Varadkar must give voters a reason to dream again
Fortune favours radicalism and even strong centrists like Blair and Merkel challenged their own parties, writes Ed Brophy
WHAT Leo Varadkar likes to call the ‘new European centre’ didn’t quite hold. Even Angela Merkel couldn’t inoculate herself from the populist wave that has swept the West. But a tainted victory is still a victory and she remains the most successful centrist politician of her generation, taking that mantle from Tony Blair.
Merkel’s diminished return to power overlapped with Leo Varadkar’s first 100 days as Taoiseach and a renewed focus on defining his much-vaunted Republic of Opportunity. Certain commentators were quick to point to omitted comments on dependency culture in his recent Ibec speech as evidence that it amounts to little more than what Gerry Adams labelled as “Thatcherism with a fresh coat of paint”.
This isn’t surprising. All new leaders have a period when people project whatever they want on to them. What was discordant about the dependency language was not so much its omission by Varadkar, which hinted at a useful ability to error-correct, but the fact that it appeared in the first place. When we [Labour] were in government with Fine Gael, Enda Kenny’s advisers would often save the red meat for occasions like this or Fine Gael party gatherings, as if to reassure the faithful that he remained a true blue despite the influence of us turbulent social democrats.
The boilerplate may have survived the transfer of power, but unlike his predecessor, Varadkar understands that playing to the base in this way is counterproductive. That is why his central theme has been an expansive vision of aspiration — both personal and societal — and why he has talked about and to the middle class unlike any previous Irish politician.
We’re leery of talking about class at all here — most of all about the middle class. Conventional political wisdom says that it opens a can of worms that no Irish politician would relish. The danger for Varadkar is that it ends up sounding exclusionary and makes it easy for opponents to caricature him as right wing.
But the electorate doesn’t think in terms of left or right. The salient question is how many voters identify themselves as middle class and feel Varadkar is speaking directly to them. In a country where parents are blamed for the culture of aspiration that sees over 60pc of our young people attend third level, it may well be higher than previously suspected.
Varadkar reaches parts of the electorate his party can’t — that is why they made him leader. However, perception is reality in politics, and the danger is that he is unable to shake off the perception that Fine Gael is mainly there for those who are already well-off. To broaden his middle-class appeal, Varadkar must show that he stands for the majority of them who aren’t already well off but want to be.
To carry it off he needs to take a leaf from Blair and Merkel’s book. Both were often intruders in their own parties and at their most successful when challenging sacred cows. Both also had a genius for identifying where the centre lay at any particular time and dominating it to the exclusion of all others.
Where does the centre-ground lie in the Ireland of 2017? For Fianna Fail and much of the opposition, it lies in ‘fairness’, which in practice means that any spare money should go on public services.
The Government sometimes gives the impression that it lies in a pent-up demand for payback, including assorted baubles for the base like more property tax freezes.
The truth, I think, is that the scars of the recession have bequeathed us a more sophisticated electorate that prizes both personal and societal aspiration — achieving both our own full potential and that of our country. To date, no one has developed a compelling message that would enable them to dominate this new centre ground. It remains wide open.
Hillary Clinton explains how her campaign fell flat with the lower middle class in her recent book What Happened by referring to De Tocqueville’s observation that revolts tend to start not in places where conditions are worst, but in places where expectations are most unmet. As Clinton explains: “If you’ve been raised to believe that your life will unfold a certain way and then things don’t work out the way you expected, that’s when you get angry.”
In retrospect, Enda’s agonies with ‘Keep the recovery going’ anticipated Hillary’s torments. And yet, the unmet expectations of the recovery that made that slogan so toxic for Fine Gael haven’t gone away. The scars remain — many are still poorer than they were a decade ago and the cost of living is tempering the recovery dividend some would otherwise be enjoying.
For Varadkar to build a winning majority, voters have to see him as the real agent of change who will make them better off while ending the unending cycle.
He can only become the dominant voice for the majority who aren’t well off but want to be by dragging Fine Gael out of its comfort zone. As Blair’s former pollster James Morris wrote recently, whether it was New Labour positioning itself against the party’s losing past or Thatcher moving the Tories to embrace working class aspiration, parties that have transformed their appeal have transformed a core part of their own identity to do it.
Varadkar needs his own ‘Clause 4’ moment. For Blair, it was ditching the sacred attachment to public ownership of the means of production. For Leo, housing is the crucible where he can start to upend expectations of what Fine Gael stands for. In practice, this means ending the myth that the market alone can deliver the dream of home ownership.
It’s little wonder that younger people are disconnected from the political system with home ownership at its lowest level in 50 years.
Restoring home ownership as a realistic prospect for the majority would put Varadkar in a position to dominate politics for a generation. But he can only do it by turning orthodoxy on its head. The State must commence a massive house building programme on land it already owns, make it truly punitive for private developers to sit on undeveloped land, and subsidise those in work whose income falls short of their rent or mortgage.
Leo needs to give his generation reason to dream again. Fortune favours radicalism. As his fellow mould-breaker Monsieur Macron puts it, there must be no red lines, only horizons.