Saturday 1 October 2016

Even the socialists don't believe that they can win

The Irish Left gets far more attention than its pitiful level of support in the country deserves, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Small share: Richard Boyd Barrett — despite water charges and sluggish recovery is still only at 1.7pc
Small share: Richard Boyd Barrett — despite water charges and sluggish recovery is still only at 1.7pc

As People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance join forces to form a new political bloc, spare a thought for those dogged class warriors who've spent another week being ignored by the wicked right-wing media.

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Examples of this disgraceful neglect in recent weeks have included regular appearances on RTE's Prime Time and Claire Byrne Live, Morning Ireland and Drivetime; TV3's Tonight With Vincent Browne; Newstalk's Breakfast and The Pat Kenny Show; as well as the usual slew of coverage in the press.

Not bad for parties which individually struggle to get much above a single percentage point in the opinion polls.

The true measure of the Left's appeal is conveniently masked by the fact that candidates outside the mainstream are clumped together under the headings 'Independents' or 'Others', which cover a multitude of sins and virtues.

It includes not only socialists, but centre right candidates from the FG/FF 'gene pool'; Lucinda Creighton's Renua party; Social Democrats; Shane Ross's Independent Alliance; as well as numerous saints, mavericks, no-hopers and drama queens.

Together they regularly make up the largest grouping in polls, but that's misleading. As election analyst Richard Kavanagh of Maynooth University points out, there is no guarantee that this will translate into seats in the next Dail, because the total number of votes is split between large numbers of candidates, many of whom have "little or no chance" of winning in their respective constituencies.

He cites the most recent local election, when such candidates formed the largest group, with a 26.6pc share of first votes nationally, but came out with fewer seats than FG or FF because the total was split between so many different candidates.

The news is even more discouraging for the left-wingers who came together last week to form a new alliance.

Despite propitious circumstances - not least water charges, and a sluggish recovery - Boyd Barrett's People Before Profit (PBP) secured only 1.7pc of first preference votes nationally, and most of them were in Dublin,

In Leinster, it was a mere 0.7pc; in Munster and Connacht-Ulster, 0.5pc. They only won two seats outside the capital, and the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) did worse still, bagging a woeful 1.2pc of first preference votes, with support in two provinces not even hitting half of one per cent.

There's a point where those determined to see the silver lining in every dark cloud have to concede that they're being thoroughly soaked by the rain.

The PBP-AAA bemoans not getting a fair crack of the whip from the Irish media, but there's an argument to be made that they're already massively over-represented in the national argument relative to their true level of support.

Far from complaining that they're treated badly by the national broadcaster, the socialists should be grateful that RTE doesn't interpret the 2009 Broadcasting Act's insistence on not giving "unfair advantage to any political party" too literally, by withdrawing the hard Left's unending string of invitations to sit on every panel going.

In electoral terms, they are the political equivalent of the "1 per cent" whose economic power was again being decried by the AAA last week, and their effect on public debate is every bit as skewed in favour of the few, not the many. It's just that, in this instance, the Left happens to be that few.

At most, a couple of people in every hundred across the country intend to put these parties first on the ballot paper, but the comrades get far more attention from the Irish media than many of their better-supported rivals. If anyone should be disgruntled about bias, it's other parties' candidates, who are repeatedly made to play the Ugly Sisters to the socialist Cinderellas, who insist on their God-given right to go to the ball - or else.

It's not always a bad idea to give a disproportionate preference to fringe candidates. RTE's public service charter insists that "news reporting and public affairs coverage shall be undertaken from a variety of perspectives".

PBP-AAA tick that box, just as Renua ticks a different one. The presence of both helps invigorate a debate which, were it based on crude electoral strength, might leave too many questions unasked. But as with Jeremy Corbyn's ascension to the Labour leadership in Britain, the Irish Left's media pervasiveness has blinded them to their deep-rooted unpopularity.

Boyd Barrett speaks of this new arrangement forging a "mass new radical political force of the left", but what does "mass" really mean in the land of the one per cent candidates? Especially as the new grouping has aggressively ruled out entering coalition with FG, Labour, FF or Renua.

The Irish Left has effectively relegated itself to a protest movement, happy to remain outside of government in perpetuity as the price for preserving ideological purity. If what has been done to the country is really so damaging, it would be self-indulgent to pass up any opportunity to soften that sting. There can't be a "serious alternative to austerity", as promised last week, if those proposing it prefer the opposition benches.

"If the numbers added up, it would be a question of what kind of left programme could be agreed with SF," was Paul Murphy's take on all this; but the numbers don't add up, as explicitly acknowledged by Boyd Barrett on Drivetime some weeks ago in his equally defeatist hope that the Left throwing in its lot together would increase its TDs' speaking time in the next Dail. As if more speeches would help.

It's political dilettantism to accept people's votes with no intention of using them to exercise power. Most PBP-AAA votes aren't going to count until they're transferred, so why not just cut out the middle man and vote for those prepared to work with larger parties after the next election to secure the best deal for those they represent?

Isn't that what politics is about?

Sunday Independent

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