The next general election could be a game changer

Posted: December 1, 2014 in Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin

The next general election could be a game changer. It could be the most significant election in the history of the State since 1933.

The shape of the southern Irish party political system was well established from 1923. Pro and anti-treaty factions of the independence movement dominated a two and a half party system.

But the 1933 election saw Fianna Fáil consolidate their hold on political power – a hold that would last for the next sixty years.

Throughout almost all of that period 80% of voters opted for centre right Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael governments.
Catholic nationalism may have been supplanted by cosmopolitan liberalism during the 1990s but social and economic policy remained firmly within the Christian democratic tradition.

Smaller left of centre parties – Labour, Clan na Poblachta or the Workers Party/Democratic Left- were left with a difficult choice.

They could play the short game, trading limited policy influence for electoral decline as junior partners in a right wing Government. Or they could play the long game, deferring participation in Government until their political and electoral strength was greater.

In each case the Left played it short. The principle beneficiaries were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael while the two and a half party political system remained intact.

The left would then bemoan a conservative electorate, the power of the church or of corporate media for the dominance of the centre right, when in fact it was the Left itself who perpetuated this Tweedledum and Tweeldlee political stich-up.

Only twice in the history of the state did it look like this cosy state of affairs may be disrupted. In 1948 Clan na Polachta emerged to challenge Fianna Fáil hegemony. In 2011 Labour looked set to break free of its half party status.

Yet both opportunities were lost as first Sean McBride and then Eamon Gilmore opted for the sprint rather than the marathon only to realise they didn’t have the strength to make it to the finish line.

If Clan na Poblachta or Labour had made better choices they could have challenged the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They could have forced a realignment of southern Irish party politics. They could have laid the ground for a centre left Government.

But instead they chose to play it short and our centre right party political system returned to business as usual.
And so to the upcoming general election. The portents of change are everywhere.

The slow electoral demise of the centre right that started in the early 1990s has accelerated since the financial collapse in 2008. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael now command less than 50% of the electorate.

The continued rise of Sinn Féin, Independents and smaller parties highlights a hunger for change and an openness to alternatives. The mass mobilisations against the water charges show a new engagement with politics.

The centre right policy consensus that has dominated the political mainstream for so long no longer has the confidence of the majority of the electorate.

This is not just a southern Irish phenomenon. The rise of the SNP in Scotland, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain all point to a crisis of social and economic liberalism and a growing momentum for a new politics that places social justice at the heart of economic policy.

The question many people are asking is whether any of our political actors will have the courage and the ambition to play the long game in the run up to the next election.

People want to know whether they will be offered an alternative vision for a better fairer Ireland. They want to know whether the advocates of that vision have the courage to spell out both the benefits and the costs involved.

Our party political system has run its course. It is ripe for change. There has never been a better time to force a realignment along left-right lines. There has never been a better time to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael grip on power.

A party that offers a real alternative to the corrupt and incompetent politics of the centre right may end up in power sooner than it thinks – but only if it convinces the voters that it means what it says, that it keeps its word and that the alternative it offers is radical, credible and achievable.

The next general election could indeed be a game changer – but that will depend in large part on the words and actions of those of us who believe we have something different to offer.

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