An old military maxim is that no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy. And so it proved when the Government thought it could impose water charges on a population ground down by austerity. Unfortunately for them a sizeable section of the Irish working class decided it had had enough and that this was one bite of austerity that wouldn’t be taken.
As I said in a previous post, it began to appear in the last few months that this was a battle the Government was losing. The announcement of further drastic changes to the Government’s plans this past week suggests that this is even truer now.
The charge that was provisionally priced at €176 in July is now €60 and is €160 for households with two or more adults – if the charge is paid and an absurdly name conservation rebate of €100 is claimed. The cap on charges will be in place until the end of 2018 with the promise of continuing caps thereafter. The introduction of charges is postponed for three months to January 2015; late/non payment penalties will be €30 for a single adult and €60 for other households. PPS numbers will not be required and trickle water restrictions will not be imposed, with promises that court action will not be taken against non-payment. Privatisation of Irish Water is off the agenda with other promises that legislation will be introduced to require a plebiscite before such action could be taken in future.
The Right2Water campaign noted “that the level of charges has been significantly reduced” and the Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger, interviewed on RTE Six One News, noted that they were low. The Socialist Party has claimed that the non-payment charges will kick in at the time of the next general election and will become the major issue within the election campaign but then make the argument that the Government won’t be able to impose them.
The argument of the campaign is that the water charges need to be scrapped, that promises of future low levels of charging are worthless, that Irish Water should either be scraped as well or else it should be retained in ‘public’ ownership, and that promises not to privatise it are also worth nothing.
The argument can also be put that for many working people €160 is €160 they already can’t afford and for others it will tip them significantly into financial hardship. The amount is not a lot but its impact is so much more painful the less it can be afforded.
None of this however may be enough; for now it is the campaign that is faced with its battle plan’s survival after further engagement with the enemy. A campaign that has highlighted the cost of water charges and the tactic of non-payment now has to answer when the cost has been significantly reduced and a credible promise is made that it will not be increased quickly. Can the campaign be maintained and can it grow and develop?
The current weakness of enforcement measures means that non-payment may not immediately have the intimidatory effect that they might have had, but the flip side of this is that the cost of paying for many is no longer prohibitive. As I noticed in the previous post, given European Commission clearance the amount of money involved for the State is not unmanageable. It can afford to retreat on this.
So as things stand the victory is not complete, but then no success is ever permanent until the final victory. One small part of austerity has been rolled back but the decisive question is how the success that has been achieved can be copper fastened and advanced.
There is no silver bullet as an answer to this question or even a combination of answers such as sunlight, garlic and a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire.
But we do know that the answer lies with those who have been mobilised in the Right2Water campaign and the militant and active campaigns that have been organised at a local level.
The immediate requirement is to make the campaign a real coherent movement with democratic functioning so that all those involved can contribute to deciding what their collective attitude is to the Government’s concessions and what they are going to do next. No one is going to decide for them. If they have the power to put the Government into disarray they should and must have the power to make their own decisions. See the initiative launched here.
It is likely the case that the issue of water charging is still the struggle that will unite active opposition to austerity and that other issues might accrete to the campaign at a local level but cannot do so as part of an overall policy unless and until the democratic organisation into a State-wide campaign has been achieved.
Time now gained can be used to campaign among the trade unions and workers to boycott and black charging and create a real campaign against water charging within the union movement.
Despite the reduction in charges there is no reason that non-payment should not be a part of the campaign. It should not however be allowed to become a means of dividing those opposed to the charges and should not be made into a loyalty test of opposition.
This does not exclude putting it up to political parties to state their policy. It is not the views of individual TDs or councillors that is the issue. It is a political question, a question of tactics not a moral obligation that failure to live up to will mean eternal damnation.
Some on the left appear to want membership cards, justifying it by reference to the Labour Party having subscription charges. I think this is misplaced and the necessity of having an organisation to belong to i.e. a real democratic state-wide organisation comes before the levying of membership charges. Membership of what and what are my rights of membership in this organisation would be the first questions if a membership card was put in front of me
The comparison with Labour raises the question whether the campaign can be treated as a political party or at least a political vehicle that stands in elections. This is a question particularly exercised by the Left whose reformist politics leaves no conception of an alternative to electoral intervention, tailor made as it is to sectarian competition.
The failure of the Left to unite despite minimal political differences disqualifies them as adequate vehicles for the workers involved in the campaign to join as a means for electoral intervention.
In relation to the water charges electoralism only has meaning if it has the potential to see those opposed to charges become a majority in the Dail. But even this is not enough since it has become obvious that the charges could be abolished with little respite from the rest of the austerity agenda. Standing in an election requires an alternative to this and as I have posted before, the Left doesn’t have this alternative.
In this respect the weakness that is exposed by elections – that an anti-austerity majority will not be elected – means that a full political programme is not required for electoral intervention. We won’t be the Government so we don’t need to pretend we will.
But this means understanding the limits of the intervention and not seeking to provide comprehensive answers that are thereby comprehensively wrong. A more limited programme would make clear that the elections are subordinated to the campaign rather than the Left which has a shameful history of subordinating the campaign to electoral intervention.
This is therefore the first reason why the elections are important (although they should not form the basis of a timetable for activity now). They allow an opportunity for the campaign to grow and develop; for the election to produce a bigger campaign at the end of it and not for the campaign to produce a bigger number of TDs.
The second aspect of this is that when the elections arrive they will be the biggest task facing the opposition to austerity and they therefore need an intervention by those opposed to it. The scale and political programme that this challenge to austerity will pose will be determined by the political development of the campaign between now and the election. This is another reason why a functioning campaign must be created as quickly as possible.