Pat Leahy: the left prefers the purity of opposition to the compromises of power

A parliamentary bloc of 20-25 social democratic TDs would be at the centre of a bidding war between Martin and Varadkar, and could name its price

Judged on activity, visibility and participation, our democracy is in pretty good health as we approach the elections in three weeks’ time. There is scarcely a lamppost unadorned by the beauteous visages of our would-be representatives. The merciless hordes of canvassers knock on doors and stuff letterboxes. Somewhere in the region of 1,700 candidates will contest the local elections when the lists of candidates are finalised.

In the European elections the long lists of candidates attest to the numbers of people willing to have a go, most in the knowledge that they will not be elected but because they want to put their ideas out there and contribute to the process. Fair play to them – representative democracy doesn’t work without politicians prepared to have a go.

At this early stage, looking at candidate lists and taking early soundings around the country, I note two important points: the strength of the two big parties and the fractured nature of the opposition to them. In particular, it’s hard to escape noticing how the fissiparous nature of the Irish left facilitates the continuing dominance of the big two.

All big parties are coalitions, and the two civil war parties are no exceptions.

Fianna Fáil is home to rural conservatives, urban liberals and all shades in between. Economically, the party has swung between right and left, exhibiting over the years a fluid, chameleon identity. It reached its apogee under Bertie Ahern. He ran governments that were both the most right-wing (tax cuts, soft-touch regulation, business-friendly) and simultaneously the most left-wing (huge public spending increases, massive expansion of the public sector, huge public investment) in the country’s history. Go figure, as they say.

Ahern’s successor, Micheál Martin, is by instinct an old social democrat of the Brian Lenihan senior, Donogh O’Malley and Sean Lemass tradition. He leads a party that is centrist, and capable of tacking either way.

Fine Gael has led some of Ireland’s most conservative and some of Ireland’s most liberal governments. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was a natural young conservative before a period in government moved him towards the centre, as it does most politicians.

Paschal Donohoe, the second most powerful person in the Government, would have been at home in the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Big two

Outside the big two – and leaving aside Sinn Féin, in a populist, leftist, nationalist category of its own, and still working out its political future after the Northern conflict – there is a significant centre-left, social democrat constituency. But it is hopelessly fractured.

Look at the candidate lists, where you’ll see several candidates trying to take votes off each other who would in most European countries – and certainly in the UK – be in the same party.

Even take this question narrowly: what, exactly, is the difference between the Labour Party and the Social Democrats apart from the fact that they cannot get along together at a personal level?

The current Dáil has about 20 members of small parties or Independents that would, I think, be members of the same broad centre-left party in most countries. That excludes the radical left parties and associated Independents, who wouldn’t be up for an alliance, and the Greens, who definitely would.

Imagine how the parliamentary arithmetic would be transformed if they worked together to a coherent agenda in a centre-left alliance formed after the next election.

And parliamentary arithmetic begets government. The colour of the next government will be decided by a handful of seats dividing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

A parliamentary bloc of 20-25 social democratic – or maybe red-green – TDs would be a minority partner in a coalition, but they would wield enormous influence over the policies of the next administration. They would be able to write chunks of its programme for government. They would at the centre of a bidding war between Martin and Varadkar, and they could name their price.

So why not?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that they are just not serious enough about achieving their political goals.

Coalition-building

It is not just that the big parties of the centre and centre-right are more interested in power (though they certainly are), it is that the parties and individuals on the left are not sufficiently interested in it. They prefer principled, pristine opposition without compromise to the messy and uncomfortable accommodations of coalition-building and power-wielding.

They prefer talking to doing. They are content to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If power is impossible without compromise and personal sacrifice, they prefer the empty dance of politics without the prospect of power.

None of this comprises an astoundingly novel observation. But it is especially relevant at election time. Many – in fact, nearly all – the people on the left agree. And most of them throw their hands in the air and say: sure, what can we do?

Why wouldn’t he agree to join a broad left alliance, I asked of a Leinster House observer about one particular TD this week.

“Sure, I think he’s happy enough where he is,” was the reply.

That’s about the size of it, alright. As long as he’s happy.

It’s a curious way of doing politics all the same.