“Let’s keep the recovery going” – the official Fine Gael slogan, but, in effect, a call for the return of the current coalition – should, on the face of it, be a powerful mobilising tool for the governing parties.
The economy is growing, unemployment is falling, and the public finances are in better shape than they were when the government was elected. So appealing to voters to keep the show on the road seems a reasonable approach. And yet, it may, perversely, prove counterproductive.
For a start, people experiencing some of the problems I have written about here before – such as precarious work and increasingly expensive accommodation – as well as those afflicted by forced emigration or trying to access a dysfunctional health service, do not feel much of a recovery in their own lives.
They do not see their lived experiences reflected in the official figures, and may even be offended by the whiff of complacency that the whole idea of “recovery” implies.
One has to wonder, in particular, about the wisdom of Fine Gael running an advert featuring images of “ghost estates” with the tagline “don’t let Fianna Fail come back to haunt us”. The homeless and those paying exorbitant rents might wonder why there are still 8,000 vacant houses and 16,321 vacant apartments in Dublin alone – five years after Fianna Fail left office.
Economist Dermot O’Leary, independent.ie/business/irish/large-majority-still-not-feeling-fruits-of-the-economic-recovery-31552823.html">writing in the Irish Independent last September, expanded on the theme of the gap between official data and personal perceptions: “While people broadly accept that the country is better off than a year ago, a large majority believe that it has not yet benefited them personally. One recent survey suggested that only 15 … [per cent] of people feel that they have personally benefited.”
UNITE economist Michael Taft took this as the starting point for a recent post on who exactly had gained from the recovery. He concluded that while there has certainly been “a clear and substantial rise in overall household income … most of it is [probably] landing in the pockets of the self-employed and capital/private pension income – and most of that is landing in the pockets of the top 10 percent.”
Many of those who are now making gains probably also take the view that a more broad-based and fairer recovery might have been possible if alternative policies had been followed. That the last few years could have been managed in a way that would have avoided phenomena such as ballooning rates of homelessness, child deprivation and emigration; that there was no need to deepen inequality.
US economist Joseph Stiglitz made this point to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Davos last month, pointing to, in particular, how much pain could have been averted if debt had been written down.
Part of the FG-Labour strategy is to insist that there were no viable alternatives available and that their opponents cannot be trusted with responsibly managing the economy. From this perspective Fine Gael and Labour are portrayed as safe pairs of hands, prudent and knowledgeable about economic affairs.
But this notion took a severe battering last month when it was revealed that they had overstated by €2 billion the “fiscal space” (potential extra government money available over the next five years) – an error exposed by Sinn Fein. (In fact, the whole idea of there being any ‘fiscal space’ is open to challenge, even leaving aside for now the perhaps shaky foundations of the current economic upturn.)
In a toe-curlingly independent.ie/opinion/columnists/gene-kerrigan/eight-billion-plus-two-minus-credibility-34430171.html">awkward TV appearance, the Taoiseach tried to smooth over the mistake by declining to get into “economic jargon which the vast majority of people don’t understand”. Condescension may play no better than complacency with the electorate. As Hugh O’Connell notes on TheJournal.ie, “when economic competence is all-important when it comes to the next government, it appears the current one screwed up the numbers – and that’s not good for its re-election hopes”.
At the time of writing, on Monday 15 February, the latest Sunday Business Post/Red C opinion poll labour-slump-by-five-points-as-sinn-fein-rise/">shows an apparent decline in support for the governing parties. The recovery narrative may indeed be faltering.