Why can’t Renua and the Social Democrats make the breakthrough?

Published in the Sunday Business Post 13 September 2015

Why can’t the new political parties make the breakthrough?

What do we want? A new political party! When do we want it? Now! So went the refrain in Irish public life since the troika took control of Irish decision making in 2010. It was assumed that the answer to the failure of establishment politics was the establishment of new political parties.

Political polls have consistently shown that almost a third of the electorate are prepared to vote for Independents or Others. Yet, the formation of Renua and the Social Democrats has failed to make any indelible impact. Both parties will justifiably argue it is still early days and that they are on a steep organisational curve without the same access to state funding as Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail or Labour. Nonetheless, Renua and the Social Democrats have only managed to capture less than five per cent of a vote which is actively seeking an alternative. Why?

The answer is twofold, with a domestic and international context.

Firstly, Renua and the Social Democrats do not represent radically new political choices for Irish voters. Although both parties have scorned attempts to ideologically label their initiatives, they are essentially reigniting the embers of pervious political enterprises. Renua and the Social Democrats and wearing the clothes of the Progressive Democrats and the Democratic Left and the sooner they embrace this fact, the sooner voters will understand what they actually are.

Instead, there is the attempt to be everything to everyone, an insistence that they are neither left nor right but a new politics where both ideologies can “coexist.” The words “inventive socialism” have been used, whatever that means.

Renua’s core beliefs of “equalitarianism, equality of opportunity and social solidarity” are not markedly distinct from the Social Democrats core principles of “progress, equality, democracy and sustainability.” Relief! A political party comprised of elected parliamentarians believes in democracy!

There was some recognition of the need to be ideologically distinct at the Renua think-in at Wood Quay last week. Declan Ganley’s urgings about a flat tax had echoes of Rand Paul’s central platform idea in his race for the Republican nomination in the US Presidential election. A flat tax seeks to tax household income at a uniform rate irrespective of income level. In theory, it eliminates complexity, seeking instead to create a single rate of income tax where most allowances are scrapped.

Renua have yet to reveal their taxation proposals but Ganley’s proposals were warmly received. Just as the PD’s identity gradually formed around a low-tax, pro-business environment, perhaps Renua is also seeking to covet this same ground.

There was some frustration at the Renua think-in about the failure to make a breakthrough. Despite a 44 page policy document which accompanied their launch last March and the eight detailed policy papers published in the last six months, the public remain largely confused as to what exactly Renua stand for apart from standing against Enda Kenny.

Therein lie Renua’s difficulties. A party which needs big ideas to capture the public’s attention instead of worthy policy documents. A party which has yet to shake off the bitterness which gave birth to it.

The reasons Renua and the Social Democrats have struggled to make a breakthrough are the same reasons why new political parties have made a breakthrough in Spain and Greece.

The radical left leaning Podemos is now the second largest political party in Spain. Although founded only last year, Podemos is expected to win large swaths of the vote in the Spanish general election this December. The leader of Podemos is Pablo Iglesias Turrión, a former politics lecturer at the University of Madrid.

In Italy, the Five Star Movement secured almost a quarter of the vote in the 2013 Italian elections. Beppe Grillo, a well-known Italian comedian, leads the anti-establishment, populist and Eurosceptic party founded in 2009.

Many of the new political parties in Europe have come from outside politics rather than from inside the system. Lucinda Creighton, Billy Timmins, Paul Bradford and Terence Flanagan ran the last election under the Fine Gael banner. Roisin Shortall was a Minister of State for Labour. Stephen Donnelly and Catherine Murphy were Independent TDs.

Renua and the Social Democrats will argue that their list of formative candidates is growing. There may well be an iceberg effect where internal organisation and announcements of future candidates will surprise observers who focus only on what they see above the surface, in the public glare.

Yet both entities have struggled in the polls. This makes it difficult to convince potential candidates to swap the thirty per cent Independent what-ever-you-are-having-yourself vote for a party that currently only offers 2 per cent.

Maybe there is something deeper afoot.

Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for the UK Labour party and Donald Trump’s election campaign are both rooted in anti-establishment sentiment. Many of the new political initiatives across Europe are essentially angry with an establishment they believe to be anti-democratic. For instance, the Troika divested the decision making abilities from the governments of Greece, Portugal and Spain. The European Central Bank, not national Central Banks, control banking policies.

The late Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist of international acclaim, wrote a prophetic book, Ruling the Void, which was published posthumously in 2013. The opening paragraph is stark:

“The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

Maybe. Or maybe Renua and the Social Democrats have to go for broke with bold ideas that wakes us out of our boring consensus.

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