Friday 20 October 2017

For a new party, timing is everything

Voters' wish for change needs to be tapped into at the general election, writes Fionnan Sheahan, Group Political Editor

Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

"In another attempt to wrong-foot Clann na Poblachta, de Valera decided to hold an election before the new party was ready and 15 months before it was necessary."

David McCullagh – 'A Makeshift Majority: The First Inter-Party Government, 1948-51'.

EAMON de Valera's tactics in 1948 worked as Clann na Poblachta, headed by former IRA chief of staff Sean MacBride, failed to achieve its potential, despite getting into government. A prime opportunity for a new party to ride the crest of the wave doesn't come along too often – and can easily be missed.

Past the halfway mark of the Government's term in office, the appetite for a new party remains, as evidenced by last week's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll. Support for the formation of a new political party has increased significantly in the last three months, with almost half of the electorate now in favour.

However, the nitty-gritty of the poll throws up as many cons as pros for would-be founders of a new party.

Contrary to the perception, the demand for a new political party is not actually being driven by the high numbers of undecided voters.

Undecideds actually lagged well behind supporters of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and independents, where support was well above 50pc respectively.

Among the supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, there was comprehensive opposition to a new party.

The poll also threw up trends of support around the squeezed lower middle classes, a correlation with government dissatisfaction to the point of not wanting the Coalition to last its full term and the dread of further harsh Budgets.

The results suggest a polarisation between those satisfied with the status quo, in the form of the coalition parties, and a hunger for an alternative that is not being provided on the opposition benches.

The results do not suggest there are vast swathes of coalition party supporters waiting to jump ship. Instead, it suggests government party voters are pretty happy to stay put.

Where the fertile ground exists is among those who have drifted away already after supporting the Coalition and that support for the opposition grouping is soft.

Provided the central protagonists actually want a permanent break from Fine Gael, the Reform Alliance appears to have the greatest potential to develop. In particular, the party has the pragmatic awareness and strategic expertise required to organise.

To avoid being pigeon holed as just anti-Enda Kenny rebels, the gene pool will have to expand well beyond Fine Gael to draw in a greater range of ideologies.

Aside from potential recruits from within the Dail, there are significant shifts coming in the political environment before the next general election.

The redrawing of the local electoral map, along with the abolition of town councils, will leave some sitting councillors out in the cold with no party nomination. The introduction of gender quotas will also leave established senators and councillors off their party tickets.

The highly restrictive rules around setting up a party and fundraising mean a fully fledged party ought not be the only option being examined.

A looser arrangement isn't perfect, but it's certainly a more flexible arrangement.

Not forming an official party also allows a limited policy platform to be set out, focusing on broad areas of agreement, without getting into the detail.

Forming a central plank around political reform would set the group aside from the established parties.

The Behaviour and Attitudes poll findings in this newspaper in recent weeks showed a distinct lack of trust in politics, but an admiration for mould-breaking politicians such as Michael D Higgins, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson.

The problems around agreeing on a detailed programme for government can wait until the seats have actually been won.

The emergence of new media and the resultant shrinking of the world have changed the rules around campaigning, as was shown by Sean Gallagher in the presidential election and the Seanad No campaign.

But a presidential election campaign and a referendum, where national TV and radio coverage has to be shared equally, is a different beast to a general election, where air time is strictly apportioned based on the archaic system of party support at the previous election.

Regardless of their attractiveness in print and online, a new party will soon find itself marginalised in certain media.

Timing is still crucial.

The local and European elections will dangle a carrot of temptation for the Reform Alliance to enter the fray with candidates under their banner. However, moving too soon would allow the necessary momentum to fade.

The appetite for a new party would be best sated when polling day for a general election is actually on the horizon. But that doesn't mean the preparations can't begin sooner.

When the wave comes, be ready.

Sunday Independent

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