political financing. They promise to abolish Irish Water and water charges, going as far to promise a referendum to change the Constitution to guarantee public ownership of water services.
“Introduce legislation to prevent employers with the financial resources to meet the liabilities in their pension schemes, from simply walking away from the benefit promises”
They sharply criticise direct provision as “a national disgrace” and promise to end it but don’t say what will replace it. How will refugees and asylum seekers be processed? They clearly state their opposition to the 8th Amendment and promise to hold a referendum within 18 months of the election to repeal it. However, they don’t say what they would replace it with or what their abortion policy is. Abolish water charges, end metering, abolish Irish Water, public ownership will be protected by referendum to the constitution
“There is currently an excessive amount of localism and short-termism in our national politics and we need to redistribute power to a reformed Local Government system so as to ensure that the National Parliament is freed up to direct its focus to national matters.”
Overall, there is a lot to like in this manifesto. They are one of the few parties with an ideology and that wins votes through its ideas not just through opportunism. They’re tackling important issues like healthcare, abortion, tax and education with more than just rhetoric. It takes a lot of courage to be the only party not advocating tax cuts. There are a lot of good policies here and it would certainly make Ireland a better place if implemented.
Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are playing it safe. While this manifesto is quite different to other parties, there is a feeling that the Social Democrats don’t want to go too far from the mainstream. For example, if you want to make Ireland a truly social democratic country, then taxes will have to rise, yet the Social Democrats have committed themselves to balanced budgets. Instead of shaking the system to the core Bernie Sanders style, they aim to nudge Ireland in the right direction. Inequality isn’t even mentioned in the manifesto and some parts are frustratingly vague. Maybe this is being practical as they know they will have only a limited role at best in the next government. They have the courage to challenge the serious problems in Ireland like the 8th Amendment but hold back from going the full way towards an alternative.