Tuesday 21 October 2014

Brendan O'Connor: We are a country poised for political revolution

Our poll shows a vast share of the electorate are there for the taking, but the moment is being lost, writes Brendan O'Connor

Published 01/09/2013 | 05:00

Everything has changed. There is now a consistency creeping into our Sunday Independent/ Millward Brown polls that suggests that the old ways are gone forever, that the political landscape has genuinely been transformed, and that politicians should be queuing up to own the future. Because it is all to play for as the world changes around us.

Any politician who thought that the fragmenting of markets, the empowering of niches facilitated by the internet and the removal of the barriers between the people and their rulers facilitated by the flattening of the world, would not affect their game, needs to think again.

Yet again, today's poll shows that the two traditional, establishment political parties in this country are no longer the mass movements they once were. We perhaps knew that about Fianna Fail, but it is true of Fine Gael now too. Including the "don't knows", because they are far too big a force to set side, we see that Fine Gael remains in and around the late teens, with just 17 per cent of support while Fianna Fail is at just 16 per cent. Together they are supported by just a third of the population (33 per cent). Meanwhile, more than a third of the population (36 per cent) don't know who they would vote for. And Labour is favoured by just one in 20 voters now. We are moving rapidly towards a situation where the establishment becomes the fringe and the disillusioned are the new mainstream.

You can put this down to mid-term blues, austerity and the usual resentment towards the sitting Government with whom less than one in five voters is now satisfied. But there is more at work here. Whatever fantasy coalition people are offered at this point, there is little support for it. The most popular option would be Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, and even that enjoys the support of just 10 per cent of people. The current Coalition, of Fine Gael and Labour, is the favoured option of just 9 per cent of people. When presented with pretty much every permutation of coalition involving the main four parties and independents, more than half the population cannot find an option they support, with 22 per cent opting for "none of these" and 29 per cent opting for "I don't know".

Add to this unprecedented level of disillusionment with politics as we know it, the fact that a majority of those who expressed an opinion think there is a need for a new party and you have potential for huge change. Forty per cent say there is a need for a new party; 38 per cent say there isn't; while 11 per cent say it depends and 11 per cent don't know.

This is an extraordinary picture of a country poised for a political revolution. Indeed, it is a picture of a country that thought it voted for revolution and didn't get it, so has now clearly decided that it needs to look elsewhere. Besides which, Ireland has changed. And every racket in the country, from the Church to journalism to retail, has had to adapt to reflect these huge changes. Somehow politics didn't seem to think it had to adapt to the new Ireland beyond starting a website and getting on Twitter. Apart from that it was business as usual, see how many hands you could shake during the campaign and then spend your time in office travelling the country giving people the thumbs up in readiness for a second term.

But there is a growing mass out there for whom all of that is no longer enough. These are people who aren't interested in the game of politics anymore. These are young people who don't join political parties for the social life and the crack, who don't particularly care if they shook the candidate's hand, who don't care who the candidate's father was. To be under the age of 40 and to be a dyed-in-the-wool member of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael would be seen as a quaint, twee anachronism now. To have an allegiance to a political party because you come from a family who supported that party would mark you out as a throwback to the Fifties in most people's eyes. Charlie McCreevy's notion of the sophisticated Irish electorate might not have been 100 per cent true when he said it, but it is truer now.

People are exposed to all kinds of ideas from all around the world on a daily basis now. And they don't share the deference their parents would have to authority and to political celebrities. They are certainly not in awe of the cadre of predominantly sixty-somethings who run this country.

Lucinda Creighton, one of the great white hopes for the formation of a new party, spoke to John Drennan in this paper two weeks ago about "a movement for new ideas in the Dail". While Lucinda was being coy about the notion of the ex-FG technical group actually being a political party, and while she still tried to keep her hat in the FG ring, saying she didn't rule out being the leader of that party some day, she did seem to suggest that fresh air was needed in the Dail.

What the huge number of people who are disaffected by the current system want is probably exactly what Lucinda articulated: a movement for new ideas. While the civil war is long forgotten, politics in this country is still largely about the past, about old enmities, about disagreeing for disagreeing's sake. It still feels like the politics of another time.

And new ideas are the last thing anyone would expect to find in Dail Eireann. Everything there is a set piece with a premeditated outcome anyway. Look at the abortion so-called "debate" recently. Some of this was hailed as the best debate we've seen in years in Dail Eireann. Except there was no point to any of it. The result was a forgone conclusion because the actual debate in the Dail has no bearing on the legislation produced. For those weaned on rigorous debate about everything, where everyone has a voice, whether it be on Twitter or in the comments section of independent.ie, this kind of stuff just doesn't make sense anymore. It is largely regarded as politics for old people or politics for people with no huge interest in ideas.

So democracy, bizarrely, is the last place untouched by the revolution. All the old behemoths are tumbling down as newer, leaner organisations more fit for purpose take their places. Commerce has changed immeasurably, culture has changed immeasurably, how we live our lives has changed immeasurably, and politics and popular movements around the world have changed immeasurably. But politics in Ireland has not.

Every week we learn new things about how to be disenfranchised from the State is almost the norm in Ireland. In the past week we learnt that nearly 2,000 young people left this country every week in the past year and that two in five mortgages are in negative equity. Do you think that the old dichotomy of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, with Labour thrown in as the official party of the respectable middle-class left, is speaking to any of these people? Bombarded with new ideas every day, do you think these people get one of them from Dail Eireann?

It is there for the taking, this vast rump of one-third to one-half of the people. But here's the thing. The moment is being lost. At the end of last year 50 per cent wanted a new party and 12 per cent said "it depends" or "don't know". Ten per cent of the people have now moved from the "yes, we need a new party" camp (currently at 40 per cent) into the "don't know/it depends" camp (now at 22 per cent). People are becoming more disillusioned with their disillusionment, so to speak.

It might just be that these people are worn out from the coyness of people like Lucinda, who still play the old political games of not coming out straight and saying what they are up to. Maybe the 10 per cent who have moved are starting to think that even if there is a new political party it will just be the same people with the same bullshit. And that is not what the biggest political movement in this country – the don't knows – want. They want a politics of new ideas that speaks to them about their life, and that reflects the vast changes in this country and in the world. They want a modern party with modern ideas for the modern world we live in.

Sunday Independent

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