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Property & water taxes – What’s needed now to fight austerity?

As the property tax is set to double and water charges are being prepared, Cllr Ruth Coppinger looks back over the campaign against the property tax and on the type of campaign needed now to fight austerity.

One year ago, around 50% of all single-home owners were continuing to take part in the magnificent boycott of the hated household charge. Legislation for a new so-called ‘property tax’ was being rammed through the Dáil.

It was clear from the unprecedented, draconian nature of the new tax that a serious campaign — of a much higher level than anything  seen in recent times in Ireland — would be required to defeat it. With collection of the tax taken from local councils and handed over to Revenue; an informer clause; and the new legal power to deduct the tax from wages and welfare, the existing boycott of the household charge, strong as it was, would not by itself be sufficient.

At that time, the Socialist Party advocated that a boycott of the tax forms was an important part of putting political pressure on the government. The refusal en masse to make a tax return would be a powerful message of defiance and pose a political crisis for the government in implementing the tax. However, because of deduction at source, boycott alone did not have the same power as with the Household tax. To force a withdrawal of the tax by government a massive campaign of political pressure was necessary.

Vital in carrying out such political pressure was the building of real local activist groups, capable of targeting their local government TDs and councillors, as well as the piling on of pressure nationally through large national protests and other events. The trade union leadership, who for the most part disgracefully either sat on the fence or gave support to the property tax, would also be affected by such a campaign.

The objective conditions of fighting the combined power of Revenue, the establishment and the Troika was certainly a huge challenge. But there wasn’t enough of a drive by some of the political organisations involved in the Campaign Against Home & Water Taxes ( CAHWT ) to build active groups, with an active membership on the ground and a powerful base in communities that could create the scale and intensity of campaign needed.

The weak link of Labour

The Socialist Party also put forward that Labour in particular was the weak link in government and, with more of a working class voter base, it tactically should be targeted by the CAHWT and linked with the property tax. Remarkably, some left groups initially argued against this and for an equal targeting of both government parties. The mass defections by Labour councillors, TDs and even an MEP in the months since have exposed the wounds in Labour and there is no doubt that the anti-household/property tax campaign struck some of these blows, although not with enough impact to provoke a wider political crisis.

In the key months of the new year 2013, some local groups took a serious turn to build the active base of their groups and to start a political campaign on their local Labour TDs and councillors by going door to door among their electorate and among those liable for the tax. Using postcards directed at Labour was an aid to have a dialogue on the doors, to make an appeal to people to get involved, to raise cash for mass leaflets, as well as to send a steady stream of postcards to the local TD to build the pressure.

Some groups did see the need to try create the necessary political pressure and to build in January, February and March, the vital months before payment deadline loomed.

Members of the Socialist Party proposed a national demonstration for April to coincide with the visit of EU finance ministers to Dublin Castle. Protestors would display thousands of red cards to them. The purpose of a demonstration at this point was to give a focus for the anger against the property tax and austerity and to see if, by going beyond the 15,000 who had taken part respectively in the marches in 2012, (the FG Ard Fheis in March and the trade union / CAHWT in November),  a momentum could be generated that would energise the campaign. If momentum could be built to lead people beyond the deadline, it would increase the political pressure and confront Labour with a decision about forcibly deducting the tax.

The organising of the protest was worked for energetically by the Socialist Party and others. However, all political groups should have prioritised this protest but did not — ironically some of the same groups that now dishonestly try to spread the lie that it was Socialist Party members who downgraded the campaign at that time.

With approximately 8,000 in attendance, this demonstration was the only one that took place against the Troika during the Irish EU presidency and was highly significant for that, but it wasn’t of the magnitude to kick-start a battle in advance of the registration deadline or to push the government back from planned imposition of the property tax.

For those campaign groups that had been actively campaigning and engaging with people, it was clear that, while the property tax and austerity was overwhelmingly opposed, confidence was low about taking on the government on this issue. A sense of powerlessness pervaded, assisted by the media onslaught which promoted the idea that resistance was futile.

While a sufficient response might not come about in active opposition, it was all the more vital that taking on the parties in the political arena and the standing of candidates to challenge the austerity parties (particularly Labour) was raised now. Far from being something separate to fighting the property tax, it was absolutely integral to it.

Water charges election challenge in the 90s

In the successful campaign against water charges in Dublin in the 1990s, the bedrock was, of course, mass non-payment. But the campaign took on the councils and government on a number of fronts including mass leafleting, public meetings, direct action to stop water disconnections and to reconnect, court cases and, of course, the political decision to stand in the Dublin West by-election in 1996.

Joe Higgins, chairperson of the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns at the time, made a stunning impact by almost winning the seat against high-profile Brian Lenihan. A number of months later, the charges were abolished by the LP / FG coalition. This was due to the pressure of all those tactics, but few would seriously argue the electoral tactic hadn’t been a key factor as the establishment parties faced the possibility of a loss of a number if seats unless they acted.

If the CAHWT as a whole had taken and publicised a decision to stand candidates in a national anti-austerity slate while the issue of the property tax was still live and before deductions were implemented in July, this would have been seen as a highly significant national development. CAHWT in 2012 had, after all, attracted thousands to meetings and protests.

Such an announcement then could have increased the pressure on Labour councillors, facing a fight for survival in 2014. Importantly, it would also have maintained a focus for those activists who had gotten involved in the fight against the property tax and in activism generally, rather than allowing them fade away over the summer and become demoralised by the failure of the boycott.

Instead, a number of political groups involved in the CAHWT advocated non- participation in the elections — not by themselves as they had every intention of standing their own party candidates — but by the campaign. They also played on a negative anti-political, anti-party mood in society, arguing that elections should be kept separate from the campaign. Effectively, they were arguing that ordinary people becoming radicalised by issues like the household and property taxes should keep out of the political sphere and leave it to the ‘professional’ lefts.

An anti-austerity, anti-home tax slate

The need for a real political alternative to austerity is widely commented upon and obvious to large swathes of people affected by the economic crisis. When Larkin and Connolly were fighting capitalism and injustice a hundred years ago, they saw the need for a political as well as an industrial arm for the working class. This is a cornerstone of socialist thought.

If the CAHWT had worked to build a broad slate of candidates under a general anti-austerity banner around an agreed programme and including new activists, hundreds of candidates could now be fielded, rather than separate slates of Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit, United Left and various independents.

Such a slate could not be ignored by the establishment media and would pack more of a ‘punch’ than disparate groups of candidates. It could attract candidates from outside the CAHWT campaign. Such a national broad slate would play a role in cutting across right-wing, populist groups who get a hearing when there is frustration and a political vacuum. Moreover,  it would bring the issue of home and water taxes itself centre stage and strengthen the fight against them.

The suspicion generated, and in some cases deliberately stoked up, around an electoral challenge was badly mistaken and undermined the struggle — not the other way round. What the Socialist Party and others who argued for such an electoral tactic were tying to do was to wage the battle in the fullest way possible, to use every necessary tactic.

The idea that people left the CAHWT because there was a debate about elections is facile. The reality is that most of those who attended meetings around the household and property taxes didn’t get actively involved in the campaign and it never became fully fleshed out with new activists. Many local groups remained dominated by existing political activists and many failed to try and build their active base in communities in a real way, focusing solely on the visual stunt and not supplemented by regular public meetings or broad engagement or involvement. This is further evidenced by the lack of funds raised by some areas.

Where the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) has been established, regular activist meetings do still take place, with discussions on broader anti-austerity topics and with weekly local activity. If these groups had adopted the view that they were just single-issue campaigns, there is no doubt they would have died or been folded-up, as happened in some areas. Fighting the home taxes was never a single-issue campaign and was always linked to broader political questions like the bank bailout and the policy of austerity by the rich against the poor. To confine it to a single issue is to stunt a developing consciousness which is taking place and which is absolutely necessary if we are to build a movement to defeat austerity.

Resisting water meters & charges

The only large area of Dublin where metering has taken place is Dublin West. There, the AAA tested the mood with leafleting, canvassing and held four public meetings on water charges. Two of those meetings agreed to protest on estates where meters were being put in. These also drew national media attention to the issue. Metering had begun in other counties but with no evidence of serious protests attempted, despite the presence of groups in some of those areas. These developments completely undermine criticism that CAHWT had been diverted from ‘grassroots’ street protest because of electoralism.

The fact that the Dublin West protests were small showed a general mood of resignation among people at this stage that installation of the meters couldn’t be stopped, while at the same time there was widespread anger and fear about the burden of the charges themselves. Whether resignation on the metering turns to anger is an open question and should be tested again. Water bills rather than the meters may become the real issue for people.

The battle against water charges will have to be a very political campaign. Water charges were agreed with the Troika by Fianna Fáil as a central plank of the bailout, so there is a lot more at stake than was even the case in the 1980s and 1990s. They are now carried out by Fine Gael and Labour — the latter doing a complete U-turn having taken out expensive ads against water charges before the general election.

A massive campaign of non-payment of the water bills when they arrive next Autumn would have to be built, combined with huge political pressure on the parties behind the charges. The election of councillors on such a platform would undermine the water charges and the parties behind them and be a huge assist to a campaign.

Activists have to consider the type of campaign that was fought nationally by the CAHWT and the type of campaign needed now to defeat water charges.

A feature of some of the political organisations involved in the CAHWT was the lack of onus on building real local activist groups. Allowing campaigns to lapse into inactivity or semi-inactivity at key times in some areas was another. Failure to grasp the electoral challenge amounted to loss of a political initiative and was a mistake.

The building of vibrant local campaigns with roots in communities, which organise activist meetings, discuss issues, educate people, organise protests and which build sustained pressure on the politicians is vital if a battle is to be seriously fought. It is also a prerequisite that groups such as this be attempted to be built locally before a national campaign could be successfully brought together.

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