Saturday 19 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'We suffer when parties all hum the same hymn'

Don't be too quick to judge bitter discord in UK politics. Instead we should consider the lack of choice in Ireland, writes Liam Weeks

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Liam Weeks

An election looms in Britain. We will be fixated and fascinated at the divisions and debate in the campaign. The traditional two-party system might be torn apart, as both the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party are predicted to see a surge in support, at the expense of the Conservatives and Labour.

Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, and Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, will all offer differing visions of how Britain should be run. Throw in the Greens and the Scottish National Party, and there will be almost a smorgasbord of political options.

There is little doubt one consequence of this large menu is that it will expose bitterness and discord in British politics. While some might be dismayed by such a lack of harmony, in any democracy where freedom of speech and thought prevails, ought not disagreements and divisions be the natural order of things?

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If everyone seems to be singing off the same hymn sheet, chances are it's not a genuine democracy. We should not be so quick to condemn Britain for the fragmented nature of its politics.

Instead, the positive consequences need to be considered - that there is a level of pluralism in Britain, which provides genuine choices to its electorate. And consider the absence of this in Ireland.

In announcing his preference for a May 2020 general election last week, the Taoiseach kickstarted the unofficial campaign, as an election might be called earlier, depending on how Brexit unravels.

But what alternative visions will we see during this campaign? Will it be anything like the impending election in Britain? Most likely not, as most of our parties hum the same tune on the key issues.

While to some this might be a positive demonstration of the maturity of our political system, with none of the infighting or posturing we see across the water, the reality is that it exposes the limited menu available to the electorate. And Irish politics is all the poorer for it.

In a healthy democracy, parties offer competing visions of how to run society. Whichever party or coalition wins the most seats enacts their vision for society. So, in the UK in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives had one vision, while Neil Kinnock's Labour had another. More British voters aligned with Thatcher, and society was shaped in this vision.

Change came when the electorate grew tired of the Conservatives, and in the 1990s the British people switched to Tony Blair's New Labour. Massive majorities at successive elections enabled Blair to reform the UK in his design.

Could this happen in Ireland? What competing visions are there?

Yes, there are disagreements between the parties, but these tend to focus on personalities and the competency of their rivals. This was obvious at the party think-ins held over the past week. At the Fine Gael gathering in Cork, for example, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar didn't criticise Fianna Fail's alternative world view. Instead, he said, "they have no solutions. No policies. No plans. And they do not have the team to match ours".

He wasn't saying Fine Gael would do things differently to Fianna Fail, just that it would do them better.

The same theme was maintained in the Taoiseach's criticisms of Sinn Fein. He didn't focus on the divergence in their policies, choosing instead to highlight the party's strategies. "Sinn Fein has demonstrated what political impotence really looks like," the Taoiseach said. Again, the message here was not necessarily about what Fine Gael offers that differs from Sinn Fein, but that they do things better.

Even when it came to a party that has a different message to Fine Gael, Varadkar admitted he was willing to plagiarise this, saying of the Greens: "They have some good policies and we should not be embarrassed to make some of those good ideas our own in the months ahead."

Fine Gael is not the only party guilty of failing to offer an alternate vision. At the Fianna Fail think-in in Wexford, Micheal Martin focused on his party's perceived potency, not its policies. "They [Fine Gael] haven't delivered on policy, on substance," Martin said.

"We would, under my leadership, deliver a lot more on housing, on health and climate change and infrastructure. And it is not just about me but about the team we would bring forward."

He wasn't saying Fianna Fail would do things a whole lot differently, just that it would do them better.

No doubt the parties of the left would dispute the lack of choice on offer, and would claim they offer something different to the two civil war parties. At his party's meeting, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said: "The last three years has also made it clear - if it wasn't clear enough already - that there is no real difference between the economic policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail."

Mary Lou McDonald said much the same at Sinn Fein's away day, but while both she and Howlin stressed they would make Ireland a more equal society were either of them in government, it is difficult to see how things would be much different. First, they would have to be in coalition with one of the civil war parties. And second, how much of an alternative vision are these parties offering? Are we saying that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael don't agree with Sinn Fein and Labour, that they don't want an equal society? Hardly. It is all about competency. The message of these parties of the left is that they will do more than Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to achieve the same goals.

What we have been witnessing over 20 years or so is a convergence in Irish politics. We are not unusual in this regard, as in many other countries the emphasis at elections is on the performance of parties and their ability to deliver, rather than ideological vision. Those who offer the latter, such as Solidarity on these shores, tend to remain on the margins. Academics call this valence politics, and it is a recognition of the broadly shared goals of how society should be constructed.

But is this a good development? And why are these goals broadly shared? Because the parties themselves agree?

The next election campaign here will not be like that of the UK. The mainstream parties will not be offering different ideas on how to deal with Brexit and its consequences.

Unlike in Britain, the winner of our general election will not have a huge bearing on the future of our politics and society. Whether Fine Gael or Fianna Fail leads the next government will make little difference. So, before you mock British elections, think about how meaningless they could be here. Should we be more mocked than mocking?

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

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