The winner of Election 2016 is social democracy
What we voted for is a profound shift of priorities, towards decent services, a fair use of public resources and a reversal of the drift towards inequality
If much of the political establishment is shaking its head in disbelief, at least it knows how the Irish public has felt for much of the last decade. Citizens have been told a story by the last two governments and by much of the media: Attacks on the most vulnerable were both necessary and salutary. Austerity works. The troika programme was like chemotherapy – unpleasant and at times sickening, but effective medicine. Putting tens of billions into dead banks was a good idea. The systems that failed so catastrophically have been reformed. And everything is getting inexorably better.
This was not just an Irish story – it was a European narrative: Ireland vindicated the tough love of the dominant centre-right ideology and made its disastrous response to the euro crisis look a lot better. Ireland is the anti-Greece. If only everyone had been as good as the Irish, Europe would be fine.
What voters said on Friday is in some ways highly complex but in relation to this dominant narrative, it is very simple: we don’t believe you. Over the past five years, most citizens have watched the little drama that has been scripted for them – a morality play of sin, punishment and redemption – with feelings ranging from mild scepticism to passive disgust to furious outrage. There have been true believers, of course, but it was always obvious they were in a minority.
The Government was not elected in 2011 to do what it actually did: it promised radical change to the troika deal, the bank bailout and the political system. And it never managed to create general consent for the policies of continuity it actually did pursue. Indeed, there has never been popular consent to the combination of harsh austerity for the little people and astonishing generosity to bondholders. It was emphatically rejected in 2011 and at the local elections in 2014.
The strange thing is that the Government, for all its well-paid handlers, never grasped this essential fact. It was so convinced of its own heroic virtue that it simply could not believe that anyone beyond the ranks of the malcontents and the whingers could fail to share its enormously high opinion of itself.
It imagined it would ride back to power on a feel-good factor, as if people who have been repeatedly beaten should feel good that the beating has stopped.
Official self-regardSo voters had to shout rather loudly to be heard through the bubble of official self-regard. They had to roar like children at a panto: Oh, no you didn’t! People know the economic recovery had as much to do with luck as with policy. They know claims to fairness ring hollow from a Government that introduced five regressive budgets in a row and presided over a near doubling of child poverty. They know that key parts of what makes a civilised society – housing, policing and healthcare – have been devastated. They know Fine Gael’s promise to simultaneously cut taxes and improve public services was as incoherent as it was cynical. They know the political system to which they were electing a new bunch of TDs is pretty much the same as the one that was supposed to experience a “democratic revolution” after 2011.
And they heard very little from the Government parties that even began to address these realities. Whoever thought that the key word voters wanted to hear was “stability” was living in some parallel universe of an Oliver Twist electorate meekly asking for more gruel.
The big problem for the Government was that because people didn’t believe its account of the recent past, they were highly unlikely to believe its promises of future bliss either. Voters know very well that there was a hidden clause in the proposed contract: if there is a global recession, all bets will be off. And they know from bitter experience who gets kicked when all bets are off.
Ireland, after all, is not exceptional, however much we like to think it is. It is quite ordinary. Irish society has experienced the same corrosive forces that are undermining fixed political structures everywhere: the relentless rise of inequality and the consequent power of unelected oligarchies is shaking the authority of institutions supposedly founded on equality. Virtually every democracy has experienced a rise of either the radical left or the radical right, or both. Why should Ireland be different?
The radical right, for complex reasons (including the fact that Sinn Féin takes up the space it might otherwise occupy), has as yet no foothold. (Renua, a kind of Barry’s Tea Party with nice china cups, fell as flat as its flat tax.) The result has been an enormous shift to the left. Fianna Fáil did well because its leader Micheál Martin discerned what was happening and moved his party, rhetorically at least, onto mildly social democratic ground, promising greater fairness and investment in public services. Almost everyone else (except, of course, Fine Gael) ran to the left of the Labour Party. The narratives that chimed with voters were somewhat fragmented but they cohere around a core set of ideas: the urgent need to shift towards greater equality and rebuild the services necessary for individual and collective dignity.
Behind the fragmentation, therefore, there is something quite profound: an emerging social democratic majority. Most of the successful Independents argued (at least in local terms) for substantially greater investment in public services and not for large tax cuts. So did Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Greens and People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance.
The spectrum may be very wide but so is the consensus it represents: at least two-thirds of voters are somewhere on it. What they voted for is a profound shift of priorities, towards decent services, a fair use of public resources and a reversal of the drift towards inequality.
Rhetoric of fairnessBut will they get it? If the most likely government is a combination of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the onus on Martin to make good on his rhetoric of fairness will be enormous. The parties that have proved over the last decade to be not very good at governing now have the tremendous task of creating, not just a new narrative, but a new reality.
Actually turning Ireland in the direction of a sustainable social democracy, with efficient and effective public services, housing redefined as a social good rather than a commodity and shrinking rather than rising equality, is a challenge as severe as any the State has faced since the Whitaker/Lemass revolution in 1958. It will demand not just a realignment of the political party system but a reinvention of the State to place equality, accountability and sustainability at its heart. And the problem is that failure can no longer be covered up with optimistic rhetoric that citizens just don’t buy any more. The gap between the republic of equals that voters want and the current culture of governance is vast. And voters have sent an unmissable message that they will keep kicking the system until it is filled.