I'm putting my money on a new political movement


OPINION:Profound crises often trigger new forces. Is this about to happen in the stale wasteland of Irish politics?

ALL OF the opinion polls over the last two years propose that the next government will be comprised of a coalition of the centre-left and the centre-right. Public debate has thus focused on how low the floor of Fianna Fáil support will be; the rise of the left as a force in Irish politics; and the policy differences between Labour and Fine Gael.

The wonderful thing, however, about the absolute assumption of predictability is how vulnerable it is to unpredictability.

Prof Michael Gallagher, Trinity College Dublin, has noted in his blog, www.politicalreform.ie, that not only is confidence in Government low but confidence in the Opposition is not a great deal higher.

The Irish Timespoll of late September, for instance, found that only 39 per cent thought a new government would improve the economy. As Gallagher observes, the “striking absentee from the political scene is (so far, anyway) any new party”.

If Fine Gael and Labour were to get into power, what would the next government look like in age, gender and background? More of the same, according to Dr Adrian Kavanagh and Clare McGing at NUI Maynooth (www.geographyspecialinterestgroup.com).

Fine Gael and Labour have displayed a conservative edge in their selection processes.

Of the 124 candidates selected to date by both parties, only two come from outside the traditional politics gene pool of former or sitting councillors, TDs and MEPs.

Going on current candidate selection processes, Kavanagh believes that the age profile of the next Dáil may in fact be higher than the present Dáil, at 54 years, “especially given the temptation within Fianna Fáil this time to run as few candidates as possible, the bulk of which are likely to be incumbents, leaving little opportunity for new and younger candidates to break through on to the party ticket”.

In terms of gender, McGing’s analysis implies that the under-representation of females and younger people in party candidate selection processes “is not going to change”.

She estimates that just 20 per cent of candidates will be female at the next election. Ireland is ranked 22nd out of the 27 EU members for female representation. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to record greater gender parity in politics than Ireland.

This suggests that the conditions are conducive for an alternative political force to emerge which would tap into the concerns of under-represented sectors of society – an indebted young generation considering emigration, contemplating unemployment or in hock for the rest of their lives through excessive taxation because of the mistakes of a generation born in the middle of the last century.

Just like the 2008 presidential election in the US and last May’s UK election, the next election will be defined by the debate on change verses experience. In both cases, longevity in politics was rejected and regarded as a liability by voters.

This was also a distinctive feature of previous Irish elections with Sinn Féin in 1918, Clann na Poblachta in 1948, the Progressive Democrats in 1987 and Labour in 1992.

After Spain, Ireland has the youngest demographic across the OECD. The potential of this dynamic, deeply angry at a political establishment perceived as out-of-touch, has already found expression in the two Lisbon referendums.

The 2008 Millward Brown IMS poll revealed that the first Lisbon referendum was lost because the key demographic group that opposed the treaty were 25-34-year-olds (59 per cent) and women (56 per cent).

The second Lisbon referendum was won, according to the 2009 eurobarometer poll, because many of the undecided voters ultimately swung in favour of the treaty. Women comprised the majority of the “undecideds” (29 per cent versus 17 per cent of men) and young people (18-24: 27 per cent; 25-39: 32 per cent).

A combination of electoral volatility, a public hungry for change and a political vacuum suggests that a very real possibility exists for a new political movement.

Hypothetically, what would it look like? Well, it would probably be comprised of young candidates, particularly female, from outside conventional political structures but very likely to be well-known within Irish public life.

What alternative vision would such a new movement have?

It would be based on three platforms of radical and transformative change, focusing on fundamental questions of: governance (such as political reform); a redefinition of values; and most significantly, a complete revaluation of orthodox economic thinking.

The public mood at present would indicate that there is an appetite for extraordinary measures such as a debt-for-equity swap, where subordinated debt holders take financial responsibility for the risks they made.

How radical!

In his RTÉ radio Morning Irelandinterview at the end of November, Ajai Chopra, the International Monetary Fund chief of mission, implied that the door was open for such an option, despite the European Central Bank (ECB) firmly closing it.

As Morgan Kelly wrote in his Irish Times article of November 8th, “The next act of the crisis will rehearse the same themes of bad loans and foreign debt . . .

“This time the bad loans will be mortgages, and the foreign creditor who cannot be repaid is the ECB. In consequence, the second act promises to be a good deal more traumatic than the first.”

This is exactly what is happening in Iceland right now as the country braces itself for massive mortgage defaults.

In a country of only 320,000 inhabitants, up to 40,000 of them may now lose their homes. This a lesson not lost on Alan Dukes who suggested last week that the bailout “is not going to be enough” for those very reasons.

With less than 90 days to an election, I would put money on the emergence of a new political movement, if I was a betting woman.

Elaine Byrne is an adjunct lecturer in politics in Trinity College Dublin

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