Sunday 21 July 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The parties have become so alike that elections change nothing except the personnel

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The general election campaign is under way, yet the election date remains undeclared. It might not happen - God help us - for the best part of nine months. We're in suspended electoral animation - the engine is revving up, but the brakes are on.

As the weeks pass, there will be repetitive speeches, pitiful gaffes and premature ejaculations, shameless lies and the occasional heartfelt plea. The level of sheer incompetence and duplicity will - despite our experience - occasionally surprise us.

Throughout this period, we're doomed to suffer the usual range of election-related nonsense.

But there's something new this time. This will be the first general election of what is undeniably a post-democratic era.

We'll be told the election date as soon as a jittery Enda Kenny makes up Fine Gael's mind.

It was Kenny's mixture of excitement and caution that landed us with a campaign that could last from this summer, through the autumn and the winter and well into next spring.

He wasn't ever going to launch a campaign this early, but he couldn't resist pawing the ground. The economic up-tick and a fair run in the polls were encouraging. He had permission from his EU managers to spend some money massaging the voters.

Then there was the climax of the Banking Inquiry - with Bertie and Biffo amusing us with their nothing-to-do-with-me party pieces.

Enda couldn't resist using his own appearance at the Banking Inquiry to brazenly make an electoral pitch.

Then, having abused the inquiry by openly treating it as the election platform it was always intended to be, he sat back to enjoy the other positive omens he knew were on the way.

He waited. And, instead of getting better, the next polls showed his support draining away.

So, we're off and running, but it's a dawdling run, in circles. November? April? Somewhere in between?

And the dawdling will continue while Enda pulls at his daisy - they love me, they love me not - and governance festers.

Already, Fine Gael TDs are denouncing Minister Jan O'Sullivan for discussing a substantial education issue. Tom Hayes TD is livid because O'Sullivan dares raise any issue involving "ideas that are going to ruffle feathers".

Good Lord, woman, don't you know there's an election on the horizon? Let's keep politics out of politics.

Aine Collins remonstrated with O'Sullivan, because "now is not the time to have a debate you can't win because you are not going to make everyone happy by doing it".

That seems to argue not alone that politics have no place in elections, but that you shouldn't have debates in case you lose them; and you must avoid any political activity that doesn't "make everyone happy".

Of course, it may not mean any of that at all - it's getting harder to tell.

So, we face up to nine months of governmental paralysis, in case they do something that upsets someone, somewhere.

It would be untrue to claim that politics has reached unprecedented levels of absurdity. There was a time when Fianna Fail summed up its entire appeal to the electorate in two words: "Up Dev!" Similar witless appeals to tribal loyalty included "Let Lemass Lead On!", "Back Jack!" and "Rise and Follow Charlie" - a demand that could only be obeyed by people with serious self-esteem problems.

Beside this nonsense, the Bertie Ahern years reeked of politics. "A lot done. More to do." That slogan had the virtue of appealing for support for a known set of policies. It appeared to be a political appeal for continuity on an upward path.

In truth, Mr Ahern's slogan meant: "We've set the economy on a road to destruction - now, leave it to us to drive it off that cliff."

Right now, throughout the country there are things happening that will have a huge bearing on the outcome of the election. They are to do with marketing. This is costly stuff, it happens for the most part in secret. It will decide what slogans are used and what goes into party manifestos, what's said and what's left unsaid.

The parties pay for large, exquisitely detailed and very expensive secret polls. They pay companies to take focus groups through complex question and answer sessions. Focus groups are scientifically selected clusters of citizens, representative of the electorate.

The aim is to probe voters' fears and wishes. The parties are spending a fortune finding out what voters want them to say - then, they'll say it.

The money spent on such preparation will not be declared as election spending, as the election has not yet been officially called.

That kind of thing has been a feature of previous elections. What's different this time is that we've never before been so aware of the disconnect between an election and the government that will emerge from the voting.

There has always been deceit, there have always been broken promises. But, gradually the parties have evolved a means of separating the process of voting and the process of governing.

Over a period of about 30 years, the predominant ideology in Western Europe - and further afield - secured wide and deep acceptance among electorates. It used to call itself neoliberalism, but over the past decade or so it has declined such labels - it has, through its longevity, become just the way things are done.

Its deregulation and its veneration of the free market created the conditions for the 2008 crash. Despite this, it continues to thrive. The ideology is deeply embedded within the political and executive layers of the EU and the ECB.

Its incessant demands for austerity, since the crash, meant that all the major parties here came to resemble one another. Fine Gael and Labour denounced Fianna Fail, then implemented precisely the same policies once elected.

This wasn't mere treachery - they share the same beliefs.

The result is that we know - more clearly than ever before - that the vote might change the personnel in government, but the policies will remain the same.

The Greek crisis led to a blatant use of the European Central Bank to achieve political ends - and an open demonstration that elections and referendums are for decorative purposes only. The ECB was used to collapse the Greek financial system until such time as the Greek politicians did as they were told.

EU officials cheerfully described to reporters the manner in which the Greek prime minister was "mentally water-boarded" until he agreed to drop his government's policies.

We still have the vote. But the vote is just one part of the democratic machinery. Debate is essential - but when one ideology is so dominant that it has become the norm - and all else is decreed to be outside that which is permissible - the debate is meaningless.

Even more important is the necessity that voters see that voting changes policies. Since the party policies are interchangeable, this doesn't - and can't - happen.

So, we have an electoral process that's all about personnel, not policies. Under pressure, politicians will make promises they don't intend to keep - but, after the 2011 election, many were pleasantly surprised to find that their lies had no consequences.

The election has become a stand-alone process, disconnected from the governing process it is supposed to direct.

No one designed it this way. It's a consequence of the success of neoliberalism, as voters nodded through tax cuts, deregulation and austerity. And the political parties converged towards the same small position on the right.

The crash and the crisis that followed led to the creation of a layer of technocrats, unelected, to deal with highly technical problems. This layer - at both EU and national levels - retains its dominant position, regardless of who wins elections.

At the same time, the electoral system still exists. It requires that every five years politicians strut and fret in front of voters, as though it matters. And, to individual candidates, and to the small nucleus of dissidents, it does.

At some stage, there will be consequences to all this.

Sunday Independent

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