As the picture starts to become clear as to who will make-up the next Dail, talking heads and pundits are wandering around dazed, puzzling what can possibly be made of it all.
I disagree with the dazed and confused. I think the message the election has sent out is actually very clear. Let me explain.
The Fianna Fail/Fine Gael binary
Fine Gael are the big losers in this election, seeing their support collapse to an historic low. However, it looks like the lion’s share of their lost support merely jumped ship to Fianna Fail. Both parties are below their usual levels, not even able to muster 50% of the popular vote combined. Much has been said about the possible ‘death of civil war politics’, but I’m not sure we’re there yet, even if it looks on its last legs. FF/FG seem content to shuffle their floating voters back and forth while the smaller parties and independents carve out space for themselves.
But what are we to make of the fact that the only obvious majority coalition is a FF/FG one? Well I think it’s relatively simple. There is a core of conservative voters in Ireland, that like centrist policies, or slightly right of centre policies. They’re broadly happy, conceptually at least, with the promises and values offered by the two mainstream parties. However, it’s a pragmatic (or I guess technocratic) decision which of them they support.
And for those voters, Fine Gael simply did not deliver the standard of governance they expected. Whether they believed the ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ slogan or not, the combination of scandal, cronyism and indecision that Fine Gael have exhibited over the past five years meant that those voters felt that Fianna Fail would do as well, if not better. The majority of voters in this country either are relatively happy with things as they are and didn’t want to risk the country’s stability (and therefore voted FG/Labour) or are broadly happy with the direction things are going but would like things done with a bit more ‘fairness’ or at least done more efficiently, with better governance. That’s how we arrive at the around 57% or so that supported the 2.5 party system.
I think another reason for the sudden shift in support away from Fine Gael is that after the Troika left a lot of the policies that Fine Gael pursued weren’t seen as merely necessary. The whiff of ideology off of some of Fine Gael’s policies meant that anyone who wasn’t committed to the Blueshirt brand of imported Cameron/Romney compassionate conservatism jumped ship. The Fianna Fail brand of compassionate conservatism looked much more homegrown. There’s nothing more anathema to a vast section of Irish voters than ideology.
The death of Labour
Labour TDs seem to be genuinely baffled by their rout, a thing that I – in turn – find baffling. Those that are not shocked seem to be continuing the approach to criticism that marked their spell in Government – defensive snarling or elitest smugness. We’re told that the voters just didn’t understand or appreciate the hard decisions that Labour had to make. Maybe that’s true. But I’m going to be at my most generous here and explain why Labour are on the brink of annihilation.
Compromise is not an inherent good. The slur on the left on this country is that we are incapable of compromise and therefore government. But that does not mean that you have to compromise on everything. That is the mistake the Blair made, that is the mistake that Social Democratic parties like PASOK made across Europe – and that is the mistake that the Irish Labour party made. The Labour party have a base that votes for them in the pursuit of left-wing policy, broadly. Now while the majority of the Labour support would probably accept a lot of compromise, they won’t accept compromise beyond a certain level.
In their hurry to be seen as grown ups, Labour forgot the number one concern that should be in the minds of left politicians when entering into power with right wing parties – can we get enough done to justify this.
I think the past five years have shown that Labour could not. The onus was on Labour this election (and over the past five years) to show that they had won victories for the left. Perhaps Marriage Equality was a victory for the left, but that was an idea whose time had come. Despite being ‘The First Country In The World To Introduce Marriage Equality Through Referendum’, many legal scholars felt it was unnecessary to hold that vote – and Ireland was far from the first Western European country to introduce the act. Demographic and cultural shift made Marriage Equality a likelihood. Should we slap Labour on the back for merely not standing in its way?
Again, I think the Irish electorate deserves more credit than many pundits and Labour supporters give them. Labour broke a lot of promises, that’s not something that will be forgiven quickly. Fine Gael lost support because they introduced things incompetently and people felt they weren’t doing a very good job, but Labour had that baggage as well as the feeling that they’d abandoned their principles. JobBridge, Irish Water, child benefit cuts. Labour ministers were very visible around those issues and it toxified the party, as they increasingly lashed out when cornered. The optics of the party became worse and worse once the hackles came up. The party elders’ innate arrogance came to the fore.
Purely pragmatically, Labour did not win enough battles in government for the electorate to credit them with ‘reining in’ Fine Gael. They had no individual policy they could point to to show how their unique brand of compromise based governance tempered the right wing element of Fine Gael. Fine Gael introduced a lot of very right wing policy, rubberstamped by Labour. That’s the facts of the matter, and no matter how defensive Labour activists can get, they failed to win enough battles for the electorate to deem them worthy of being returned. That’s what they should have been mindful of when they decided to enter into government, that risk. They took the plunge and got punished for it.
If they wish the outcome had been better, maybe they should have won more concessions from Fine Gael or gotten more ‘Labour’ things done. As it stands, they can add the loss of a lot of seats to the loss of a lot of policy battles.
Sinn Fein/AAA-PBP/Left Independents
The water charges are the big elephant in the room in this election. The issue did not go away. Even Fianna Fail promised some modification of the charges, in addition to a change in the property tax. The regressive way the tax is levied and the lack of compassion for people’s situation rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. The Right2Change platform gave the broader left something to rally around and the transfers among some Right2Change candidates was actually determinative in a few seats.
There is an increasing desire in this country for a left alternative, especially in working class areas which have been neglected. Sinn Fein have managed to bring a slightly left-wing vision to a number of areas, including successfully in some rural areas. But the majority of left-wing activism remains in the urban areas, where the death of what little industrialisation we had has hit communities hard and people feel abandoned. The Google Docks-led gentrification of Dublin has led to a huge schism in Irish society and people are hurting. That FDI based growth pattern has been repeated in Waterford, Cork and Limerick – and a lot of people have been left behind. There’s a lot of anger bottled up and not a lot of will to listen to the ‘sensible’ voices of moderation, who are seen as being complicit in these areas’ neglect.
The result for Sinn Fein is good and could get better in the next election if they end up leading the opposition. However, the assembled forces of the Irish media doing their utmost to destroy them will necessarily hamper any attempt to become as large as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are now. The party’s history is a millstone around its neck. Also, the voters they’re targeting have not historically been great at turning out, hence the party’s lower than expected returns at the ballot box. However, if Sinn Fein can get their core vote to turn out, they can get big gains. Demographics are also in their favour.
The AAA/PBP have also massively benefited from the platform afforded by the water protests. The party have done very well in urban areas, as their appeal to working class voters seems to be finally paying dividends.
Clare Daly and some of the other left independents also did well off of their previous work in the communities or in political capacities.
The Soc Dems and the Greens got the support they did due to the collapse of the Labour party. The middle class bleeding heart vote allowed the Greens to grab two seats and the Soc Dems to retain their three seats in impressive style. Some other Soc Dem candidates went close too. It will be interesting to see if the Soc Dem brand of ‘Labour but without the unions’ support and with more graphs’ will continue to grow in the future. How those parties fare in the next election will be interesting, because with Labour/Soc Dems/Greens all occupying the very slightly left of centre, the milquetoast heart of Irish social democracy is looking very crowded. Will there be enough arts graduates for all of them. Maybe the issue of free fees might become an existential question.
The assembled political scientists and pundits were baffled by the success of politicians by Michael and Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry, Mattie McGrath and their ilk.
But the existence of these hyper-local personalities is extremely simple to understand. They provide the exact same function as the left-wing TDs do in urban areas, but without the left-wing baggage. Rural areas simply have a different checklist as to what they want from their anti-establishment candidates. It’s one of the reasons that left parties have found it so difficult to break outside of the cities.
If you listen to these candidates talk, it’s often with the rhetoric of them and us. Dublin is the enemy and these candidates will go up there and drag as much out of them as they can, before returning home with the goodies. They promise to be good and solid on social issues, not letting anything change. They are borne out of the same neglect and dismissal as the urban working classes’ Trots are. It’s just there’s no desire for socialist redistribution in rural areas. They merely want good service provision, primarily paid for by what they see as affluent city dwellers, who don’t care about rural life or understand it.
The existence of these politicians – and their continuing growth – is an indictment of the government’s ability to share development geographically. So much of the recovery is based in urban areas – specifically Dublin – that this phenomenon is set to continue, until hospitals stop being closed, roads start being fixed and schools start being built.
As for Shane Ross, he’s a luxury politician that South Dubliners elect so much that they can pat themselves on the back for collectively electing someone to sit around in a farting jacket and collect expenses, while being very well educated.
So what does it mean for the next government?
Well that is somewhat baffling. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are the obvious coalition candidates, but for historical reasons that probably won’t happen. Look for a minority Fine Gael government, with support from Fianna Fail. It keeps Sinn Fein from being the voice of opposition, makes Martin look statesmanlike and keeps the country ‘stable’.
Barring either of those two options, it could be more elections. But the reasons outlined mean I don’t know if it would return much of a different result. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail look like they will trade mostly affluent and mostly older voters every election, depending on their respective performance in government. As those voters die off, it will be interesting to see how that shakes things up. A FF/FG coalition is definitely happening at some point, it’s inevitable with the fracturing going on. Maybe not this time, but eventually. Just like nearly every country we have around 50% of the population that’s right-wing. How that’s split between the parties can vary, but the days of the parties being broad churches are over.
Where the ~15% that vote Soc Dems/Green/Labour goes if another election is called will be interesting. They’re the pragmatic soft liberal left. The core voters of each party will stay loyal, but watch for the surge toward whichever ends up being flavour of the month leading into the next election. Liberals love backing things that are trendy.
Sinn Fein might draw more support next time, I think the horror of FF’s sudden rebirth could galvanise more voters next time, which may help them. AAA/PBP have to resist the urge to split – and also try to get the vote out again. But I think the alliances built, starting with the anti-household charge campaign, added to by the anti-water charge movement, will give them a lasting core that should persist at least until a proper recovery starts happening.
But with the situation of the parties in flux, it’s hard to predict what the outcomes will be. The electorate are less complex to understand than the media make it out, you just have to credit them with some rationality. That’s not a credit I’m willing to give our politicians.