A ‘new’ party… or parties? November 28, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
Pat Leahy has some interesting thoughts in the SBP at the weekend on the idea of a new political party. That said they do run into some constraints which limit the analysis. One thing which is welcome and this is true of the Backroom column as well, is that there’s a degree of scepticism about the ‘campaign to run a new party by the Sunday Independent’ and the ‘charismatic baton of Michael McDowell’. All this is grist to the SI’s mill, placing itself at a position it likes to think it occupies, that of – as Leahy notes, ‘significant player in Irish politics’. Whether that position is deserved is something that requires greater consideration some time, frankly I suspect it’s entirely overblown. And I also think, and it’s been said in the comments on this site previously, that all this is good for the SI, one way or another, for it shifts units of the newspaper.
But all that aside. One thing that the Sunday Independent and other commentators appear to have forgotten is that the last time that individual ran a political party things went, well… not so well. It is quite bizarre really, and perhaps along with the curious reification of Lucinda Creighton suggests that the materials for any such party are much less sturdy than might be thought.
Leahy notes that the latest salvo in the campaign was the poll in the Sunday Independent from the week before last (and followed up this week by yet more on the topic – it does fill pages, after all) which ‘demonstrated a great public appetite for a new party (46 per cent), a political alternative to an unpopular government and an opposition perceived as either not yet trustable or forgiven (Fianna Fail) or entirely unsuitable to be trusted with government for a variety of reasons (Sinn Fein).’
None of those are insignificant issues, but… they remain problematic. There seems to be a belief that the platonic form of the Irish political system must be one the one that far too many observers grew up under, with two large center/right parties and a smaller leftish party. But that hasn’t been the case since the late 1970s or very early 1980s, a quarter of a century or more now. And yet, time after time, in piece after piece this seems to be the implicit message, that if only we could get back to then all would be… better.
As Leahy notes:
It’s a refrain which has become familiar from forums well beyond the Sunday Indo in recent months. The foundation stone for the new party is the perceived widespread dissatisfaction with the existing party choices on offer to the electorate.
And he points to the manner in which SBP/Red C polls:
…apply a likely voter ”filter” – ie, an attempt to separate those respondents who will vote from those who express preferences and opinions but are unlikely to actually go to the polls on Election Day. It’s an obvious, but crucial, distinction but one which is ignored by many.
So while the polls with no likely voter filter usually put the undecideds at over 30 per cent, the Red C polls tend to put the number at about 20 per cent of those who are likely to vote. That’s a large number certainly, but as Richard Colwell of Red C points out, not much larger than you would expect at this mid-point in the electoral cycle.
That’s an useful point in itself. But let’s add another thought to it. There also appears to be a belief abroad that somehow the current situation is serving a large group of the electorate poorly and that the position that is most underserved is that on the right. I think though McDowell’s and Creighton’s latest comments which have, unusually, started to send signals to the ‘working class’ suggest that that is a mistake. For the opening would appear to actually be on the centre left, those voters who are unpersuaded by the temptations of Sinn Féin, but have no truck with either the Labour Party (having been burned by said party) or the further left. Now I wouldn’t overstate this. I suspect we’re talking about sufficient numbers to support five or seven TDs, and in a way the nascent formation around Nulty/Broughan/Pringle/Halligan and Murphy (and their joint Budget submission) is the closest that we come to such a grouping. But their problem is that they’re Independents. Which leads to a further thought. It is entirely possible that many in the electorate are entirely happy with the prospect of Independents coming to the fore. Where many of us may see chaos and heterogeneity in the Technical Group and beyond some may see that as acceptable, even laudable, given the failures of FF/FG and the LP. And, of course, there are parties within the Independent/Others category.
The latest news this morning that some flesh may put upon those bones of the social democratic left is interesting, but the key lines to me are as follows:
The TD said an announcement could come shortly after Christmas, with the possibility of a large meeting in January. “There is no question, it is going to happen.”
Catherine Murphy said the discussions did not yet “constitute a serious proposal, but that’s not to say a serious proposal might not emerge”.
Add in all the ‘mights’ and ‘discussions’ and ‘potential’ and while it is entirely plausible and quite possible something might emerge in a formalised manner it is clear it won’t be a political party as such, at least not this side of an election. Indeed, for all the hoopla the story itself notes this when quoting the unnamed TD quoted directly above:
One TD said there had been preliminary discussions about running “left-wing and community candidates” under the banner of a loose grouping or brand such as “Independent Vision”.
So on balance this is all a bit of a media construct, yes, there are movements, perhaps dynamics, that push towards some sort of working together and consolidation of forces (as with the Budget submission) but it’s far from a party and no inevitability that it will take the shape the media is putting upon it. doctorfive cogently asked whether the Reform Alliance had pushed the social democratic left TDs to this. No is the answer, but it’s whetted the appetite of the media to ask more pointed questions of that cohort of TDs and Councillors and probably won’t hurt in the ultimate development of matters.
So Leahy’s words on this ring true:
In other words, the contention that there is a heaving mass of votes craving an alternative political choice which they are currently denied but would jump at if it was offered, rests, I think, on shaky enough foundations. It is certainly true that this appetite is there; I just wouldn’t overstate its extent. Irish political brands are remarkably durable.
But the most remarkable thing about the momentum for a new party – if that is what it is – is that nobody seems to care what it might actually stand for. This is not because its expected leaders – McDowell himself, Lucinda Creighton, Billy Timmons, Denis Naughten – don’t have strong, identifiable political positions (the opposite is obviously the case), but because they don’t want to scare off anyone who might be interested in joining them.
So McDowell’s call-to-arms article in the Sunday Indo last weekend was headlined by the remarkable assertion that it didn’t matter whether the new party was right-wing or left-wing or centrist.
Still, Leahy takes a, perhaps, predictable approach in the following:
Irish politics is moving to a position where fiscal circumstances will be such that governments and parties will be forced to make choices about the basic distributional questions of politics: the size of the state, the level of taxation acceptable and the level and universality of the services the state provides.
I think that that’s getting the dynamic almost entirely wrong. That’s what has happened, that is precisely why there is fatigue with austerity. That is why, to a greater or lesser extent all the three formerly largest parties are struggling (though, and this is crucial, Fine Gael – supposedly open to some challenge from the right – least of all).
In any event the troika and after have, largely, pushed those issues to the sidelines, in a political sense, in that the three largest parties (albeit with caveats from FF) acquiesce to their demands.
That too is what makes the concentration on the right of FG so curious. For any party that establishes itself on that terrain is effectively only going to ask for greater measures of those politics, not lesser (and consider the plight of Shane Ross at the moment who has taken a markedly populist turn despite also being, on paper at least, ideologically close to such an approach, perhaps precisely due to the contradictions implicit in such positioning when there is a broad, although inchoate, antagonism to ‘austerity’). Small wonder Creighton and McDowell are talking of the ‘working class’. They’ve got to get votes from somewhere and yet FG’s vote is – to judge from the polls – so far of the ‘traditional’ parties the one to remain most coherent. And if – as isn’t entirely unreasonable, the FF vote that has decamped in the past five years from that party is a leftish inclined one then said new party of C and McD must try to pull votes from… well… where?
And the logic of that is recognised by Leahy, for he correctly notes that:
Oddly, they are the sort of things that we all thought Michael McDowell had strong views about. I understand McDowell’s reluctance to be pigeonholed as right-wing, which is used as a term of abuse rather than a political description in Ireland. But I don’t understand how he would end up in the same party as men and women of the left like Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall and Finian McGrath.
Some of us might consider this new found broadness of vision, this pluralism, to be deeply deeply cynical.
And he concludes:
The debates of the future will be more recognisably conventional – tax cuts or public spending, investment by the state or more money in your pocket. If these sound terribly simple, it’s because, at heart, they are.
If I am right about that, there seems little room for another catch-all party reluctant to take strong positions. I have a feeling that McDowell might be more comfortable with this, actually.
Otherwise, there will be a suspicion a new party would simply be a device to ensure that one of the major centre right parties would not have to share power with Labour or any other left wing party.
Or perhaps, as Backroom notes, and more on this soon, it is due to an even more fundamental issue, a means of ensuring that the hated Shinners aren’t in or close to government any time soon.
And as the noises around the social democratic left TDs indicates, any potential ‘new’ right party will find no end of rivals in the field already and well capable of pulling votes from it. What next? What next indeed…