Saturday 1 October 2016

The establishment gets one last chance to deliver a new politics

The people have voted for change, not chaos, and now the traditional parties must learn new tricks, writes Brendan O'Connor

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

BY THE SKIN OF HER TEETH: Labour Party leader and Tanaiste Joan Burton is declared elected at Phibblestown Community Hall in Dublin 15 last night. Photo: Steve Humphreys
BY THE SKIN OF HER TEETH: Labour Party leader and Tanaiste Joan Burton is declared elected at Phibblestown Community Hall in Dublin 15 last night. Photo: Steve Humphreys

And so, five years on from the democratic revolution that never was, we get a true democratic revolution. And the best guess anyone can make today is that the establishment are going to have to hold their noses, circle the wagons and huddle together to create a government, to keep the barbarians from the gate.

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It is now clear that 2011 was the last sting of a dying wasp. As much as we got a high number of independents, and Fianna Fail were heavily punished, the people still plumped for an establishment government. The disruption that has turned every other aspect of life on its head, was still late in coming to politics.

But in 2016, the fragmentation that people in media and marketing and technology and business have been dealing with for years, hit Irish politics. The establishment threatened people with chaos, and the people called their bluff. The people said they would risk chaos in the interest of change.

Despite all this, it looks increasingly like we will end up with an establishment government. But it will be an establishment that has been put on notice by the people.

However, the alternatives are on notice too. People want something new, but they are struggling to articulate what that should be, because there is no clear offering. The left in this country likes to shrug its shoulders and laugh about the fact that they cannot work together. But if they ever want power, they need to start providing a credible alternative. They need to sort out the AAA-PBP/Right to Change and all the other groupings and alliances and stop confusing people.

So what happens now? Well, it would seem that the electorate has articulated very clearly what they want in one sense. And the key message is that it's not all about the economy, stupid. The economy is the baseline factor for sure. But it seems that what resonated very strongly with people in this election was Fianna Fail's message of fairness. 

Labour were trounced in this election because people thought they had compromised on the core Labour value of a fair society. Fine Gael were given a wallop again for their failure to understand the inherent compassion of the Irish people. Fianna Fail, a party that all the commentariat had written off a few short years ago looks like managing to double their number of seats this time and they did this by presenting a message of fairness.

Remember the last big wallop the coalition got? It was in the local elections, and a huge factor in it was the issue of discretionary medical cards. It was an issue that had been gaining momentum for a year by the time the local elections came around. But Fine Gael and Labour were still side-swiped by it on the doorsteps. Their mistake then - to presume that people are inherently selfish and care only about money in their pockets - was repeated in this campaign. 

The Irish electorate has changed. They are not bought as easily any more. The age of the internet and the era of personal testimony going viral, of people telling their stories, has created a new sense of empathy. People want money in their pockets, yes, but the centre cares more now about the weak and the vulnerable.

The Government attempted to make this election another referendum on Fianna Fail's last period in government. But the people had for the most part tired of that message, which Enda Kenny had trotted out too many times over his five years in government. In this campaign, the people were more concerned with recent history, with things like the health service, with a fair society. This election became a referendum on the Government, as it should be, and the people found the Government wanting, and the people baulked at being bought in the usual ham-fisted way. And this was possibly what the real revolution was. 

The longer this campaign went on, and the more the last five years crystallised in people's minds, and the more people totted up this Government's report card and thought about health and cronyism and arrogance, the more they turned away from the Government.

So if we are giving the establishment another chance, and if the two major parties decide to take that chance, what is it that people want? Could it be that they want the stability of the old hands for another while still? Could it be that the people are not truly ready yet for new politics if the new politics means fragmented squabbling lefties? 

Perhaps this election means that what the people want is for the old politicians to try a new politics. Fine Gael, who for so long had the moral high ground over Fianna Fail by virtue of not having had the opportunity to be as craven as the old Fianna Fail, demonstrated they were more than capable of being like the old Fianna Fail when they got in to government. And the people are rejecting that kind of politics. Fianna Fail has promised that it is a new party now, chastened, lessons learnt. And it seems as if the people decided to give them a chance based on that, based on a promise of decency and fairness. And somehow, in a way, people were more open to the notion of Fianna Fail as reformed sinners than they were open to Fine Gael, who seemed to have learnt nothing yet.

But maybe this weekend Fine Gael will learn a lesson too.

The Irish people want fairness and decency. But it seems most of them still want it carried out broadly in a centrist fashion. They trust capitalism more than socialism, but they want a humane capitalism. We have all seen too much of the excesses of capitalism without conscience. Maybe what the new government needs to present to the people is capitalism with a conscience.

But there is no doubt this is the establishment's last chance to change. It would seem that it was older, more traditional voters who carried the day in this election. Those voters are dying. And more and more young people are engaging. If we get an establishment government on this occasion, that government will be auditioning to have a future with the new generation. They will need to show they are attuned to that generation, they will need to speak to that generation. They will also need to find more candidates, more politicians from that generation. 

The person who probably most inspired the new generation in this campaign was Stephen Donnelly. Donnelly, a strange hybrid of left and right, perhap s encapsulates capitalism with a conscience. A former McKinsey consultant, but one who wants to set up an NHS in Ireland, Donnelly is a new kind of politician. He is also unlike many of the new kinds of politicians, who are noble leftist failures who want to give out but would never dream of real power or responsibility. Donnelly is not like some student politician. He is idealistic and radical but he portrays competence too. He doesn't want to just attack the status quo, he wants the chance to be in charge. He is, in many ways, a model for who the establishment should try to be going forward.

Whether it be music, movies or business, the mainstream has always survived by identifying subcultures and outliers who have good ideas and momentum and assimilating these into a new, altered mainstream. This is what the establishment needs to do now to survive. It needs to look at the radicalism and the modernity of the likes of Donnelly and it needs to adopt those clothes, if not the individuals themselves, in order to survive.

Against our better judgement, Irish people have, in a roundabout way, given the establishment one last spin on the merry-go-round. They need to show us now that they can deliver a new politics for a new Ireland, and if Fianna Fail get into government, they need to make good on the promise of a fairer Ireland. We may have not totally chosen new politicians yet but clearly we have chosen a new politics. If anyone forms a government now they could be back to the voters sooner rather than later and they will need to show that they are playing the game in a new way. Because the old ways aren't good enough anymore. The next phase of the political maturation of Ireland could be the establishment in power trying to adjust to the new politics the people demand, while the disparate elements of the left protest and try to resist tearing each other apart in a chaotic opposition. The latter should be preparing instead to offer a coherent alternative in the next election. 

Meanwhile, politics in this country is now divided along the lines of generation, class and left/right. There was a certain civility when the country was only divided on a civil war that happened a long time ago. Let's hope the new divides do not create a country split down the middle where one side doesn't even listen to the other. A US-style divided nation where one half refuses to engage with or tolerate the other half, would not serve Ireland well.

Sunday Independent

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