Thursday 13 September 2007

Lack of Trust in Government is Killing Labour

From hospitals, to schools, to trains, to childcare. None of this stuff works even close to people's expectations. More money is needed but we simply aren't prepared to pay, and therefore Labour's dream of social democracy is doomed. So we better get used to the crap (actually we probably already have). Labour might wonder why are we not prepared to pay?

Market worshippers, turn away now. The required fixes are going to have to come, for the most part, from state intervention. The market I'm afraid has its limits and is not going to fix our services any time soon. Perhaps in the future it might, if we learn how to better harness it to our needs, and I have no objection to introducing market measures so long as certain societal objectives such as fairness can be preserved. But for the moment, if we want better schools and trains which everyone can afford, we are going to have to do two things: reform the public service, and invest more tax in the delivery of services.

But while we all want better schools and trams, bizarrely we aren't prepared to pay. When it comes to elections, we consider the alternatives very briefly (and I'm not saying they are a pretty set of choices) before diving straight onto the low tax option. Any party that we think can guarantee money in the hand is a shoo in.

Why is it then, that we just don't want to pay for better services?

Basically we don't trust the government with our money. First, as a nation we are still scarred by our recent experience of the horrid 1980s. The Lynch government elected in '77 engaged in what amounts to an obscene act of economic vandalism. They committed a generation to high unemployment, emigration, and punitive taxes. That experience is still fresh in the minds of anyone above 40. For those who bore the brunt of it, talk of government taking their money sends a shiver down their backs.

Incompetence and recklessness were the biggest culprits in the 80s calamity. But we have another reason to hate giving government our money: endemic corruption. In the early 90s the beef tribunal opened it all up. Bribery, corruption, nods, winks and envelopes. Then planning. Then policing. Then phone licences. Then planning again. Right up to this morning, when our Taoiseach was questioned about bags of cash slushing around his constituency office. We have been bombarded day after day with the big black rot at the core of our political system.

Why on earth would we trust this shower of bastards to deliver services with our money?
No, just give us back our money, thanks very much. And so confidence in the state to deliver has bled away with each passing witness at Dublin Castle. And with it, bled away the life blood of social democracy: trust in government.

While no-one is arguing that we need to go back to the punitive taxes of the 80s, neither is it true that our so called prosperity is dependent upon each of the more recent succession of tax cuts. The economy boomed since 1997 when taxes were a good deal higher than they are today.

The trouble is, that great big lump of money that we got back could have build a vast web of infrastructure for us and future generations. When doled back to Joe Soap, it was frittered away on car upgrades, boob jobs, additional weekend breaks, and all manner of luxury goods to spoil ourselves. All very well, that's what life's about, you might say.

But then we look to our schools, our pitiful train service, our capital city and its wretched infrastructure that would shame countries with half our wealth, and we look at our grandas and grannies lying sick on trolleys, and we decry the price of childcare. And we hate the emptiness of our urban centres, where towns half the size in France or Britain would have twice as many pools or libraries, or museums, or concert halls. We see all this, and we wonder why?

But we know. All these wonderful projects need trust in collective spending. And of this we have none. And that is why Labour can never hope to be more than a bit player in Irish politics.

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