‘The SocDems are to Trump what Renua was to Hillary Clinton’

Analysis from Harry McGee on the Social Democrats party and its future

Catherine Murphy TD and Roisín Shorthall TD  at the Social Democrats inaugural National Conference in Dublin on Saturday.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Catherine Murphy TD and Roisín Shorthall TD at the Social Democrats inaugural National Conference in Dublin on Saturday.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

For comparison purposes, a good place to start with the Social Democrats would be Donald Trump.

Before its supporters start choking on their flat whites, it’s an obvious truism that the new party and the US president-elect are poles apart on virtually every screed of policy and outlook.

But they are alike in one aspect at least.

And it is this.

The SocDems are to Trump what Renua was to Hillary Clinton.

When the latter political party was being formed they spent months in the planning, making sure they got everything right, leaving nothing to chance. As a purely technical exercise, it was pure Hillary — an impressive demonstration of how to get all your ducks in a row.

Unfortunately as events transported, all ended up being shooting ducks.

The plan for the Social Democrats, on the other hand, was almost drafted on the back of an envelope. As these things go, the formation of the party was ad hoc.

Behind its rather catchy purple colour scheme, there was little other than a sense of common purpose among the three Independent TDs who formed the party.

And it went about things in a slightly cack-handed way. Three co-leaders, for example, could never work, its detractors said. Whatever, it captured a little of the zeitgeist in the run-up to the general election. It was also helped by a terrific performance by Stephen Donnelly during an RTÉ’s leaders debate.

The party returned only its three TDs and made no gains. And since then one of the three, Donnelly, has left the party — with more than tincture of bitterness. On the fact of it, it could all have been seen as a zero sum game.

Was it just a temporary phenomenon, a will o’ the wisp?

Not quite. Despite not returning new TDs, the party did get over the 2 per cent figure of support nationally, allowing it access to State funding. A few of its younger recruits got within a hair’s breadth of winning seats, Gary Gannon in particular.

There were impressive performance from others, notably Anne Marie McNally in Dublin Mid-West, Glenna Lynch in Dublin Bay South; Niall Ó’ Tuathail in Galway West, and Sarah Jane Hennelly in Limerick city.

Parlaying all of that into a sustainable party — distinct enough, well-supported enough — is another proposition.

Too many parties in the past have promised to break moulds, only to be broken themselves once the initial infatuation had worn thin.

The party’s first national convention this weekend suggests its long-term viability.

It has recruited over 1,000 members and has branch structures in 20 constituencies, with a present in about eight more.

There is certainly ambition there. Over 500 people have attended the Dublin Convention Centre during the day-long event.

The age profile is definitely younger and there seems to be a definite sense of common purpose.

As Ann Marie McNally pointed out Saturday morning, the party has been like an iceberg until now.

The public have been aware of only the tip (its two TDs) while a large group of people have been beavering away in the background putting all the building blocks together.

Some of it has been the tedious technical stuff needed to give structure — moving its supporters into a membership base and drawing up a constitution for the party, which was passed by a large majority on Saturday.

It has been ambitious in other ways. It has landed the highly-rated Brian Sheehan, formerly of GLEN, as general secretary and forewent an anonymous suburban hotel in favour of the ritzy convention centre — taking a punt that it would get the numbers. Which it has.

The party’s policies don’t differ massively from other centre-left parties (and most mainstream parties seem to be crowding into that particular space at present).

Its two leaders, Róisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy, were both highly regarded and have placed huge emphasis on integrity and consistency.

Unmistakably liberal on social issues, the party has placed huge emphasis on health, on education and on housing.

It says it will eschew quick fixes and promises to provide practical, do-able solutions and proper long-term strategies. It also wants to show that it will live up to its promises.

As examples, it offers its stance on not reducing the tax base (ie no tax cuts) during the general election, and Shortall’s chairing of the all-party committee on long-term strategies for the health service.

“There are examples of that in the Nordic countries were they concentrate on good quality public services and honest politics. We want a decent politics for a decent society,” she said.

In an ideal world, the next election the party would fight would be a local election, where it would have an opportunity to blood some of its candidates. But it’s likely the next election will be a general election, which might not bring all the gains it might otherwise expect.

There are other questions that need to be settled. Will its joint leadership model work into the future? Certainly, the Constitution provides for a single leader (the membership will decide on the leader).

The other big question is, will the Social Democrats go into a coalition? It quickly bowed out after February and Shortall indicated it may still be too early in its existence to be in government after the next election. That argument might hold if the general picture after the next general election is as fluid and indecisive as it was last February.

So bigly decisions to be made, as the Donald might say.

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