INDEPENDENT INSPIRATION Although economist David McWilliams toyed with then rejected the idea of running as an independent candidate, he has influenced many, including those who have formed a new alliance of Independents, New Vision.
What does the rise of the Independent candidate really mean?
The latest poll at time of writing (Irish Independent Millward Brown Lansdowne poll, February 16) showed that Independents accounted for the third-highest popularity ranking, with Fine Gael leading the poll and Labour second. The figures fell like this: Fine Gael at 38 per cent (+8); Labour at 23 (-1); Independents at 16 (+1); Fianna Fáil at 12 (-4); Sinn Féin at 10 (-3); and the Green Party at 1 (no change).
What’s with this rise in Independents and their popularity? Is it a sign that the electorate blames not just the current government but also the mainstream parties that populate the Dáil for the country’s economic catastrophe? Is the nation baulking against what it sees as the lack of expertise and lack of joined-up thinking that characterises the current party-political offering? Is it yearning for a new brand of governing and governance? Quite possibly it is a blend of all of these factors.
Politics with a small p
What marks out the major political parties in Ireland? Too often it’s tribal posturing (‘Up Mayo!’), intergenerational leg-up-manship (think of the Haugheys, the Lenihans, the Flynns, the Healy-Raes) and outdated Civil War buttonholing (the fact that terms such as ‘blueshirt’ persist in our modern political lexicon says it all). Most worrying is the fact that these traits are so pervasive that they have distracted from the real problem with the political landscape: the lack of coherent, theory-based strategising; of sophisticated, value-led political positions.
Can any of the three ‘parties of government’ – Labour, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil – be said to subscribe to any one, unifying position or political philosophy, be it socialism, egalitarianism, fascism, capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, neo-liberalism or any other ideology or blend of ideologies you can think of? What do these parties stand for? What exactly are we voting for when we vote for them?
Insights gleaned from politicalcompass.org, a website dedicated to mapping the political ideologies of parties using ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘libertarian’ as compass points, are instructive. At the time of the last election (2007), the site characterised Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour as ‘right’, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the ‘right, authoritarian’ quadrant and Labour in the ‘(centre) right, libertarian’ quadrant.
However, the site qualified its results with the following: “Given that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are grounded in history rather than ideology, their Political Compass positions posed a particular challenge … Ideology is more distinct in the smaller parties, with Labour following most of its sister parties abroad by accepting the prevailing market economy, though cloaking it in social democratic language.” The site’s 2011 compass appears to show Labour moving more to the right, and Fianna Fáil becoming more authoritarian.
While politicalcompass.org could be seen as a crude tool with which to map political-party ideology, it seems to me that the ‘big three’ parties in the Irish political system are philosophically ill-defined, with policies unfettered to ideology and therefore prone to shifting in order to firefight whatever issue crops up.
United we stand (sort of)
The phenomenal rise in the number of independent candidates, as well as the surge in their popularity, can be seen as a sign not only of the fact that the nation is furious about the outgoing government’s mismanagement of the economy, but also of the fact that there there is no ideological mast for a voter to pin his or her colours to.
But what about these independents? Are they indeed the ‘heroes’ of the people? If elected to government on foot of a strong electoral showing, can they find unity or will the result be a Dáil further hamstrung by a cacophony of disparate views?
In a bid to show unity, many of the independents have signed up to the charter of a ‘new movement’ called New Vision – An Independent Alliance for a new Ireland. A look at their website (newvision.ie) reveals that 19 candidates have signed, including one Independent Co Mayo candidate (Martin Daly). All New Vision candidates are committed to vote ‘en bloc’ as a political alliance for four national policies, if elected: 1, The separation of Bank debt and Sovereign debt; 2, A viable workable strategy to create and retain jobs; 3, The overhaul of the Political, Public and Civil Service; and 4, A better deal for our Energy and Natural Resources.
While Policies 1 and 4 seem straight- forward enough (though Policy 1 does not spell out the consequent approach to bank debt once it has been ‘separated’ out), Policies 2 and 3 seem to leave the field wide open to interpretation by individual members. Further, it states on newvision.ie that “With the exception of the four policies above, all NewVision.ie candidates are free to pursue any other issues or policies they feel are important to their own area and constituencies.”
My worry, therefore, is the same is it is for the main three parties: that without a unifying, disciplining political ideology, the rationale behind the decisions that affect the nation and its future will be ad hoc.
What is a vote really for?
Voting in a general election should not just be about what the parties and candidates are saying about the issues of the day, it should also be about the unforeseen issues of tomorrow; issues that have not yet arisen but will inevitably arise one, two and three years down the track. The only way that a voter can reasonably predict how a party or individual will tackle not only the issues of the day, but also future issues, is by having a clear picture of the ideological position, the political philosophy, of that party or individual.
Voting in a general election is, for me, also about voting for the kind of state I want to live in. That means not just considering the current vexing and important issues of unemployment, bank bailouts and cronyism etc, but also considering the bigger picture. It means not asking who will I vote for, but what I am voting for.
Do I believe in the fair distribution of wealth? What is my idea of fair? Do I believe in equality? Do I believe in equality of opportunity or in positive discrimination or some other method for achieving an egalitarian society? To what extent do I believe that Christianity, or any religion, should inform legislation and the constitution? Do I believe that services that are ostensibly for ‘the public good’, such as education and health, should be accountable to the people or to private boards of management?
These are just a few of the questions that I ask myself, and the answers to these questions inform my values and so the brand of political ideology I subscribe to. Armed with a clearer picture of my values, I then look for the party that best reflects them and is most likely to fight for them and for the kind of Ireland I want to live in.
As the last days of campaigning draw to a close and the day of reckoning draws near, it seems that the country is left to make its choices in a foggy and indistinct political landscape. My worry is that in the absence of defined party ideology, the newly-elected government will, in time, once again behave unpredictably, will once again firefight, change tack, reverse decisions and display a lack of joined-up thinking by taking an inconsistent, contradictory, unholistic approach to governing.
Until parties align themselves with defined ideologies, neither the opposition nor the people can hold the government accountable. It will be impossible to dispute decisions we think are wrong for the country – for how can one mount a challenge to a shape-shifting blur? In the words of a friend, that’s just trying to punch soup.