In early 1998, Tony Blair, then UK Prime Minister, addressed the French National Assembly. In fluent French, he described the political ethos shaping New Labour and, more broadly, Third Way politics, as “an attempt to make realistic sense of the modern world. It is a world in which love of ideals is essential but addiction to ideology can be fatal… there are no ideological preconditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works.” Seated in the very chamber where the concept of political “left” and “right” originated and to the obvious bemusement of the many present, Blair defined what came to be known later as, Blairism: a politics (apparently) devoid of ideological leanings.
Three years later, at a Labour Party Conference, Blair sharpened his messaging by concluding emphatically that ideology is, in fact, dead.
Surely, this is welcome and beneficial for us all? Politics, now liberated from ideological roadblocks, would be based on pragmatism and realism. Common sense would prevail. We can implement policies based on the world as we find it. Arguments about State provision or private market provision would evaporate. What really matters, after all, is what works.
What is driving housing policy?
Yesterday, during an enthusiatic defence of the Irish Government’s progress on housing, the Housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien diagnosed ideology as the real barrier to progress in his remit. As generally expected with these pieces, the Minister underlined how his flagship Housing for All programme was ambitious in scale and then described progress within the core strands of the Affordable Housing Bill and the forthcoming shared equity scheme. He concluded that, ultimately, the good of individuals, families, communities and the State will be furthered through the aim of increasing home ownership by any means possible.
Setting implementation to one side for the moment, the nub of his argument was that housing policy must not be driven by ideology. This naturally leads to the follow-on question that if ideology is not driving housing policy, what is? Rather then being lumbered with the baggage of ideology, or surplus meaning, the Irish Government would be wisely taking a “practical stance” and would “step up wherever needed.” The Minister and his advisors were, maybe unbeknownst to them, having their Tony Blair moment. It is worth considering what it means to claim to be without an ideology.
We are all ideologues
Ideology is a contested term with many facets and meanings. Theorists have described a plurality of different ways of using the term “ideology”. It is commonly used imprecisely and without a definition. Irish politicians have taken to almost accusing their opponents of “having an ideology”, as if it is necessarily a bad thing. As if it is avoidable.
We are all ideologues. Ideologies help us to map out our social and political world. We can only act on the world around us when we can make sense of it. And we would be unable to do this without an ideology, which would leave us without either a basis for our decision-making and a vision for the social reality we would like to create.
Neoliberalism as the dominant ideology
However, not all ideologies are equal. The most prevelant ideology underpinning social and political decisions in Ireland is neoliberalism. Consistent with its expansionary instinct, it functions as the dominant ideology. Since 1987, the provision of housing has been an examplar of one of the purest forms of ideology—neoliberalism— leading to the rapid deregulation of lending; financialisation of housing; land speculation; developer-led provision and the minimisation of the state in housing provision. In a total inversion of the democratic approach, the role of the State has been regulated by the market. Despite causing the deepest recession ever experienced in Ireland, this default ideology in housing provision barely paused and took stock. Instead it has recalibrated and accelerated, creating new mechanisms to extract profit from housing.
A key identifier of a dominant ideology in a society is its ability to conceal or disguise. This can happen in two main ways and both were demonstrated in the Minister’s op-ed. Firstly, and quite simply, the declaration of not having an ideology is an ideological statement. It is the purest ideology. The denial is naturally followed by the claim of pragmatism or being “practical.” What we are doing is plain common sense. Those whose political ethos is located within the dominant ideology can claim to be practical because they are seeking to maintain the status quo of the housing system. What has been planned just needs more time!
A dominant ideology will not only conceal itself to the individual and the public; it will also conceal itself through the dismissal of alternatives. Responding directly to alternative housing models proposed by opposition parties, the Minister deemed them infeasible due to “arbitrary price caps.” Yet the current Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan epitomises arbitrariness. Baked in to the current government plan are limits – €320,000 for the main cities and the Dublin commuter belt with €250,000 available for the rest of the country – that could easily be set differently.
Little evidence exists for how these price caps were calculated in relation to average wages or the notion of affordability. In reality, price caps on private market provision in housing will lead to house price inflation as the price of the asset will find an equilibrium with the availability of credit. House price inflation only benefits certain corporate actors. Worryingly, despite warning of further unaffordability being introduced to the housing system by the new shared equity scheme, the Department is unwilling to consider alternatives.
The current Minister for Housing has a tremendous opportunity to extricate himself from a difficult position. Since entering Government, housing policy has been a continuation of his predecessors’ legacy so he will have to bear the continued failures. Considering the polling numbers from the last General Election, Fianna Fáil, of the three largest parties, had the lowest number of those aged 18-24 and 25-34 years. If I had an eye on future elections I would be seeking a way to sway these young, and increasingly active voters most affected by current housing affordability and precarity.
Politics and policymaking need ideologies. When you hear the word bandied about as a slur, consider how the meaning is changed if we just say “philosophy” instead. Our philosophy at JCFJ is grounded on human dignity and recognises that climate and biodiversity collapse is the most pressing problem facing our society. That’s our ideological commitment. This is the frame through which we consider questions of social justice. The presence of competing ideologies is essential to democracy and can have a creative and generative effect. New ways, or the return to old forgotten ways, can present opportunities to provide social goods such as housing and healthcare which we all agree upon.
With a vaccination programme beginning to ramp up, the focus will soon turn to economic recovery and investment. Now is the time for the Minister to commit to large-scale, high-quality public housing and eliminate homelessness.The pieces are all present on the board: access to credit at negative rates; the availability of a workforce skilled in construction; and, importantly, public goodwill.
The only barrier left is an ideological commitment to the philosophies that have consistently failed us.