Rise of the Others

In last weekend’s elections, Independents, small alliances and anti-austerity groups were the big winners, polling more than 40 per cent in some areas. Was it a midterm protest vote or is the political party over?

Protesters lined up at a European election ballot box, one roaring into it through a megaphone, another raising a fist, a third waving a placard with a single word on it: “Unhappy!”

Patrick Chappatte's cartoon in the International New York Times could have been set in any EU country. But like unhappy families, each of the 28 members is unhappy in its own way. So what kind of unhappy are we?

Near the Castlebar count centre this week, where an EU sceptic, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, had just topped the poll in the European elections by a country mile, we meet Jim, a good-humoured taxi driver. He gave his number one to Ming.

Why Ming ?


“Ah, Ming’d talk to you. He speaks his mind.”

But what can he do for you?

“Did you look down the town? This is Enda Kenny’s town, and he hasn’t brought a pound of butter to it . . . Nobody listens to us.”

But what can Ming do about that?

“I don’t know,” Jim says with a long sigh. “I suppose it was a protest vote.”

But why Ming in particular?

A pause, then an explosive laugh. “It’ll be funny to see him carried out on a stretcher when he gets a box from a big German fella.”

A man might be forgiven such muddled, anarchic thoughts when he has recently left his eldest son at Castlebar railway station, bound for Australia, “24,000 miles away”. When we speak again, a couple of days later, Jim is on his way to a removal; a friend of his emigrant son has taken his own life. “I’m looking now at young lads around the town carrying bags of drink with them,” he says. “What is there here for them?”

This week Enda Kenny told EU leaders that Irish families were worn out. There was the startling spectacle of both Mark Carney of the Bank of England and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund declaring that capitalism is eating itself, devouring the social capital essential for its survival and fuelling inequality.

Even Larry Summers, the US economist who was treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and, later, Barack Obama’s first director of the National Economic Council, observed that “capitalism is posting growth, but it is not feeding through to the people”.

Meanwhile, Germany "remains unconvinced" about the need to compensate Ireland for its support of the banking system, "especially since the Government managed to leave the EU/IMF bailout last December without a financial safety net", said an Irish Times report.

How does all this sound to grieving, angry parents like Jim? Or to the new class known as the “precariat”, the insecure, disconnected young who feel robbed of the better future they expected? Or the 51,000 people who rallied to the few tattered posters and principled anti-debt message of Diarmuid O’Flynn (“Ballyhea Says No”)? Or the 120,000 people who gave their first preferences to Ming Flanagan and his belief that the EU has gone too far?

Last Monday, as the Labour Party was being eviscerated in counts across the country, its defeated candidate in Midlands North West, Senator Lorraine Higgins, told this writer without a hint of irony that she had enjoyed the campaign immensely and had sensed no palpable anger. Emotional intelligence seemed in short supply.

If people remained eerily polite on the doorsteps, it was because their anger encompassed far more than medical cards or water charges. The quiet rage of people being taken for mugs was in the ether, encapsulated in an Irish Times election-day headline about David Drumm's wife demanding her "own money" as Anglo Irish Bank imploded.

Political humility

Meanwhile, other politicians plotted their own quiet route.

Weeks ago, standing on Grafton Street in a flowery dress, the soft-spoken, damp-haired Independent candidate Nessa Childers recalled something her distinguished father used to say: “Humility is the first but not the only trait of a politician.”

Perhaps her repeated party-hopping had equipped her to engage with this new raging, anti-party era. For those who needed to be coached, it wasn’t as simple as it looked: you had to come across as fiery, fearless, controlled and knowledgeable while being humble, anguished, eternally listening and down with the people (whatever your salary or expenses regime).

As incoherence and incompetence aligned as targets, the citizens took their first proper stab at an anti-party election as a myriad of Independents, sensing that anyone was in with a chance, hurled themselves into the fray.

Some party people sniffed the air and adopted the time-honoured ruse of minimising party links on the posters. The big trick was to appear to be an Independent. The outstanding proponent was the poll-topping semi-sole trader Brian Crowley, whose European election posters put the Fianna Fáil logo on the back.

And so it came to pass that the category marked “Others”, which included small parties and alliances such as the Greens, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, accumulated an enormous vote.

At local level, Galway city recorded 44 per cent. Wicklow yielded 41 per cent. Across the four Dublin constituencies, the average was 35 per cent. In Donegal, Kerry, Offaly, Roscommon, Tipperary and Waterford, it was at least 30 per cent. (The lowest Others vote was in the Border counties of Cavan, at 4 per cent, and Monaghan, at 13 per cent.)

In the European elections, Others garnered 40 per cent (and that excludes Crowley’s semi-independent avalanche). In the Dublin West byelection, they took nearly 44 per cent; in Longford-Westmeath, it was more than a third.

The surest way to rile Ming Flanagan this week was to suggest that he was the beneficiary of a protest vote and that tough times are always kind to alternative candidates. He holds that they are more reflective than that. Whatever they intended, notice was served of something seismic happening for party politics.

Protest era “We are in an era of protest,” sa

ys Jane Suiter, the journalist turned Dublin City University political scientist. "The whole party system is in for massive change. Everyone was saying that 2011 was an earthquake election, but we haven't seen the beginning of that. That election still left the three main parties in play, all of them old-established constitutional parties. What's happening now is that we are following the rest of Europe into different patterns."

If the Tony Blair-style plan of staging a joyous, timely pre-2016 recovery fails to fire, and these figures feed into the general election, what happens next is anyone’s guess. There is no template. Our open electoral system means we have no parallel in Europe, where Independents are the rarest of breeds because the requirements around election percentages virtually bar them from trying.

At one level the map is there. With the emergence of the Dáil technical group, the current crop of Independent TDs is carving out its own space in national policies. Ming Flanagan is very proud of its pivotal role in the Government’s concession of a police authority, for example.

This week a new kind of alliance seemed to beckon as Diarmuid O’Flynn – @Ballyhea14 – tweeted Ming and Childers, among others, to “stand with us”. David Hall, the Independent who polled a decent vote in Dublin West, responded with a suggestion to meet for coffee. But where to after that?

In an Independent-heavy parliament, the logical next step would be for such a group to demand a ministry or two in return for a bloc vote. But this would require serious unity of purpose and values, and already that unity has been revealed to be a delicate flower with the splintering triggered by Mick Wallace’s VAT revelations.

And if Independents are perceived to merge into the system – “always above there in Dublin” – how will that work with their supporters? Donning the local jersey – even for taoisigh, as Enda Kenny has discovered – is regarded as a TD’s first duty; that and relentless 24/7 visibility while bringing home the bacon.

Above all, how would it work for the citizens if the Dáil consisted of at least 30 per cent Independents?

“While many hate the whip system, it does mean that a party can put out a manifesto” and require its members to abide by that, says Suiter. “Independents are working on different deals, which is fine for those in their immediate areas but makes little sense to those who are interested in good governance.”

Taking a party wipe-out to its logical conclusion, how would 166 Independents with fast-shifting alliances, standards and values agree on any kind of a platform?

The old parties are not dead yet as proven by the Lazarus-like arousal of Fianna Fáil and the onward surge of Sinn Féin, but they are on notice. Reviewing Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, by the late Peter Mair, in the London Review of Books, Jan-Werner Müller notes the overwhelming evidence that the number of people who identify with a particular party is falling across the West, and party membership is dwindling dramatically.

It matters. For modern democracy to work, he says, we need parties, and when they no longer play their proper role, “democracy itself is at stake”. But the first hurdle for parties is the perception in Europe that they’re all the same.

In the US, distinct ideologies have led to polarisation and the rise of partisanship. So there’s a problem when they do and a problem when they don’t.

Another problem is that citizens who vote for parties always get coalitions, with the inevitable consequence of watered-down programmes amid shouts of “traitors” and “scum”, as seen in loathsome confrontations in this campaign.

Another is what he calls the mutual withdrawal by people and politicians, with both sharing equally in what he calls an “anti-political sentiment” – such as Blair’s glib statement in 2000 that “I was never really in politics”.

Put simply, these are all converging towards an apathy dignified by political scientists as “audience democracy”, the idea being that we should keep an eye on things as best we can and check the governing classes when they go astray.

The comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, in Italy, is perceived as a symptom of a condition whereby we expect more from the political class but are ourselves prepared to have merely a glance at Grillo’s blog and maybe vote for him.

“There is a compelling case for thinking that something has gone badly wrong when we see ourselves being ruled by unaccountable, supposedly apolitical experts, but the only prospect of rescue is afforded by populists who promise to hand power back to the people,” writes Mair. “The former give us identical policies everywhere and no politics; the latter, you might say, give us politics and no policies.”

Technocracy v populism

Four years of Eurocrisis, he contends, has left us with technocracy on the one hand and populism on the other. “The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate.”

Both sides, he suggests, are opposed to the pluralism that comes with party democracy. When populism and what he calls “expertocracy” unite in a single person, you get the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italty as if it were a company.

Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner not known for mixing passion and politics, has suggested that European elections should be "emotionalised"; that people might feel less cross if they could put a face to Brussels bureaucracy (or, better still, they could just compensate us for the euro-zone bank support). But in the US, where they tried that, all it left was an impression that politics is about huge egos bickering.

Mair concludes that the EU is a house that party politicians built but that has no room for politics, while national governments are ever more likely to pretend that they are merely the branch office of Brussels. (Never mind that they were at the negotiating table.)

No wonder they don’t really want to explain it at election time.

So can the old parties revert to business as usual? The Guardian commentator Martin Kettle thinks not. "This weakening of old parties reflects the dissolution of the old society. The ties that used to bind are weaker now – and so, as a consequence, are the politicians that we elect and the governments they form. There is no point sighing about the passing of the old land of lost political content. It will never return."

Then again, he doesn’t know Ireland.