Budget 2014 – FG happy while Labour holds its breath
It’s a terrible thing to believe in the reasons you take an action but to not believe in the action itself. Governments often find themselves faced with such a situation. The Labour party in particular is haunted by it.
Yesterday’s budget was never going to be easy. It is a very difficult time to try and balance the books. Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were both laying on the hyperbole to remind all that the fault for the crisis lay with Fianna Fail. This was a completely understandable approach and a legitimate point, even though its one the public is tiring of hearing.
Politically the budget ticked a number of boxes. Labour can point to a number of things as a success. They will say the cuts could have been worse without them, they will claim the credit for the free GP care for under 5’s and they will say that the budget is in line with their policies for job creation.
At the end of the day however, there is no escaping the fact that it was Fine Gael that was happier. The Fine Gael, right wing vote would see very little wrong with this budget. While Labour might wish to claim the idea of creating jobs, the harsh reality is that the extra spending here was very much in favour of business owners and investors. That is not a bad thing at all, and Labour know that but sometimes ideology ties you up.
Lets look at what occurred in very simple terms. Michael Noonan, an FG Minister, got to his feet and spent most of his speech announcing a €500 million package to be invested in business, entrepreneurship and investment. The bulk of this spend will be overseen by another right wing FG Minister, Richard Bruton. The lad’s down at IBEC and ISME would be very pleased. There was nothing in the measures to upset anyone of a right wing persuasion. No tax increases, lots of incentives no extra costs going to hit those who have solid and steady incomes. From that point of view this budget was very successful and does deserve praise.
Then the Labour Minister, Brendan Howlin got to his feet. The left wing Minister announced a series of cuts to the elderly, to the young unemployed, to medical cards, even to the dead. This was not the kind of stuff that would impress a left wing voter. One did have to wonder how FG managed to create a situation where they avoided delivering the bad news to such sectors but got to be in pole position to announce all the good stuff on the jobs front.
There was some good news for labour. Job creation is of course a priority, if only they had been allowed announce some of the spend. They did get to tell us that there will be more teachers and gardai which was a positive for their vote although whether this will be in sufficient numbers to satisfy their voters is another question. The free gp care for under 5’s was an election promise fulfilled but that did come with the tinge of hurt caused by tough medical card reviews.
What was interesting when you sat back and looked at the picture unfold was that key FG ministers, Noonan, Bruton, Varadkar, Coveney all had some great news and plans for the future. THe only FG Minister in a tight spot was the Health Minister and that is perhaps to be expected.
Labour Ministers on the other hand were all trying to defend tough decisions. Despite their best efforts to talk about the positives they were being hit by questions about their departments and those departments are the key ones for their vote. Whether it was Dole cuts, Maternity benifit cuts, Invalidity cuts, telephone allowance, bereavement grants or overseas aid, Labour will face the grilling.
No matter how much one talks about governments creating jobs there is always going to be a hole in the argument. No matter how labour would try, they will know that this morning their best friends will be right wing commentators. THeir best defenders will be found in business associations and employers groups rather than in the Trade Union halls. Thats not an easy position to find yourself.
Detractors of the Labour party will say that it no longer is a left wing party. However, within Labour itself many do still believe they are left wing and just see their role as an effort to bring some of that ideology to a situation where difficult decisions are required. They are a left wing party in a right wing government.
Many within the party will hold on believing that they have to try and continue and that things would be much worse without them. The truth is however that the more time they spend in government the more reasonable many of the policies appear, the more ministers start to think with a little bit more of the right wing mentality. That becomes a worry for the broader mass of supporters.
In Ireland and across the world many parties avoid an ideological pigeon holing for that very reason. They do not want to be bound by theory and would rather rely on trust and the ability to adapt to circumstance. Ideological parties would accuse these of not standing for anything but it can be worse to stand for something and then have to admit you can’t deliver it.
At first glance Labour avoided the big showdowns of previous years by not having any particular policy omitted like a tax on high earners for instance. But is avoiding defeat more important than fighting? Time will tell. The government will hold firm. The majority of people in Ireland have a job, a good steady income and are not thinking about retirement. These people were largely unaffected by the budget. The next opinion polls will be the test, FG will definitely expect a bounce. If Labour can get a bounce too then the strategy will have paid off handsomely. However if Labour fail to get that bounce then they may just be out of options.