On Friday, as I was reading the Twitter feed as results came in, I started noticing a certain tone amongst some No voters. It seemed to focus on the fact that a coalition of middle class and rural voters were outnumbering lower income voters at the polls. One tweeter in particular described it as something akin to the haves outvoting the have nots.
Two things struck me about this:
The first was the dismissive attitude towards middle class voters, as if they were somehow not real people. This is a common attitude in Britain and Ireland, that “middle class” is something to be sneered at as lacking some sort of authenticity, as if south Cork or south Dublin were not really parts of Ireland but just happen to be geographically located there.
Then there was the anger that lower income voters, through “austerity”, were being deprived by this evil coalition of their “due”. Now, think about this for a moment, because it is a discussion that needs to be had in Ireland. We are cutting spending because we don’t have money. The only way we can get money is through borrowing or through taxation. Essentially, a section of Irish politics, pertaining to represent lower income voters, is demanding a wealth transfer, through higher taxes, from voters wealthier than they are. Why? Has this wealth been created by the sweat of their brow through exploitation? For the most part, no. In fact, many of the most angry have not had much sweat on their brow for quite a while, so what is their beef? The answer is that they believe that they are plain and simply entitled to someone else’s money. It is the great un-had debate in Irish life, that people who want your money have a greater right to it than you have a right to keep it.
At this stage of the argument, the question of bank bailouts gets flung into the argument like some sort of economic kryptonite, but that does not work, because whilst anger towards the bailouts is perfectly justified, Gerry Adams and Joe Higgins et al were demanding other people’s money way before a single bank was ever bailed out.
This is a class issue, and it is time we confront it. We have an upper and middle class which generates most of the tax revenue that funds our public services for those on a lower income. That’s not to say that working class people do not generate wealth through their work, because they do, but the truth is that they earn less but also contribute less in actual taxation. A large section of those most unhappy with the share out of wealth in our society have (whisper this) not actually contributed towards it in any significant way. Yet they feel indignant about their share? Really?
Many of those tweeting demanded a party to speak up for lower income voters. They’re dead right, and we are moving towards a more class-based party system, and I would argue that this is not a bad thing. Sinn Fein seems to speak now primarily (but not exclusively) for a semi-permanent welfare class, and Fine Gael for business and the private sector middle class and farmers, like a normal centre-right party. Fianna Fail and Labour, on the other hand, are both suffering from an unwillingness to clearly define who they speak for. In fact, it was FF under Bertie Ahern, and the inability of Fianna Fail to say no to any section of society (Other than the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement who requested additional funding, funnily enough) that caused the problems we are in now. Likewise, Labour is struggling to define whose interest it is in government to voice, seeing itself as a proto-Fianna Fail party of all the people and slumping to 10% as a result by pleasing no one.
Of course, it is never that easy. Pearse Doherty does not walk the byroads of Donegal espousing socialism, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail both have “working class” (whatever that means these days) members and representatives. Curiously, the emergence of a class-based party for lower income voters, openly attacking the middle classes, could ironically end up harming its core supporters by revealing and isolating their relatively small numbers. There is also the jarring fact (for left wingers) that, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both discovered, their most dedicated supporters were not middle class voters but the aspiring blue collar voter who desired to be a member of the middle class.
People forget that whilst both the upper and lower classes are prone to self betrayal, whether it was by Ramsay MacDonald or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the middle class always remains loyal to itself.