By Michael Smith.
Paul Murphy is 31 but perfectly formed, a model of good humour, principle and intelligence. He grew up in Dublin’s Goatstown, his father worked for Mars and his uncle is newsreader, Michael Murphy.
He went to St Kilian’s, a German school in Clonskeagh, where he became politicised by international events like the battle of Seattle and the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements, and then to the somewhat bourgeois ‘Institute of Education’.
Afterwards, he studied law in UCD, coming top in his class (irritatingly for his interviewer who came a hundredth, many years earlier in the same place). He started a PhD on Marxism and Law but it remains uncompleted. If he ever stands for the Presidency no doubt it can be used against him.
In UCD he was one of the founding members of a campaign for free education which ran a number of candidates for Students Union office in 2003. He stood unsuccessfully for President and became active in the Socialist Party. He was Joe Higgins’ ‘alternate’ and inherited his Dublin MEP seat in 2011.
He is a member of the International Trade committee in the European Parliament and a substitute on the Employment and Social Affairs and Petitions committees.
Domestically he has opposed water and property taxes and Jobbridge, which he satirises as Scambridge. He sailed with the second freedom flotilla to Gaza which was unsuccessful due to sabotage by Israel. He is strong on detail, on law and economics. But mostly it’s crying (and protesting) in the wind.
Apart from politics, “I’ve had various small jobs here and there, working in a bar, working in Tesco, working as a tutor in UCD, teaching European Law, things like that. His lectures must have been fun: did he take a radical perspective? “I gave my opinion as well as the official line”. Outside of politics he says “I run, I read, I go to the gym”.
Vision and Policies
What is his political philosophy? “I’m a socialist. I think that capitalism fails people as a system. I think we need a fundamentally different type of society – democratically socialist, whereby you have public ownership of the key sectors of the economy and genuinely democratic planning of the economy and society. Equality is essential to me. As documented in the recent book, the Spirit Level, inequality affects everything in society”.
He means equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, though he’s “not in favour of just the levelling of everyone over night”. Why not? “Because to be honest if you want to win support for a socialist project you can’t just tell people over night things are… I’d be in favour of some sort of maximum ratio of pay differential – 3 or 4 times”.
He doesn’t think it would be “wrong” if everybody was earning the same ”but I think in the medium term it’s not something that’s probably achievable”. But is it right in the long-term? “It’s not my goal that everyone earns the same amount. Everyone should have a decent standard of living … but there isn’t even equality of opportunity right now. In any event that’s a nonsense idea since clearly different people come from different positions of privilege, different access to education”.
I thought he was in favour of revolution? “I’m in favour of the current capitalist system being overthrown. I think that can be done through a mass movement of people, including people elected into Parliament, but also crucially, people on the streets, strike movements etc”.
Is revolution not much more dramatic and fraught with the danger of public revulsion than just looking for a completely equal society? He says “revolution” is my word and that it’s not the word he’d use. I seem to recall his party colleague, Joe Higgins, has a different line.
Does he think with his attitude that he could ever be in Government? “I don’t think I could be in Government managing a capitalist system, but I think as part of a radical socialist transformation Yes”. It could happen. ‘If for example Greece was to elect a Left Government and was to embark on the road of socialist change, the international markets wouldn’t be happy about it, there’d be a conflict, but it might spread”.
What are the models then, what ones would he be respectful of? “You had a brief period of time after the October revolution in Russia whereby you had a relatively healthy worker state, then it became Stalinist; and all the other states, supposedly socialist, were built in that Stalinist model. That’s not our model”. Is he a Trotskyite? “A Trotskyist. Trotskyite is generally what the Stalinists would call us”. He is not in favour of violence for political goals.
He accepts there are other parties in the radical left. The SDP, People Before Profit, they’re part of the radical left. Sinn Féin? “I wouldn’t say Sinn Féin are part of the radical left. Because they’re in Government in the north implementing austerity and because they’re committed to going into Government in the south and they’d be willing to implement austerity in the south too”.
How about the Greens? “No, I think there are some very good people like Patricia McKenna who was a very effective, good MEP, but I think the Green party went the German route and then even further to the right than the German Green party”.
His hero is James Connolly. What class is he? “I come from a middle-class background. I’ve the life of someone who is working-class, But in terms of my income and stuff – apart from the craziness of being an MEP, I’ve a basic apartment in Dublin and I rent a basic apartment – €590 a month in Brussels, one bed. I take the average wage of a young worker – €22,000 net a year. It’s the party principle, and it’s correct“.
He clearly hasn’t implanted himself in the public consciousness as much as ‘brand’ Joe Higgins. It is a little unfair, as he’s clearly not wanting in political talent. An Irish Times political correspondent described him as the most articulate opponent to the recent Fiscal Stability Treaty.
Does he think that there is any need for public-sector reform? “Yes. I think there is, at the top…”. Does he never get frustrated by bureaucracy and slowness of service in the public sector? “I get as frustrated by bureaucracy in the private sector”.
He’s opposed to privatisation, so does he think that it would be better if we still had the Department of Posts and Telegraphs (or whatever)? “I do, I think all those essential services, at least, should be in public hands. And banks should always have been in – on a different model from the way they were nationalised”.
How would he gauge success for the radical left? Two things: mobilising people against austerity, giving people a sense of their power – which we had success with on the household tax; and popularising the idea that there is an alternative, because it’s debilitating in terms of struggle to feel there’s nothing you can do. He thinks particular campaigns make social ideas, indeed socialism, relevant..
What sort of bank guarantee was appropriate? “A guarantee protecting deposits of under €100,000; no guarantee to the bond holders, no guarantee to deposits higher than that. Anglo coming down would not have been the end of the world if you transferred the small number of mortgages that Anglo had. If you had a socialist Government, you would have nationalised the banking system as a whole, you impose losses on the bond holders and you make it clear that you have enough to cover the deposits”.
What does he think of the unions? “I think most union leaders have betrayed their members and society and it’s helped to create a mood of defeat and demoralisation. The members are generally very annoyed about what happened with Croke Park 2. There needs to be a transformation. Jack O’Connor and David Begg have played a very poor role”.
Does he think unions are now a force promoting better pay for groups that are already being paid significantly better than the average? “The unions should be a force for equality and representing people generally, including those that are not in unions, I don’t buy into the argument that union members are privileged”.
He doesn’t think we will avoid run away climate change: “I think it’s gone too far to avoid runaway. I think we’re going to go over a 2 degrees increase – humanity is threatened”.
Does he believe in universal health insurance? “No, I don’t. I believe in a public health service like the NHS model”.
He believes in a woman’s ‘right to choose’ and gay marriage. Marriage is “not for everybody, but it’s a right”.
He believes corruption was more prevalent twenty years ago but does he think that ‘corruption’ extends to taking political stances that are egalitarian or anti-socialist? “That would be a very broad definition of corruption; I would say corruption is the buying of influence”.
Why is white-collar crime not being pursued – outside of Anglo and Michael Lowry? “There can be issues about resources but also about how those prosecuting view different crimes. I think that white-collar crimes are not seen as being crimes and not given the same priority”.
Is austerity being implemented fairly? “No, it’s being implemented to serve the interests for whom it’s meant to work. Austerity works: profits are up, bond holders are being paid and working class people are paying the price, that’s the point of austerity. It was never designed to get us out of the crisis”.
Of course he’s opposed to water taxes -“bailout taxes. I don’t think that taxation is the best way to achieve public goals, health or consumer or whatever. I think education and regulation are much better means to do it and they don’t have the equitable defects of double taxation”.
So, the carbon tax is not a good idea? “No”. But why if reducing emissions is a legitimate imperative should it not be pursued through taxation the way he thinks other legitimate imperatives should be pursued? “It’s a fundamentally inefficient way of doing it”. It’s pretty efficient when it comes to plastic bags.
“If you look at water taxes: in Britain, they use an average per person of 141 litres per day, in Ireland it’s 147 litres per day. We don’t have water taxes, it’s a marginal difference, it may or may not related to the tax. If you had regulation, dual-flush toilets, grey water harvesting, rain water harvesting, if you fixed the leaks, you ‘d have so much more of an impact”.
On the property tax, “I’m favour of people being aware of how their taxes are deployed, but I am not in favour of setting up a second tier of local taxation for a pretence of local democracy”.
Is there not the danger that people are pursuing right-wing agendas, including property concerns – through campaigns on water charges and the property tax, and on certain evictions, for example? “I think the vast majority of people – the 99% – have a vested interest in socialist change.
It’s not something we have to do because we feel good about some people elsewhere in the world. And so you’re not playing on sectional interests. I think people feel very disrupted right now by austerity, and their first choice isn’t radical change. Many people now involved in anti-austerity campaigns voted Labour or even Fine Gael but have been radicalised and that’s a good thing”.
He’s even open to FF voters. I wonder if Joe agrees with all this. And surely property and water taxes are desirable anyway – preferable to more income tax which the wealthiest avoid anyway? “I don’t accept that water taxes could ever be progressive. If property taxes excluded the family home and were on property including financial property it would be a wealth tax and I’d be in favour but it’s not”.
Is property not a useful indicator of wealth, and is wealth not as legitimate a target for taxation as income? “There is a distinction between someone’s family home and wealth. Especially in Ireland where you have a relatively speaking high rate of home ownership”. Is that not the Socialist Party compromising itself because of a peculiar Irish property obsession which is anti-socialist? “No, I think in any country where there was a socialist party we would be at the forefront”.
I ask him if he can get back to me if he can think of a socialist party anywhere in the world opposing a property tax.
The Socialist Party
I ask him to explain the links of his party. “So, the Socialist Party is now part of the Anti Austerity Alliance. There are 41 AAA candidates in the local elections,; 20 are members of the Socialist Party and 21 aren’t. So, it’s an alliance with us and other people.
In the European elections we’ll be standing as the Socialist Party, but with the name amended to Stop the Water Tax – Socialist Party, to highlight that issue. We are trying for the local elections to have some form of broader slate with others on the left like Community Solidarity in North Kildare, the United Left, the People Before Profit Alliance.
No one’s stepping aside but just a general transfer pact whereby you have multiple left candidates standing in the same place. There’ll be a different name for that”.
Is that not a bit Monty Pythonesque? “None of that matters, people know we’re on the left, they know we’re different parties”.
Does he get on with Boyd-Barrett? “I do”. Does Joe? “I think so”. Okay but can you just clarify the Clare Daly thing? “The Socialist Party was previously part of the United Left Alliance which included the People Before Profit Alliance which the SDP are part of, which included Clare Daly after she left the Socialist Party; we’re no longer part of the United Left Alliance. The United Left Alliance doesn’t really exist any more”.
His performance in the European Parliament
What difference has he made as an MEP? Éamon Ryan considers membership of the right EU Parliament committees is as powerful as a national Ministry but Murphy is sceptical: it’s a platform of opposition. “You’re not going to find that the commission took on my suggestions on anything. They don’t; you’re not going to find that things I advocate got legislated…”.
He did play a role in the defeat of ACTA – an attack on Internet freedom. And he is organising opposition to the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which seeks to lower social and environmental standards and bypass national courts.
He fought the free trade agreement with murderous Columbia, and exploitative ‘economic partnership’ agreements with African countries. He opposed the ‘six pack’, a set of European legislative to reform the Stability and Growth Pact and introduce greater macroeconomic surveillance.
He believes he was effective in opposing the Austerity (Fiscal Stability) Treaty, and in general exposing the authoritarian, neo-liberal practice of the EU. “The Left group is currently set to become the third biggest group and that would pose a real challenge to the way that they do deals, smash the consensus and offer an alternative”.
Is he a Federalist? “No, not in terms of a capitalist Europe. I’m in favour of a Socialist Europe which would be a Federation of countries in Europe that are on a Socialist basis”.
“I would have voted against all the European referendums since 1973 and I would stand over that”. So, will he serve the full 5 years? “Maybe, we don’t have any plans to stand for a general election or something, but I’m not going to promise people that if it was correct politically, that we wouldn’t stand for the Dáil”.