Coalition could be the next big issue for the Social Democrats

Party, which has faced structural problems, is holding its second annual conference

‘There was a deepening divide between Donnelly and his co-leaders, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, which culminated in his departure. The joint leader concept persisted but it did not work for the Greens in the past and it’s unlikely to work for the Social Democrats.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘There was a deepening divide between Donnelly and his co-leaders, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, which culminated in his departure. The joint leader concept persisted but it did not work for the Greens in the past and it’s unlikely to work for the Social Democrats.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It’s now nearly two years since a new party – formed only six months beforehand – almost became one of the big stories of the 2016 general election.

Unlike Renua, the formation of which had been drawn-out and painstaking, the Social Democrats was born almost by spontaneous combustion.

Three Independent TDs came together to form a new left-of-centre party. It was hastily assembled. But it offered an attractive proposition to voters. With attractive purple livery, the new party attracted young voters in droves. One of its founders, Stephen Donnelly, put in a huge performance in a general election leadership debate from the University of Limerick.

In the event, the only three seats it won were the existing ones. But with a few more months it could have taken a few more seats, particularly in Dublin Central where Gary Gannon was pipped at the final post.

The momentum did not last.

While the party had found a space on the political field, it struggled over the next year. There was a deepening divide between Donnelly and his co-leaders, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, which culminated in his departure. The joint-leader concept persisted, but it did not work for the Greens in the past and it is unlikely to work for the Social Democrats.

There was another problem. It was a structural one. It majored on governance and transparency, and modelled itself on the seemingly exemplary politics of Nordic countries. But it had no constitution and no thought-through and settled policies (with the exception of health), and you can only get so far saying you are right-on when it comes to all the key issues. Nor did it have all the boring stuff – a structure, administrative staff, branches, officers – that any organisation needs.

Fully functioning

This weekend marks the party’s second national conference but the first one where you get the sense it is a fully functioning party, with a staffed-up administration.

The Social Democrats now has a membership of about 1,000 and is likely to field candidates in a majority of constituencies at the next election. Now, also, it is being identified with something broader than Shortall and Murphy, although their work on the Public Accounts Committee, the Eighth Amendment committee, and on SláinteCare have been vital in pushing forward the party’s agenda.

And so this weekend, there will be nominations for the national elections, as well as debates on motions, that will determine policy with a co-leaders’ speech rounding off the conference.

The agenda, though, shows why the party is somewhat apart from others. The youthful profile of the party’s membership is evident. That is exemplified by a debate on the theme of “the locked-out generation”, which will highlight inequality for an emerging generation who have no prospects of gaining a permanent job, and no hopes of buying a permanent home. There is an expected Nordic input (from Sweden) in motions on political governance, systems and fairness. There are dozens of motions, many worthy and commendable, on the big issues from housing, to health, to public transport, to childcare, to education, to homelessness. That said, some of the suggestions would prove to be very costly items. On the other side of the balance sheet, there is not an equivalence of revenue-generation measures. A motion on corporation tax criticises the 12.5 per cent rate but shies away from calling for it to be raised.

Credible costing

Sure, they are motions that come from all constituencies. Not all will be adopted. But the party will have to have a credible costing approach in the run-in to the next election.

So how election-ready is it? For it to have a long-term future it will need to consolidate and that will require breakthroughs. Gannon in Dublin Central: Niall Ó Tuathail in Galway West; Anne-Marie McNally in Dublin Mid West; Cian O’Callaghan in Dublin Bay North; and Jennifer Whitmore in Wicklow are among its strongest candidates.

If such a breakthrough is achieved, the party might have to consider going into coalition. When you trawl through the policies, there are many overlaps with Labour and the Greens, both of whom would be willing to enter coalition negotiations in the right circumstances. Rivals from other parties consider both Shortall and Murphy to be Government-intolerant. Besides, the health of smaller parties is rarely improved by coalitions. There is provision for entering coalition in the new constitution. It would require 60 per cent of delegates to approve such a move.

And that very issue might just be the theme of the party’s next national conference.

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