That ‘new’ party… yet more on it… and some curious centrists December 12, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
A telling misinterpretation in the Irish Times in a piece on a new party. Gaze, if you will, at the headline and subheading below. And then… read the text. David Farrell of UCD, and Shaun Bowler of the University of California, Riverside, argue that:
A good place to look perhaps is the last election, when the conditions for the emergence of a new party could scarcely have been better. The 2011 Irish National Election Study (INES) probed a representative sample of voters for their views on politics, political and economic reform and the state of the parties.
There is no doubt that voters were extremely dissatisfied with the existing parties at that time: large swathes of them deserted Fianna Fбil, while Independent candidates fared better than at any time since the early 1950s. This seemed the perfect seedbed for a new political party to form.
It’s a good point. If ever there was time then that was it. Indeed, let’s not forget that there was an abortive attempt to run precisely such a party, or perhaps two of them. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan ran under the New Vision electoral alliance. I have no idea if it still exists today. The website is inaccessible. Democracy Now, that meeting of the great and the good including Fintan O’Toole and David McWilliams, failed to contest the election, though Shane Ross appears to have had some link to it.
Anyhow, Farrell and Bowler continue:
The consistent view is that if a new party is to emerge it is most likely to come from the right of the political spectrum, and for good reason.
As the 2011 INES shows (consistently with earlier surveys), Irish voters locate themselves on average on the right of the left-right spectrum.
In the light of the economic meltdown and the sense of political crisis that characterised the 2011 election, if there had been scope for a new party to emerge then we should expect to find right-of-centre voters having little confidence in politicians and their honesty and capability. The same would apply when it comes to attitudes towards institutions, especially the Dáil and the established political parties. The rationale here is that a weakening of confidence in existing parties and institutions will be a precursor for realignment, and we should be especially on the lookout for evidence of this among right-of-centre voters.
But, for there is a but:
However, what the INES data reveal on the contrary is that voters on the right of the left/right spectrum have greater confidence in and higher levels of regard for Ireland’s political institutions and its political leaders than do others and they are less likely to support political reform. In fact, the voters who seem most dissatisfied with their institutions and the political establishment and most supportive of reform are the ones who place themselves in the centre in Irish party politics.
Wait a second. That’s not what we’re used to hearing. And by the way it directly contradicts the sub-heading. Granted Farrell and Bowler argue that:
If it is the case that it is the centre voters who are disaffected and primed to jump, then which way would they be likely to jump: to support left parties or to support parties further to the right?
On the whole, when it comes to specific policy issues, centrist voters are closer to right-wing voters than left ones and on some issues, such as immigration, they can seem even more right-wing. In short, Irish “centrists” are consistently closer to right-wing views than those of left-wingers on a range of different issues.
Interesting, though it would be even more interesting to get a run-down as to the definition they are using of left, right and centrist voters. But accept for the moment that they’re not incorrect and that the centre ground tilts rightwards. It’s a fair enough analysis, the centre of gravity in this state has always been tilted in that direction anyhow – with two centre right parties being pre-dominant.
How have the centrists vote tended to vote? On the whole they used to vote Fianna Fáil. By recall, 40 per cent of them claim to have voted for Fianna Fáil in 2007 and 21 per cent for Fine Gael. But in 2011 the percentages were reversed: 38 per cent said they voted Fine Gael, 12 per cent Fianna Fбil, 16 per cent Labour and 15 per cent independent.
In 2011 centre-right voters dissatisfied with Fianna Fáil could find a perfectly acceptable substitute in Fine Gael. Except that it is not clear just how much of a substitute Fine Gael is. In policy terms, centrist voters, the ones who seemed to abandon Fianna Fáil in large numbers, have quite radical ideas on social issues, including staunch opposition to immigration.
Again, it’s frustrating to not have a sense what these issues are and what that radicalism entails? Is it right radicalism, or populist radicalism or even in parts left radicalism? And how does that differentiate these centrists from those on the right? What is it that they want that FG doesn’t offer? And it raises a further issue. This staunch opposition to immigration is surely a bit moot given that this is a society with large numbers emigrating, unless what Farrell and Bowler are saying is that this ‘centre’ ground cohort is actually against those who have immigrated here staying here. It’s also worth noting that for all its faults FF hasn’t, bar one or two obvious exceptions, played the immigration card, which raises yet further questions.
The following may be wishful thinking, or an attempt to map a different jurisdiction, that of the United States, onto the Irish one.
There is also a strong current of support for political reform and a dislike of existing politicians that suggests that some future Irish political class could emulate their American cousins and run for parliament by running against it.
But that said this rings true:
Overall, however, there does not seem to be much space for a new reshaping of the Irish party system. Independents do not form a coherent force (current spats inside the technical group show this in spadefuls), the right wing (where there might be space for a new party to squeeze Fine Gael as the PDs did of old) is relatively happy with the current political arrangements. The group that is unhappy comprises those voters in the middle who, nevertheless, on a range of policy issues lean rightwards.
That point about the right being happy is crucial. This is something that time and again has to be noted. FG’s vote has, all things considered, held up remarkably well. It remains by quite some distance the single largest coherent bloc of political support in the state. And when that entails one in three willing to vote for them that’s no small number. The idea that there’s space right of there seems curious in the extreme. And logic suggests that that is unlikely, if only because one has to formulate a rightward alternative to what FG are actually doing. Sure, there’s no doubt they could be more right-wing in policy implementation, but in a context of austerity, an emphasis on cuts over tax increases, there’s not a lot of room for anyone to go further – at least given the broad political constraints.
Meanwhile! Their conclusion is yet again at odds with the sub-heading. Which does raise the question as to whether the person who wrote it read or understood the article.
The political centre of gravity in Ireland is centre-right, as is the political centre of disgruntlement and dissatisfaction. The centre abandoned Fianna Fáil in 2011, but the difficulty remains that centre voters need to find a place to go. Fine Gael – and some Independents – may have offered a temporary home in 2011, but it is not clear that Fine Gael will be a congenial option over the long run. Which means that the place where there is scope for a new party, or a newly launched party, with an emphasis on probity and competence, could well be a rejuvenated Fianna Fáil.
Fair enough, but then how to explain that FF’s poll rating remains only four or five points above their rating in 2011? That said it is plausible that FF will gain more support as we head closer to the election. But… for all that it suggests one other thing. Note that SF isn’t mentioned in the piece, but both that party and the LP will also be contesting this centre ground too and the LP perhaps more nakedly making pitches to these supposed ‘centrists’.
There’s one other point, Farrell and Bowler dismiss the Independents/Others, but one aspect of their support is the simple fact that since 2011 it has remained remarkably solid and consistent. The lowest that vote has dropped was 13 % in the RedC poll in May 2011 when FG jumped to 41 %. Given that that is unlikely to be replicated and that the Ind/Other support has risen in parallel with the FF support throughout the following two and a half years, suggesting that the latter is not necessarily making gains from that cohort. Indeed in recent times FF appears to have cobbled together a few percentage points from FG, SF and the LP, which suggests that even were there to be a shift back to FF the Ind/Others may not be as badly affected as some might think.
Still, strange as the analysis is, it’s good to hear that the enduring trope of the ‘new right’ party may be coming under some sustained pressure finally. Not before time. Though… given what they describe some of those ‘centrists’… who could tell the difference?