George Lee Enters Politics

It is now confirmed that George Lee (the RTE economics editor) will stand for Fine Gael in the Dublin South by-election.  I am interested in the readership’s views on the extent to which skills in (a) economics; and (b) broadcast journalism may be helpful in parliamentary politics and/or the shaping of economic policies.

37 replies on “George Lee Enters Politics”

I think politicians who are master communicators do well, and in particular those who are using traditional and modern means – Obama’s twitter/facebook/youtube campaign would spring to mind, unlike traditional politicians who come up through the ranks, george will have media contacts etc. already lined up.

I don’t know that it will make him a good politician but he’ll hit the ground running from a public perception viewpoint.

George Lee occupied an odd role at the dominant broadcaster.

While he maintained an independent role, the management at RTÉ, kowtowed to the political leadership.

Taoiseachs and ministers chose the outlets which provided the best route to spin their yarns unencumbered.

For Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, 5-minute door step interviews have been generally the default interview mode.

Hugely important issues such as sham benchmarking have been brushed off in the Dáil and media, while politicians haven’t been held to account.

I mention benchmarking in particular because I believe no minister publicly challenged the 2004 research by Jim O’Leary and colleagues at Maynooth.

Other issues like the trend in house prices, were more open to blather.

The over-paid management at RTÉ, simply had no reason to rock the boat.

As regards, George Lee as a politician, it’s difficult to know how he would perform but it wouldn’t be difficult to outshine the current motley cocktail of teachers, auctioneers, small-town solicitors and farmers.

The key litmus test is whether he has a radical programme of change for an outdated governance system and what commitment he has from Enda Kenny on it.

I am in favour of 1. economists (and roadsweepers) and 2. people with experience in public debate entering the fray of elections. However, what seems to stand against George Lee is his credibility for choosing to represent a political party that seems to be as adrift from reality as all the other parliamentary politicians.

It is incredible how politics has become decoupled from independent thinking and intellectual debate. I think George Lee’s proof is in the pudding. Politics is not about choosing empty shells of political traditions from a bygone age or, worse still in Ireland, the pettiness of the parish pump. Politics is about taking ideas and the public seriously. I have no faith in candidates who are not prepared to put their arguments to the test of public opinion for their coherence and ambition, without recourse to fossils or pork barrels.

In fact I think it would double the number of qualified economists in the Dail. As far as I’m aware Richard Bruton stands alone in this regard at the moment.

He’s always talked common sense even if he comes over as a bit gloomly. The question is assuming FG get into power will he still talk common sense or tow the party line when things go wrong.

What we need in power are people who can admit they were wrong and then go on to learn and adapt from their mistakes. If you never think you’re wrong then you never have to change.

Dublin South will probably give him a warm enough reception

I’d say he entered politics many months ago. Its just that today he’s come out. Clearly, George Lee had planned this move some time ago. There were rumours about it last year on various websites. Its his democratic right, of course. But, I’d say he hung on in his old job, faking impartiality, until his latest series of programs on the economy was broadcast a few weeks ago. Naturally, this turned out be highly favourable to Fine Gael and damaging to Fianna Fail. Once this was out of the way, he was free to make the fact that he was actually a Fine Gael politician public.

On the bright side, with no more nightly appearances from Dr. Doom, I’d expect to see a sharp rise in consumer confidence in the next six months.

Rank and file TDs are effectively powerless anyways. However, it would be interesting to see if FG would be willing to put someone from ‘outside’ the party and the political establishment on the front bench if they were put in Government. But having an extra person with economic experience can’t be a bad thing.

At elections here, voters chose people they know and think will do a good job representing the constituency, IMO. On the first, Geore will pass muster and the second remains to be seen. Another factor is that Governments rarely win by-elections. So it depends on who else is standing and how transfers work out.

If elected, how long will it be before George gets bored with the role of an opposition TD – making worthy proposals, comments etc which have little or no effect on what the powers-that-be do? Will the humdrum life of being an elected representative kill the George Lee we are familiar with? If elected, will he be relected in what are changing times? If FG form part of the next Government, will George become a Minister? If not, how will he cope?

Politics is about the exercise of power and influence, in terms of who gets what and when. Is sound management of the economy (which I presume is what George wants, as do the rest of us) enough? What else does George actually want to do? What does managing the economy soundly mean for Geroge and/or FG?

It remains to be seen whether the combination of high unemployment/little emigration/poor economic circumstances here, will now lead to the kind of paradigm shifts in the make-up of the Dáil seen after the 1929 Crash (FF first formed a Government in 1932), after WWII (the first FG led coalition took office in 1948), during the 1980s (rise of the PDs, Labour’s 33 seats).

Are we in for a series of relatively short-lived Dails, with changes of Government each time, as during the 1950s and 1980s? Since 1937, the average lenght of a Dáil has been about 3.5 years, including the period since 1997. In short, this average Dáil term is about the same as wage agreements since the late 1980s.

Even if there is a change in the make-up of the political party representation in the Dáil (and thus on Government formation) and the backgrounds of TDs, I remain to be convinced that this suffices to improve the way we govern ourselves.

All that said, I admire those who put themselves forward for what can be a very public rejection eg. Eithne FitzGerald, another economist who represented Dublin South as did Anne Colley, a solicitor – the former on a swing to Labour and the latter on a swing to the PDs.

@John
theres a FF assumption that saying anything negative about the economy is partisan. Alas, the truth is that the economy is a bags and FF were in charge since, well, forever. So, truth not being partisan, the truth is as it is

What chance George to get a real hard time for the next few weeks on various forums etc.

Its started already. An attempt to warn other economists who knows.

As R.Tol sais any addition to the Dail skill set cannot be a bad thing

It seems to me that anyone who is numerate would make a welcome addition. To date we have experienced far too much spin & lack of analysis of the actual numbers. Perhaps, if elected me may help provide some debate based on the real numbers rather than waffle.

I wish him the best.

Simply describing the economy as a ‘bags’ is part of the problem. It shows that some economists and media commentators in Ireland appear to have powers of analysis that are as discerning and balanced as those of the average football fan. What’s required are more discerning economists and media commentators, who balance those economic indicators that are holding up well (given the circumstances of the worst global recession since the 1930s) against those that are worsening, and whose minds are not closed to the possible emergence of green shoots of recovery.

Among the economic indicators that are holding up well, I’d put:

manufacturing (down 1pc y-o-y in Jan and Feb versus down 15pc in EU)
exports (slightly up y-o-y in Jan and Feb versus down 20pc in EU)
trade surplus (rising at a very rapid rate)
balance-of-payments (clearly moving into surplus)
inflation (lowest in EU)
iseq (up 50pc since low point in early March)

Among the economic indicators that are worsening, I’d put:

unemployment (rising sharply for 18 months, but tentative signs in April figures of rise slowing)
consumer spending (falling sharply for 12 months, but tentative signs in February figures of non-motor trade retail spending stabilising)
government borrowing (rising sharply)

George Lee’s problem was that he could never strike a balance. Now we know why.

@John

While I admire your desire to find the positives in the tea-leaves, it’s worth having a look at some recent discussions on this site on, for example, how a ‘bags’ of an economy can suddenly find itself with growing trade and BoP surpluses due to nothing it’s done itself, and how Ireland’s MNC-led industrial sector might actually be just inventory-clearing at this part of the year.

That just leaves inflation and ISEQ as positive indicators from your list. On the former, certainly a good thing from a correction point of view – I wonder how much of it is driven by Ireland’s unique preponderance of variable mortgages. Are we lowest on HICP also? On the latter, it was from a very low base, i.e. one of the worst hit indices in the world in 2008 (after a few places like Iceland).

Funnily enough, I’d see some upside in the worsening indicators. On unemployment, the rate of increase in the jobless is slowing (but obviously not fast enough). On consumer spending/government borrowing, the -24% change in year-on-year tax revenues has stabilized since February. These are obviously not positive indicators, but point hopefully to an economy whose lag indicators will reach the floor in the near future.

Its quite common for economists to enter politics in many continental European & developing countries: much less so I think in the UK, US & Ireland where politics is fairly anti-intellectual. So having someone with a high degree of economic literacy like George Lee is to be welcomed. Plus he seems to be entering politics for the right reasons. It will never catch on…
On the other hand he will be a loss to journalism: there are very very few economically savvy journalists in Ireland.

@Ronan

I have noted before your theory that Ireland’s so far excellent export performance in 2009 may be just due to inventory-clearing. I keep an open mind on it. We’ll need to wait until much later in 2009 before we know if its actually the case. If export performance does deteriorate sharply in the rest of 2009, then your theory will be proven correct. However, if it doesn’t deteriorate, then the opposite is the case.

Yes, we are the lowest on HICP in the entire EU27.

As for my positivity, its more a question of having opinions that are balanced and open-minded, qualities which you yourself exhibit in your comments in your final paragraph. In the light of these, may I suggest that you put yourself forward as George Lee’s replacement on RTE. It would be a breath of fresh air after a decade of Dr. Doom.

Now I must adjourn to watch the Man U v Arsenal match, a subject on which my opinions are neither balanced or open-minded.

Good communications skills have become increasingly important in our multi-media world, and not just in terms of using social networking sites. I’m talking very basic communication skills: being able to get people to understand what you are proposing, and to support you in whatever that might be. Good communications also involves using your brain: looking at whatever it is you want to communicate from every which angle, and figuring out responses to the inevitable objections. In others words, having a damn good ‘why’ up your sleeve. The government have just stumbed from one communications disaster to another, from the OAP medical card crisis to the latest on child benefits. (I’m not offering an opinion on the content of their proposals, simply that their disastrous communication around them didn’t help their cause any, which proves my point).

George has more than just the ability to communicate on his side, however: he has been saying for more than a couple of years now that we were headed for disaster, and he kept consistently to that message, even when he was being dismissed as Mr. Doom and Gloom. In my book, that gives him integrity. And makes him somebody that we should be listening to.

For what it’s worth, I also like the fact that he’s not coming from a family of politicos, just intent on keeping the family seat warm.

@Maire.
George may well be excellent at getting people to understand what he is proposing. It is quite another thing to get people to support him to carry out what he proposes.

To do that, he first has to be elected Then he will have to convince his fellow party members to include his ideas in an election manifesto. Then he have to be re-elected. Then he has to persuade/trade/compromise (in short, engage in the art of the politics) to ensure that his ideas, in whole or in part, are included in a programme for government agreed with other elected representatives from other parties if part of a coalition etc.

It is far more time-consuming than preparing material for broadcasting or posting messages here. Unlike broadcasting, there will be direct challenge to his ideas, in all kinds of ways.

Listening to George over the years reminds me of a statement that The truth may set you free, but first it will make you miserable. How many votes are in such truths, even coming from a person of integrity?

@Donal
I hope the electorate will finally wake up and vote for capable people who tell the truth.

If not then we get what we deserve and all we have left to hope for is a quick recovery in the world economy that lifts all boats.

@Kevin Denny: “there are very very few economically savvy journalists in Ireland.”

Perhaps, but there seems to be a growing number of journalistically (?) savvy economists..

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Lee gets on once the campaign starts. The current favourite, Sen. Alex White is also a serious media performer. He was once the producer of Gay Byrne’s radio programme, before becoming a barrister. He also has a long history of political activism.

Gorgeous George is going to find that politics involves a lot more than the media attention that a celebrity candidate automatically attracts. Remember David Thornley…..

@lorcanRK: yeah itsa learnin’ curve. I think economists here have risen to the challenge reasonably well.

Our electoral system, with it’s multi-seat constituencies, does not lend itself to having people of conviction and vision on the national issues being able to bring about real and meaningful change. Should he get elected it may not be long before George realises this. While I agree that having people like George in public office is a fantastic way to go, the system just doesn’t allow for them to be able to do anything. He is entering a 5 seat constituency which already has 2 FG TDs. At the next general election how likely is it that all 3 of them would be re-elected? At that stage there will probably be a strong Labour candidate, and at least one of the remaining government TDs would probably nab a seat (although I admit that FF will be running a newbie given Kitt is standing aside). It will come down to the FGer that will get whatever remaining potholes there may be in Stillorgan filled!! Could someone with the drive, vision and capability that George has be able to stick out the drudgery of the parish-pump???

I don’t think the parish pump is necessarily so important in a liberal middle-class constituency like Dublin South. And I would guess George Lee would have at least as good a chance in a general election as he does in the by-election.

Dublin South has a long tradition of giving anything that’s different a shot, so George Lee should win the by-election handsomely. That tradition also includes dumping the new and different at the next available opportunity, so his political career may be short lived unless he performs to his electorate’s expectations. His current celebrity status as RTE’s economic guru will fade very quickly. His political skills are both unknown and untested, but he has two of the most important prerequisites for a successful career in Irish politics – vanity and arrogance – in spades.

George Lee is first and foremost a journalist, so his communications skills should be a great asset to himself and his party in the years ahead. A major difficulty for Cowen and Co. is that they are supremely lacking in communications skills. They use jargon like a comfort blanket – witness Cowen and Coughlan – and in the process manage to convince half the population that they have no idea what they’re talking about while they turn off the other half.

Unfortunately for George, his economics background may turn out to be a disadvantage: Fine Gael’s policy positions do not reflect any great economic literacy. Sometimes you have to wonder if Richard Bruton has had any oversight of some of the populist garbage that’s produced and paraded before the public as a viable alternative to government policy. A worrying sign is the reported ‘jubilation’ within FG at their capture of Lee for their party. That jubilation appears to be based more on Lee’s ‘high profile’ status as a broadcaster than his intellectual capacity or skills as an economist. There’ll be many twists and turns to this story yet.

I wish him luck. He’s going to need it. Is George Lee going to turn out to be another Alan Dukes? Have the courage within his party and in public to stand up and say what needs to be done, irrespective of the party’s favoured line or what they think will play well for them with the electorate? Or will he turn out to be just another opposition hack calling for a ‘change of government’ every time he appears on the airwaves? We shall see.

Congratulations to George Lee! on making the right move.Hey heres a fact The economy is in the toilet,its something that Fianna Fail failure doesnt like to hear and even John and his “no ITS NOT! IN BAGS economy holocaust denier comments can deny,but he trys my god he trys! George Lee proves once again the intellectual superiority of Fine Gael ,He joins the list of Economically savvy and fiscally prudent well read politicians that Fine Gael have traditionally found a niche for,Remember Garret Fitzgerald? and lets not forget old Bertie the corrupt son of Charlie who took bribes and was according to his master,The most cunning of them all”! will he ever be convicted of his crimes I WONDER?

I think this should be welcomed. He’s not a teacher/solicitor/publican or child of a former TD. Fair play to him, he’s decided to give it a go. Like Nick says tho’, there are already 2 sitting FG TDs. Best of luck to him. Anymore economists out there looking to run??

It’s 24 hours after the announcement that he will quit RTE and I’m still smiling with sheer delight. For George single-handedly did more than anyone else to bring down the mood of this country and incite alarmist carnage in the economy. For years he was preaching his ‘bad news economics’ knowing that eventually he would be right, because the laws of economics state that booms end and recessions begin (and vice versa). He will now endeavour to preach a pre-boom drum, knowing that (like his recessionary preachings) it will eventually happen and people will believe he was right all along. I am thrilled he is off the airwaves, particularly because it saves me the cost of the 6-month holiday to Tasmania that I was prepared to pay for him to go on. Good riddance to him – let him bring his clouds of doom to a party many would believe are already doomed. He is likely to do to them what he did to the rest of the Irish people. All he ever spoke about were the problems – where were his solutions?

Irish politics is weird in so many ways. Even if you assume that he wins the by-election he really is likely to be out at the general.

The main reason for this is something that Garret Fitzgerald himself has brought up plenty of times. Irish politics isn’t set up for this kind of politician to have a long career.

He has communication skills that are very useful for the party nationally but not for him personally. What will lose him the election next time round is that he won’t be competing against Fianna Fail for his seat but the sitting Fine Gael TD’s who have long histories in the constituency. Irish Politics isn’t about being the smartest or the best communicator, it’s about being a good communicator in a totally different way.

You keep your seat by performing in an almost endless series of one on one encounters and by knowing how to look genuine when you promise to write letters to the gas/electricity company on the constituents behalf. He doesn’t have any experience of this. Thats what all those cut and paste, grey haired middle age Fianna Fail and Fine Gael TD’s are good at. 15 years training on County Councils has a purpose.

For every garret Fitz there is a Conor Cruise O’Brien. Hope George knows how to run a good constituency clinic 😉

Lee is a hundred times more intelligent and capable than those muppets in government and I mean all parties. Best of luck George … go show them how to do it.

George immediately announced that he “was going to make a career out of politics”, I thought that was up to the electorate to decide! He was a constant thorn in the side of the government and rightly so, he did a reasonably good job, but when I hear people declaring that they are going to make a career out of politics before they have even been voted in the door I am suspicious.

I am not a believer in the cult of personality which is part and parcel of politics in Ireland and a philosophy adhered to by RTE with near religious fervor. They make documentaries about sending each other up the Nile or up the Ganges. I particularly remember the program he made about “Peak Oil” and how he was trying to put the fear of God, into everyone, about not having a drop of petrol or oil to generate energy. I just could not take him seriously. Why? Well, a lot of the program was taken up with George, nattering away while sitting behind the wheel of his rather large Mercedes Benz. The badge of which was displayed rather prominently on the bonnet. George driving the very thing that was going to make sure peak oil came sooner rather than later not to mention global warming!

George Lee and his whining, good, analysis really got to me. However, if having a whiney voice while telling us about collateralised debt, squandered booms, etc., qualifies him for the Dail then so be it! The electorate that gave us all these other politicians will doubtless know best. In the current economic climate, with dissatisfaction levels with government going through the roof I think even Ryan Tubridy or Gerry Ryan would probably manage to get in! Best of luck Mr. Lee but please don’t make a career out of it, I don’t think I could take it!

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