Think of Boston, not Berlin

Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries.

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin. After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The dispute that ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the “seething Irish energy” of the union leader Jim Larkin.
 
On a recent trip home (I’m a Dubliner living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of the Irish Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy’s tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country’s education minister; he has been boasting about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.
 
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) wants science and maths to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an “explicit focus on enterprise” in higher education. Ibec’s objective here is to achieve a “well-skilled and flexible labour force”. Part of the flexibility being championed is that companies don’t have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.
 
Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the “Blueshirts” because of the party’s historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, Fine Gael fought the February 2011 election on a pledge to “burn the bondholders”. Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party’s manifesto.
 
The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland’s real masters – officials at the European Commission – told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.
 
Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo’s gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries. The Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s medical services, has had its budget cut by €3bn since 2008. The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with standards for childcare and cancer treatment.
 
A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that Ireland’s government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How can this be achieved at a time of austerity? The details remain fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme.
 
Mary Harney, the health minister between 2004 and 2011, once claimed that Ireland was “closer to Boston than Berlin”. The current “reforms” reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American free-market economist, also advocates that Ireland adopt universal health insurance with private firms in the driving seat. In his view, medical care is “a kind of luxury good”. Dublin is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.
 
I love going home to Ireland. However, when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.
 
David Cronin is the author of “Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War” (Pluto Press, £17.99) 
People make their way across a bridge over the river Liffey in central Dublin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain