Public demands politicians who challenge status quo
There's a growing recognition that politicians need not be in Government to be useful, writes Stephen Donnelly
There's been a lot of talk in recent days about the rise of the Independents. The Establishment consensus, that it's a protest vote, is only partly true. There is another, more interesting, change at work in Ireland: the breakdown of trust in traditional politics and the demand for public representatives who speak the truth.
The body politic's pretty freaked out right now. Labour's share of local Government seats has fallen by nearly two thirds. It has no MEPs. Its leader is gone, and the corridors of Leinster House are thick with plots. Fine Gael's performance received less media attention but was still pretty stark, with its share of local Government seats falling by nearly 30 per cent. The Taoiseach looked decidedly uncomfortable during Leader's Questions, and on Wednesday was promising to end the debacle of taking medical cards from sick children.
Fianna Fail fared OK. Its European Election result was dismal, with only one MEP elected. But just six years after laying waste to our beautiful island, it has been voted back in as the biggest party in local Government.
The Left did very well. Between them, the smaller left-wing parties nearly doubled their share of local Government seats. Sinn Fein is the talk of the town ... every town in fact ... as last week it more than doubled its share of seats in the Republic, and won MEP seats in all four electoral regions on the island.
And then there are the Independents. Three of our 11 MEPs are now Independent. The Independent share of local Government seats rose by over a fifth. If you strip out town councillors from the 2009 figures (to more accurately compare the new councillors to their 2009 equivalents), then the Independent share of seats increased by nearly half. More than one in five council seats are now held by Independent councillors. In some regions the share is a lot higher. More than a third of Wicklow's councillors are now Independent, with new-comer and Independent Jennifer Whitmore topping the poll with nearly 30 per cent of the vote. No other Western democracy has anything close to this level of Independent political representation.
Independent politicians do not form a cohesive block. They cannot govern. They do not sign up to a set of common values. Why then, have so many of them been elected to run local Government?
The Taoiseach described the election as a 'vote of anger'. Of course that's part of it. Just like for Sinn Fein and the smaller parties on the Left. Just like for Fine Gael and Labour in 2011. But there's plenty of anger in other countries and they're not voting for Independent politicians. So what's going on?
Part of the answer is trust, or the complete lack of it. Political scientists regard Ireland as having the most centralised Government in the developed world. We elect 166 TDs, then 17 of them form the Cabinet and make all the decisions for the next five years. The other 149 TDs have virtually no ability to effect change compared to parliamentarians in other countries. Those in the parties are given strict scripts. Speak against the party, and you're in serious trouble. Vote against the party, and you're out.
Over the past three years, we've seen many TDs argue passionately for things they don't believe in. Right now, we're getting a rare glimpse behind the curtain. With the Labour party leadership up for grabs, it's impossible to enforce a strict whip on Labour TDs. For just a few days, they have the opportunity to say what they think – and they are. What they've been saying recently – about the brutal cost of austerity, the need for fairer budgets, the imperative to protect vulnerable people – is what they think. In another country, this is what they would have been saying publicly for years now. But not here. Watch closely – as soon as a new leader is elected, they'll all be back on message, whatever the new leader decides the new message is. And all of that talent, experience and passion will be silenced.
The public knows this. They know they're being fed the party line at all times. And they don't trust it. A company called Edelman has been publishing a 'Trust Barometer' for the past 14 years. It looks at the level of public trust in business and government for 27 countries. This year, Ireland had the third biggest fall in public trust in government of all 27 countries. We've gone from sixth last year to third last. Only the Poles and the Spanish now trust their governments less than we do.
Public trust in Government in Ireland rose after 2011, as the public waited for the 'democratic revolution' they were promised. Three years later, and we're right back to the 2011 level, which was measured while Fianna Fail was still in office. The number of Irish people who said that they trust their Government to tell them the truth, regardless of how complex or un-popular it is, has fallen in the past year from 5 per cent to 3 per cent. Those who said they trust the Government to solve social or societal issues fell from 7 per cent to 4 per cent.
What has this got to do with the rise of the Independents? When I campaigned in the 2011 General Election, at least half the people I met said they weren't going to vote Independent because there's nothing an Independent can do. I've knocked on a lot of doors in the last few months, campaigning for Independent candidates, and not once did I hear that sentiment expressed. There's a growing recognition that politicians don't have to be in Government to be useful to their country or community. There's an appetite for public representatives the public know will say what they think, not what they're told. There's a rising demand for local and national politicians to speak out, to challenge the status quo and to propose new ideas.
There's no sign of the traditional political parties becoming more tolerant of dissent, or welcoming of different ideas. Many within the Dail argue that the level of centralisation and control is getting worse. But the public are moving on. And one of the beautiful things about democracy is that if the politicians don't change, then the public can (and just has) change the politicians. If an existing party, or a new one, can figure out how to develop coherent policy positions, while encouraging different views and allowing dissent, then the public might be well minded to vote for them it.
Stephen Donnelly is the Independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow