New politics is old hat

Making virtue of necessity is a tried and trusted political tactic. With neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil able to command a sustainable majority after the 2016 election, and unwilling to give up the narcissism of small differences by forming a grand coalition, we were left with a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that pleased nobody. Independents were brought into the government fold while the soldiers of destiny reserved the right to play hurlers on the ditch without pulling the plug.

The necessity of this ‘temporary little arrangement’ was wrapped up in the virtuous rhetoric of so-called ‘new politics’. Political reforms were to open up the legislative process, making it more deliberative and less confrontational. Due consideration would be given to opposition proposals and private members’ bills. The Committee system was to be streamlined and treated more seriously.

‘New politics’ was treated in some quarters as a breath of fresh air in 2016. Some thought it might last until 2017 or 2018 at a push. One thing that wasn’t expected was that the UK would vote to leave the European Union later in 2016. The political psychodrama across the Irish Sea has since kept audiences agog, and kept the Dáil in suspended animation. The Taoiseach dare not face the electorate with Brexit unresolved. The ‘temporary little arrangement’ has lasted longer than many would have expected, providing stability in uncertain times.

But, is this a good thing?

In reality, ‘new politics’ has been the triumph of the lowest common denominator. Private members’ bills are allowed to pass, but then languish in legislative purgatory. Votes have come to mean so little that some TDs have decided not to bother. Budgets are constructed to avoid offending anyone, thereby pleasing no one. We have Sláintecare, an ambitious cross-party 10-year plan to reform the health service but without a clear financial plan to ensure it is delivered. The government’s business-as-usual approach to housing policy is leaving record numbers homeless, a generation trapped renting and giving up hope of a place to call their own.

The political dynamic actively discourages risk-taking or policy experimentation. Better to be criticized for continuing with the failed policies of the past than to put your head above the parapet to propose something new. Risk aversion has spread, infecting the opposition as well as government, small parties and large, left and right. Private members’ bills and policy proposals are largely reactive, a response to recent headlines and the political zeitgeist rather than anything strategic or transformative. Thinking small is the order of the day.

At the same time, candidates in the U.S. Democratic Party’s primary ahead of the 2020 Presidential election are actively discussing universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, wealth taxes and a basic income. Ahead of the 12 December election, the UK Labour Party is putting forward its most radical policy programme in a generation. Polling might suggest that the Labour Party’s leadership is unpopular, but its policies actually poll very well, as they did in the 2017 election. People have seen the damage done by privatized public services and have had enough.

If one believes opinion polls, then the next Dáil could look very like the current Dáil. The two largest parties should run each other close in terms of seats. The Greens may gain a few at the expense of Sinn Féin and Independents. But, little major change looks likely. Crucially, it isn’t obvious how to construct a sustainable majority. Lengthy post-election haggling looks inevitable.

There is scope for a progressive alliance to come together to form a blocking minority, without which it would be impossible to form a government unless Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil go into coalition together. The internecine warfare that characterizes left-wing politics in Ireland and elsewhere makes it, perhaps, a fanciful proposition, but if Sinn Féin, Labour, Greens, Social Democrats, and other left-leaning groups and independents can coalesce behind a radical policy programme as the price for power they could be truly transformative. But, if they decide not to hang together, the history of junior coalition partners suggests that, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, they would most assuredly hang separately.

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