Wednesday 28 September 2016

Julien Mercille: Majority of voters want change - but Left parties must unify to benefit

Julien Mercille

Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30

Julien Mercile
Julien Mercile

There is a massive disconnect between the political class and the Irish people. This was exposed clearly in several opinion polls last weekend. What people want is drastically at odds with what the main parties will give us.

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It says it all that 60pc of voters are "dissatisfied" with this Government and only 30pc are satisfied with it (10pc are unsure). Similarly, 63pc want a change of government and only 30pc want the Coalition to be re-elected.

The media tends to report those trends with a positive spin, such as 'Government satisfaction level increases to 30pc', but the headline should be: 'Population still largely dissatisfied with Government'.

The three main parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour) together gather about 55pc of the votes (excluding undecided voters), which is a massive drop from the 80pc they commanded in 2007.

That's some indictment.

The gulf between ordinary people and the establishment is obvious over the issue of taxes vs public services. The people's priority is not to cut taxes, but to use tax money to provide quality services.

But the political class keeps banging on about the need to cut taxes.

Indeed, last week's 'Sunday Independent' front page reported on an opinion poll with the headline: 'Parties are told: fix our country before tax cuts'.

The fact is that voters prioritise 'a fairer society' over rhetorical debates on the 'fiscal space' and other economic arguments by 'experts' who couldn't even see the housing bubble growing until it collapsed and brought us our devastating recession.

To the question: "Which of the following objectives do you think the next government should place most importance on?", the answers were striking, and almost the reverse of what the main political parties propose:

1st: "Improving public services" (39pc of people)

2nd: "Tax cuts" (25pc)

3rd: "Boosting social benefits" (19pc)

4th: "Reducing the national debt" (12pc)

Similarly, the 'Sunday Times' poll found that three times as many people wanted higher spending on services rather than tax cuts.

For example, the most important issue for the electorate, poll after poll, is healthcare.

On this too, the Government is at odds with the population, as revealed by Niamh Horan's interview with Leo Varadkar last weekend in the 'Sunday Independent'.

Not only did the Health Minister not follow the wishes of voters by promising more money, he stated explicitly that cutting funding and beds is actually good, as it could increase efficiency.

So, apparently, nurses and doctors will be under pressure to perform better. I'd like to hear what they think of that. And I can hardly imagine anyone on the operating table telling the surgeons to hurry up and finish the work because they need to be efficient.

What does all this mean for the General Election? It means that there is a large mass of people who want change, which can be accomplished if they can be organised.

In particular, there is a unique opportunity for a broad coalition of progressive parties and Independents.

This, however, is easier said than done. Progressives will need to get their act together and unite, which has proven difficult in the past - and present.

There is excitement now because there might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Left parties to be elected, leading them to rush to the doors of power without coordination. Understandable, but not justifiable.

But let's not be too negative. Splits happen on the Right as well. Think Lucinda Creighton and Renua. Think of the whole Michael Lowry saga.

And think about the elephant in the room: why are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil divided into two parties, given that they have the exact same policies?

Nevertheless, the Left must conduct its own self-examination. There are promising attempts at unity, such as the Right2Change movement, but much more remains to be done.

It is still beyond me why, for example, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party, and the Workers' Party do not form one party, since the only difference between them is the rearrangement of the same three words in their names.

Imagine a coalition involving Sinn Féin, Independents like Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and others, the Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, and People Before Profit.

And heck, you could even throw in Labour and the Greens if more seats were needed - they'd be more progressive in such a coalition than as minority partners with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Sadly, my guess is that the parties just mentioned will either roll their eyes at such a proposal or even be outraged by it.

All I can say is that this kind of attitude means failing the 63pc of people who want a change of government.

Because politics is not about idealism. Nor is voting about finding the perfect candidate.

It's about supporting the option that will bring the most positive change - now.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Follow him on Twitter: @JulienMercille

Irish Independent

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