It is almost a decade since the beginning of the financial crisis which brought capitalism to the point of collapse.
In the intervening years, working-class people have been forced to carry the cost of bailing out the system through various, vicious austerity programmes. Establishment political parties across Europe and the world have been greatly reduced, or almost wiped out, for implementing these measures.
Now, as we enter 2018, the ‘line’ from the establishment and media is that we have entered a period of stability and recovery.
However, for working-class people the key signifiers of the ‘recovery’ are precisely the issues which show that capitalism cannot deliver a decent standard of living for all and provide the space for movements and a socialist Left to grow.
Politically, in Ireland, recent opinion polls have been heralded by right-wing commentators as a sign that everything’s ‘back to normal’. But it is a new ‘normal’, with the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at best only hitting 60% but averaging out in the mid-50s, only slightly up on its historic low. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is stuck in the margin of error.
The ‘centre’ isn’t as strong as it tells itself it is, and through movements on the streets can be forced into giving some concessions, solving the problems facing people we need a fundamental change of the system.
The key crisis facing working-class people is housing.
At the last count in October, 5298 adults and 3194 children were homeless and in emergency accommodation. 184 homeless people are forced into sleeping on the streets. Rents have rocketed and are expected to continue skywards for the next two years at least. Over 100,000 people and families are waiting on housing. 500,000 young adults are forced to live at home because they cannot afford to move out, twice the number in 2006.
At least 29 housing policies have been launched by this government and its predecessor, but the problem gets worse. All of these policies have relied on the private sector to solve the housing crisis.
This reliance on the private sector has resulted in massive wealth being gathered in the hands of a parasitic elite of developers, vulture funds and landlords. While huge misery is inflicted on the majority. In Dublin West, for instance, despite the area being a homeless blackspot only 10 new social homes were directly built by the Council.
Solidarity’s recent proposal to build 1100 social and affordable homes in Damastown has received widespread public support and is an example of the approach which is required. This proposal is for 550 social homes to be built for rent from Fingal County Council. Another 550 affordable homes are to be built and made available to buy through affordable mortgages. The mortgages would be provided by the Housing Finance Agency, and paid back over 25 years. Monthly mortgage repayments will be from €478 per month for a one-bed home, to under €800 for a four-bed home.
This is the type of radical approach on housing which is needed but the government will need to be forced into it by pressure from the streets.
A whole generation of young people have been drawn into a battle to win abortion rights over the last number of years. This year saw the largest ever March for Choice, and big turnouts on International Women’s Day for Strike4Repeal and other marches and events.
This has been accompanied by a deep politicisation of issues of oppression and equality. The #metoo campaign has encouraged women to speak out against sexual assault, genderbased violence and sexism. Demands for the separation of church and state and trans rights are now more common and loud than ever before.
The vote on the Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Amendment to support abortion up to 12 weeks on request is a testament to the work and pressure applied by activists over a number of years. In particular, credit is due to the courage of those who highlighted the abortion pill, campaigning across the country to raise awareness and assist women and pregnant people with a crisis pregnancy.
The pressure from the movement forced and dragged conservative politicians into voting for these recommendations. However, legislation must still be produced and passed by the Oireachtas. The Dáil is still deeply conservative and may attempt to water down any legislation. We need to continue to exert pressure on the Dáil to make sure there is no backsliding on the proposals.
While unemployment may be decreasing, many people returning to work are finding themselves in worse conditions. The government, the capitalist class and big business have used the crisis to hammer employment terms by creating a slew of temporary and contract jobs. The phenomenal growth of the so-called ‘precariat’ signals the success they have had with this policy. So called ‘if and when’ and ‘banded hours’ contracts have become the norm across whole industries.
The effect of this row-back in employment conditions especially affects ‘would’ workers. They are expected to be at the beck and call of employers. They have no guarantee of hours and therefore have no guarantee of income.
The Tesco strike this year exposed for everyone the reality of ‘banded hours’ contracts which can see a worker’s hours and income fluctuate anywhere from 16 to 40 hours a week – often determined at the discretion of a manager, and often as a weapon to punish workers.
The decision of Ryanair pilots in Ireland and across Europe to take industrial action can be a decisive battle. If a major anti-union, anti-worker employer like Michael O’Leary can be given a bloody nose it will be a major victory for all workers. It will demonstrate to workers, especially those employed in multinationals, that international action against bosses is possible and can deliver victories.
The government have played a part in undermining working conditions too. As part of public-sector pay deals, they have created an age apartheid between young and older workers. This means effectively that two workers, doing the exact same job, will receive different pay scales simply based on when they were born. With these new contracts, new teachers can lose up to €250,000 during their careers.
A mass Left party
The government are unable to solve the housing crisis or improve the conditions faced by workers because to do so would affect the interests of the bosses. Even when their interests are not directly economically affected, like on abortion rights, they will act as a regressive block on social change and cling on to their historic relationship with the church.
In this space, the socialist Left can grow and become a major factor if it puts forward the correct, anti-capitalist political programme. Capitalism, and parties that accept capitalism, cannot deliver real change.
In the Dáil, and on the streets, Solidarity argued that only by taking radical measures which break the rules of the market can the housing crisis be solved. To begin building homes on the scale that is needed would mean breaking the neoliberal EU Fiscal Rules which prevent the state spending money it already has in NAMA and the Irish Strategic Investment Fund. None of the parties of ‘the centre’ support this; nor do Sinn Féin, because for them the rules are there to be obeyed no matter what the social cost.
It would mean taking control of land and the ability to build homes on a mass scale out of the hands of developers, building companies, speculators and vulture funds. Public lands and public utility companies should be used democratically to plan the provision of housing for everyone.
While wages have stagnated and working conditions have been driven down, the cost of living has skyrocketed and profits have soared. The top 1000 companies have seen their profits increase from €22.4 billion in 2015, to €34 billion in 2017. Yet the limits of the debate by the establishment have been framed around minimal increases to the minimum wage. They won’t even accept the idea of the living wage.
The Left must stand with workers on strike in their individual disputes, but also point out the need for a building a political party which represents the interests of workers over the interests of the capitalist class.
Across Europe we can see a process of working-class and young people looking to the Left for a political alternative. In Britain we have seen the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the growth in support for Left policies in the last general election. In the French presidential election, a movement grew around Jean-Luc Mélenchon and propelled the Left forward.
In Ireland, Solidarity wants to see a movement built that can become a mass force in society representing the movements on the streets and putting forward a socialist alternative in the parliament.
Ruth Coppinger is Solidarity TD for Dublin West and is a member of the Socialist Party