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A Labour-Social Democrats alliance makes political sense. Voters have already worked this out

If the two parties don’t commit to a pact before the general election, voters may reasonably conclude they are not really serious about being in government and having their policies implemented

Ivana Bacik TD, leader of the Labour Party, casting her vote at a polling station on Pleasants Street, Dublin 8. Photograph Conor Ó Mearáin/Collins Photo Agency

The good performance of Labour and – in the local elections anyway – the Social Democrats when the votes were counted this week has led to renewed calls for the parties to merge, to consolidate their strength. This annoys leading Social Democrats – they huff and puff about the question even being asked, though the rationale seems obvious to everyone else.

Anyway, it’s not going to happen, at least not before the next election, so we might as well all stop pestering them about it. Even if there was a desire for it on both sides, the logistics, organisational and personnel issues are sufficiently complex to make it impossible to achieve in a few months.

But what the two parties should think about – and think about now – is a parliamentary alliance of the centre-left after the general election. Going on the local election results, the parties could reasonably hope to challenge for 20 seats in the next (larger) Dáil; maybe more on a good day. Throw in a few left-wing Independents – maybe even the Greens? – and you have a bloc of perhaps 25-30 seats out of 174 in the next Dáil (a majority is 88). That is a substantial parliamentary force, able to wield influence beyond anything the parties could manage individually.

It seems self-evident that the centre-left parties and deputies can achieve more by working together than against each other

It would also put them in a position to negotiate from a position of power participation in the next Government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will almost certainly need help to make the coalition numbers work; in the event of a dramatic Sinn Féin revival to the levels of support of last year, so would Mary Lou McDonald. True, various alliances of Independents might be in the market for coalition-making too. But any party leaders trying to put together a governing majority would much prefer the discipline of a party or group of parties than a loose alliance of Independents.

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Either way, it seems self-evident that the centre-left parties and deputies can achieve more by working together than against each other.

Labour and the Social Democrats: is it time for a conscious coupling?Opens in new window ]

This has clearly dawned on some people. This week, there were calls from Richard Boyd-Barrett and Paul Murphy for some sort of united left front in advance of the general election. In the Dáil, speaking to Taoiseach Simon Harris but really addressing the rest of the Opposition, Murphy advocated for “a clear left alternative” to “end the rule of 100 years of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael”. Earlier, Boyd-Barrett pleaded for a “clear united front from the left”.

I fear this is a bit disingenuous. No alliance will ever be left-wing enough for the lads; no imaginable programme for government is ever going to have as objective number one: overthrow of the capitalist system. They might be correct about left unity. But are they willing to compromise to achieve it? Don’t think so.

No, I think it’s up to Labour and the Social Democrats. And I think that if the two parties don’t commit to doing something like this in advance of the election, voters may reasonably conclude that they are not really serious about being in government and having (at least some of) their policies implemented. And that’s fine – there is a type of politician who doesn’t really want to be in government, but rather is content to pressure from opposition. There just seem to be rather a lot of them in Ireland.

Maybe it’s time for politicians of the centre-left to tell people honestly which kind they are. Harry McGee’s analysis of the counts shows strong transfers between Labour and the Social Democrats (and indeed the Greens). Their voters have already worked all this out.

More generally, the political context in which a whole set of decisions must be taken over the coming weeks has been set by the election results. Government tails are up, no doubt about it; Sinn Féin tails are firmly between their legs. That sets the tone and the political weather for the next while. The atmospherics around Leinster House were palpably different this week.

Fine Gaelers and Fianna Fáilers tempted towards smugness at their rivals’ discomfort would be foolish to conclude that the next election is a done deal

But there was another message in these results: the level of party and political loyalty continues to decline. There was a time, not so long ago, when every party could rely on “their” voters to turn out, and those committed voters formed a large chunk of the electorate. No more. True, there are loyalists still – but they are a much-diminished cohort.

Nowadays, in a time of extreme political volatility, where elections swing one way or another with violent unpredictability, politicians have to work harder for every vote. The campaign is more important than ever.

So Fine Gaelers and Fianna Fáilers tempted towards smugness at their rivals’ discomfort would be foolish to conclude that the next election is a done deal. As argued here before, those who assumed that midterm polls meant the current Government could never be re-elected were mistaken, but those who now assume the opposite are equally so. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

One final point about this week’s elections. The campaign was marred by more incidents of abuse, intimidation and – in some cases – violence than ever before. Candidates in all parties – but especially women, and especially those from migrant backgrounds – were subjected to some horrible abuse.

Some of this is just ignorant invective; that needs to be called out. But some of it, at the more serious end, is against the law. For that, the Garda needs to energetically pursue and prosecute those responsible – and to do it as quickly and as publicly as possible, preferably in the coming weeks. The defence of our democracy requires it.