Rise of the Others - The Irish Times
But marked by whom - RTÉ and the Irish Times? The official count and ballot papers usually describe candidates as ‘non-party’, if they’re not part of a registered formation, so one could say that ‘Independents/Others’ is in effect a media fiction. In which it serves a purpose - as in the quasi-scientific world of opinion polling and politics studies departments - of denoting actors too numerous and small to be worthy of individual attention. Of course, their electoral success will demand more regard from now on; but not perhaps in the way people think.
For a start, the three groupings above won 30 seats between them (14 each to PBP and the AAA, and 12 for the Green Party), and got a quarter of the vote in the European election for the Dublin constituency, the largest share going to the Green Party candidate (with a further 4% for their candidate in the South constituency). A further five seats in the local elections went to even smaller groupings such as United Left, Workers’ and Unemployed Action Group, and Republican Sinn Féin.
However, those numbers are dwarfed by the 193 ‘independent’ candidates elected, who received just over 23% of the votes as a group (both successful and unsuccessful) compared to 5-6% for the smaller parties. That is, depending on whether you measure it by seats or vote share, there are 5 or 6 times as many ‘independents’ as there are ‘others’. In the European elections, with three independent candidates elected (Nessa Childers, Marian Harkin and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan) out of eleven seats, 19.8% of first preference votes went to independents compared to 10.8% for the smaller groupings (mostly in Dublin), with none elected.
So while there’s a call for the AAA and PBP formations to be listed separately in the opinion polls, as the Greens have tended to have been, with concentrated urban support they won’t show up in national polling as much more than 2-3%, at most (where the Socialist Party, the core of the AAA, did appear, it was on 1%). More importantly, the ‘independents’ category hides a large variety of political views and past affiliations, which at least someone is trying to collate (and as Noel Whelan picked up in the Irish Times). Independents have always been a feature of Irish political life - in a large part due to PR-STV, which means that they can get elected individually - and a category that seems to have grown along with the rest, if not in fact outstripping them, is ex-party independents. In other words, it is not so much a shift in the content of politics but in its form.
To this end the article brings in the thesis of political scientist Peter Mair, that
"[f]or modern democracy to work … we need parties, and when they no longer play their proper role, “democracy itself is at stake”. But the first hurdle for parties is the perception in Europe that they’re all the same."
Oddly, it is then argued that in the US “distinct ideologies have led to polarisation and the rise of partisanship. So there’s a problem when they do and a problem when they don’t”. Not only might one query the actual divergence of ideologies between the two US parties, but the US system offers individual representatives much more freedom compared to the parliamentary party whip (although they have been using that freedom in a more polarised fashion); the idea seems to be parties - preferably more than two, of course - good, partisanship bad.
Ideally, in this model, diverse parties should be able to work together constructively to represent different interests and thus create stable consensual government. But the Irish (and lately, UK) experience is that when dominant conservative parties bring smaller, ostensibly more progressive parties into coalitions of austerity, the resultant compromises in favour of the dominant partner and of the perceived exigencies of the situation rebound most significantly on the latter:
"citizens who vote for parties always get coalitions, with the inevitable consequence of watered-down programmes amid shouts of “traitors” and “scum”, as seen in loathsome confrontations in this campaign."
It was certainly unpleasant, from what I saw of it (the particular candidate, unlike many of their party colleagues, was elected in the end) but ‘loathsome’ seems too strong a word to describe “citizens” responding to the bind of austerity politics and seeking someone to blame (better politicians than immigrants, no?). That’s not to say I condone or even fully agree with the approach - I don’t think the motives for Labour’s participation in government are as easily understandable as the popular reading makes out, though I’m not amongst those worst affected by their cuts - but to ask what is the effective alternative?
Another of Mair’s ideas is that technocracy and populism, typically seen as cause and effect in Europe, are in fact two sides of the one coin. So that:
"The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate."
It’s a caricature of both positions: any good technocrat will tell you they’re merely applying evidence-based policy-making, which can of course propose multiple solutions with various costs and benefits and ultimately it is still a political decision which particular approach and balance of attributes (derived, ultimately, from a social vision) is pursued; a ‘populist’ is usually just someone who gives voice to a section of the population outside of the dominant economic and political class - even if that voice is never wholly representative, it challenges the notion of ‘debate’ being had and its pre-programmed, ideological constraints (which are, in turn, those which constrain ‘evidence-based’ policy).
Indeed, part of the challenge posed by this sweeping new wave of ‘Others’ (such an ideologically loaded phrase) is to representation itself, as explained in this translated post on the Spanish Podemos movement (the name derives from the Spanish ‘we can’, Obama fans):
"All this would have been, and will be totally impossible with a classic party of the left. The party, as an institutional form, is strictly an ideological state apparatus and a political state apparatus (Althusser). Even when it exercises functions of representation for the exploited and oppressed sectors of society, a party remains part of a “political game” that reproduces existing social relations and legitimises them. To avoid this and to generate an authentic process of occupying the institutions, and of representation in general by social movements and the common citizenry, it is necessary for the ‘representatives’ not to represent, but to act within the institutions as appendices of the social majority that is resisting. The articulation of circles and ideologico-representative apparatuses in competition with those of the State and the dominant social sectors permits the effective neutralisation of the repressive and reproductive functions of the social order exercised by representation."
For now, the two left ‘alliances’ in Ireland are grouped around classic left/Trotskyist parties, the SP and SWP; the independents appear to remain the disparate group they have always been. The tightly-knit organisation of Sinn Féin, with its ‘populist’ economic approach, have been the real electoral winners, although one suspects (and, somewhat unkindly, hopes) that their fate would be the same as all the previous government parties - that is, unless they are not too canny for that. All the political correspondents have been quoting Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ to the effect that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”; but none I’ve seen question the following line, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”; in context it’s negative, of course, but what if “mere anarchy” is something we need just a little bit of?