The Irish Times view on the Social Democrats and Labour: time is right to unite centre-left

Are social democratic values best served by two competing parties whose policies are virtually identical?

After a brief opinion poll bounce following the accession of Holly Cairns to the leadership last year, the Social Democrats have settled back into a respectable but hardly earth-shattering position among the gaggle of smaller parties which form part of the contemporary electoral landscape. It would be understandable if delegates attending the party’s annual conference in UCD this weekend were to see their task as gaining an additional percentage point or two to put them ahead of the chasing pack. That could leave the Social Democrats well placed at the next election to retain the six seats they currently hold, with the possibility of some further gains. The party would then be in a relatively strong position should it wish to participate in negotiations on the formation of the next government.

But should that be the limit of its ambitions? Social democracy as a political movement is in retreat in many European countries for a variety of reasons, not least the rise of populism. In Ireland, however, the two parties – Social Democrats and Labour – which describe themselves as social democratic have a combined level of support similar to the 10 per cent baseline on which Labour could depend in the days of the old Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil duopoly.

Much has changed since then. Parts of the socially progressive agenda which the Social Democrats and Labour advocate have been adopted by Fine Gael and, to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil. The two parties also face competition across a fragmented political landscape from the left populism of Sinn Féin and the far-left People Before Profit.

The danger for the two small centre-left parties is that splitting the vote could lead to an election result that is less than the sum of their respective parts, particularly if Sinn Féin succeeds in sweeping up many of the seats it left behind in 2020. That would be regrettable. Social democratic ideas have played an outsized role in advancing social progress and civil rights. The opportunity exists to build on that tradition after the next election.


Labour’s obvious enthusiasm for a merger has never been reciprocated by the Social Democrats, as Cairns makes clear again in an interview in today’s Irish Times. That resistance has historical and personal roots; Cairns’s predecessors in the leadership, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, are both former Labour members, and opposition to policies pursued by Labour in the 2011-2016 government was one of the original drivers for the founding of the Social Democrats. But, with time, as old disagreements fade and old antagonists depart the political stage, the question remains: are the values and objectives of social democracy best served by two competing parties whose policies, positions and principles are virtually identical?