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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis - Ed Bro­phy was chief of staff to for­mer Tanaiste Joan Bur­ton

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.

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