Ten lessons Irish politics can take from the British election

Ireland is seeing unease at the status quo and a growing divide between the generations

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was time for Prime Minister Theresa May to stand down after election results indicated she had lost the support and the confidence of voters. Video: Reuters


The British general election result surprised and stunned. The Conservatives won, but only just. Labour lost, but only just. Young people were deemed to have awakened, and a right-wing party was abandoned.

For Irish politicians, important trends and fundamental forces are at play – societal unease at the status quo; polarisation and a clear, and growing divide between the generations. Here are 10 lessons for Irish politics.

1. The year of the outsider

There is no doubt Jeremy Corbyn occupied the same “political disrupter” space as Donald Trump, Bernie Saunders, Emmanuel Macron and possibly Nigel Farage.

“Corbyn and Labour did not blow everybody out of the water in the way that Macron and Trump did,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. However, Corbyn did successfully portray himself as an unconventional outsider “not worrying too much about conventional wisdom, about what works and what does not work”.

John McGuirk, a commentator with right-wing views, sees similarities between Corbyn and Trump. “Trump had a populist economic message. I will give you your jobs back, will open the coal mines, will tackle immigration. Labour was the same. We will take the train services back, buy the post offices, invest in free education, schools and hospitals,” says the former Libertas campaigner.

“There was a lack of any aspirational economic message from the Tories. Fine Gael suffered similar problems last year [its slogan was the tone deaf Let’s Keep the Recovery Going]. It might suffer again.”

So what could happen here? Is there a new leader in Ireland? The leader of Sinn Féin, the left-wing parties or some tangential movement?

The “traditional” parties in Ireland are getting wise to the threat. Last week Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe complained that “those on the fringes” of Irish politics “have claimed a monopoly on authenticity”, arguing that they are more compassionate than everybody else.

“Our tone should also be as passionate as our opponents – it is only with passion that we will defend our communities,” argues Donohoe. “ Politics must be about explaining, about arguments, about complexity.”

2. The youth vote no longer AWOL

In Britain, 64 per cent of 18-24s voted, the highest share since 1992 (when 67 per cent voted), though the extent to which young people decided the result has been grossly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the voting rate is significant. “Young people voted on Brexit. They said they had their futures stolen from them,” says Bale, “ It does not apply as much in Ireland. But there is generally a feeling underneath that the boomers have done very well out of the past few decades, but their children and grandchildren are facing a less secure and less prosperous future.”

Corbyn attracted them because he was seen as authentic. Even though Labour’s stand on Brexit is chaotic, it still benefited from young people’s anger over Brexit. “This was a revenge of the young ‘Remainers’,” he says.

Pointing to the exaggerations that have taken place since, pollster Dr Kevin Cunningham of Ireland Thinks believes the most important voters in Britain are not the 18-24s but 25-44-year-old Tory voters – a third of whom went to Labour.

Anna Cosgrave (27) is a left-wing social and political activist. “The turnout was amazing. I think there is a massive shift in terms of age. In Ireland there has been a renaissance of youth engagement post the marriage referendum

“People have seen how their votes matter, and how their conversation can be transformative. People are moving away from personality to social issues, and I think a lot saw that Corbyn and Labour stood for compassion.”

3. The housing quandary

Private renters in the UK, many of whom now believe they will never be able to afford a house, turned to Labour, wooed by promises of a major jump in the supply of social housing

“The housing crisis in Ireland also presents a natural divide in the population between those that benefit from rising house prices – those typically in negative equity – and those that do not.

“Housing is regarded as the third most important issue among Irish voters [after Brexit and healthcare] and could produce a real headache for the Government in the next election,” says Cunningham.

Home-owners voted two to one for Conservatives; renters for Labour by the same proportion. “We are not talking 18 to 24-year-olds here. These are people for whom having their own home is no longer a reasonable dream,” says McGuirk.“For me this is the single biggest issue facing Varadkar. We are not just talking about homeless but about the affordability of housing for young people.”

4. Dead certs and snap elections very dangerous

Leo Varadkar dismissed speculation about calling an early election as soon as the British result emerged. May’s decision to hold a snap election was a mistake. Starting off with an unassailable lead can also be toxic.

Bale points to all the polling data which put the Tories higher on economic competence, the economy and security. But he adds they were blamed for extending austerity beyond what people could put up with.

“Young people sensed it with education cutbacks. People with very young kids worried about what was happening in school.”

However, he makes a counter-intuitive, but important point. “If people thought Labour was going to win, the Labour vote would have been lower. Many people were convinced the Conservatives would win anyway, so it allowed them to vote with their hearts rather than heads.”

5. Trust is important.

This is a general observation as applicable here as anywhere else. Cunningham cannot over-emphasise its importance. “Trust is a currency that is often ignored by politicians. The short-term gains of saying something popular can be undermined if a politician actively undermines the trust people might have in them. Theresa May’s countless U-turns were popular in their own right but undermined public faith in her.”

He and other Labour pollsters tested messages to make sure they suited Corbyn. The obvious example of this in an Irish context was Labour’ s Tesco advert in 2011.

6. The social media factor.

In the US Trump bypassed mainstream media, using Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. That was also obvious in the UK, where social media certainly mobilised younger voters.

Cunningham explains Labour’s strategy. “The team made a deliberate attempt to focus on TV and ignore news print. On the campaign trail Corbyn met members of the public through walkabouts. He did clips for heavily-regulated TV news bulletins, the Press Association, and local newspapers. The campaign purposely avoided taking the largely hostile national print media with him.

“The focus on TV was also crucial as footage was easily repackaged by supporters on social media. In a world of short attention spans this cut through to unaligned voters that don’t normally pay enormous attention.

Anna Cosgrave makes a similar observation. “When the dominant state broadcaster and newspaper are conservative and aggressive, the online medium is a huge way of getting things shared. We can get visual representation of an occurrence as it’s happening without an opinionated conservative slant.”

However, Bale is not convinced it is the be all and end all. “Just as newspapers used to think they won elections, social media seems to think it can do the same.

“We ought to be a little sceptical about those claims. It is people’s lived experience which makes the difference, how they and their families’ lives are going to be affected.”

7. The generational disconnect.

Younger voters in Britain are more socially liberal but they also more economically liberal – they do not want to pay higher taxes for redistribution despite all of the talk about a fair society,.

The priorities and values of young voters seem more markedly different from their parents – and it is probably more evident in Ireland given the rapid change in society here within a generation.

“My own generation,” says Anna Cosgrave, “is not into getting a mortgage that will leave them bankrupt. They are moving more into social activism and a sustainable society.”

Some of this is fuelled by the abortion referendum campaign. “In the post-marriage referendum landscape that intrinsic link between church and State is not okay.” .

Bale sums up the paradox. “At issue in the election was not so much a state versus market economics argument. For young people it was more to do with social liberalism and cultural identity.”

That chimes with Ireland but, aside from 2015, no political party or movement has fully captured it.

8. Negative campaigning can be counter-productive.

The Conservatives strategy revolved around the fear of a Corbyn government. It backfired. Indeed, his past supportive comment for the IRA were completely lost on younger voters who had no memory of the conflict.

Corbyn’s stock was so low that he easily outperformed. He was positive and engaged, with a manifesto that was horrendously costly but which he was clearly comfortable with.

Says Bale: “One thing to point to is the relative difference with Theresa May. He is an authentic rally-style politician and she is an artificial, protected studio- style politician.”

Meanwhile, there is the simple fact that the Conservatives have been in power for seven years. “The government has been in power for seven years. Real wages have been squeezed. Reaction was bound to set in at some stage.”

That’s a danger for Fine Gael. It has been there for six years, and, new leader notwithstanding, it will struggle to portray itself as an agent of change when voters next go to the polls.

9. Smaller parties got squeezed.

Four out of five British voters voted for the Conservatives or Labour for the first time in two decades. Even in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party squeezed out everybody else.

Ireland does not have a first-past-the-post system and electoral strength is more accurately reflected. That said, if there is consolidation towards parties in Ireland, Independents might lose out.

If the verdict on the Independent Alliance in Government is poor, then there will be a sense that Independents in general are less influential. That could dramatically reverse their gains of recent years.

10. Brexit.

Brexit will be a big issue here but not in the same way as it was in Britain where it polarises opinion. Here, by contrast, there is little real division on the approach.

How Varadkar and his Government handle the negotiations will be key to any hopes they have of surviving after the next election. It’s a bit tricker for the Opposition which has to support and criticise in equal measure.

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