Time for the Left to Get on Message

Ireland's parties of the left are in a prime position to provide an alternative to the same old politics that have dominated the state for decades.

Starry Plough

A letter writer in the Irish Times claims to put “Enda Kenny” into a WhatsApp message, only for autocorrect to offer “Endangered” as an alternative. “Fine Gael slips to eight percentage points behind Fianna Fáil” says the Sunday World. Other news outlets print similar headlines. The next general election is not due until 2021, but Mr Kenny’s dire poll numbers are bringing his leadership to an end.

The election as a horse race is a popular media trope. Some journalists are so obsessed with polling drama that they often forget to report on substantial issues, like the actual implications of the policy proposals coming from various sides. What voters are thinking is what passes for news, rather than information that would actually help them make an informed decision.

Two-party systems lend themselves to this kind of sensationalism, but Ireland has a parliamentary system based on proportional representation, meaning that votes for third, fourth or fifth parties all count since there is a chance that said parties could become part of a coalition.

Ireland has had nothing but coalition governments since 1989, and since the state’s inception every one has been led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. This has created the illusion of a political pendulum swinging from one side to another, but in truth these are two broadly center-right parties that have taken turns at the helm, while parties of the left have scarcely gotten a look-in beyond acting as smaller partners in government. In most countries the power swings between left and right, but in Ireland the pendulum has never really swung very far to the left.

A conservative orthodoxy of low corporate taxes and business-friendly light-touch regulation has taken hold, while voters have been conditioned into thinking that there is no alternative to this on pain of losing so much foreign investment. Accepting this world view would be a mistake.

So if the proportional representation system offers greater choice, what else is on offer?

Independent candidates, in theory, present a chance to challenge the ruling order, but in practice they have seldom produced anything of value. The sight of a scruffy independent berating the ministers in suits may feel satisfying, but independents are unlikely to have a seat in government, to say nothing of the cabinet. Opposition is easier than governing, and acting as an individual is a lot easier than toeing the party line. Like it or not, it is the parties who form governments and ultimately get things done.

Sinn Fein (third in the polls) puts the peace process and Irish unity front and center, with an emphasis on social justice, progressive taxation (cuts to lower earners and hikes for higher earners), and increased spending on public services.

Labour (a distant fourth in the polls) prioritizes social justice, progressive taxation, increased spending on public services, support for the peace process, and an all-Island economy.

There is an opportunity for left-leaning parties to present an alternative to the conservative duopoly. Labour has pedigree in government, from as far back as the Dick Spring era when they propped up the Fianna Fail-led government of Albert Reynolds. In pure left-versus-right policy terms, Labour’s heart beats closer to Sinn Fein. They could be well advised to bring their rhetorical guns to bear on the two conservative parties and tar them with the same brush. One simple trick could be to adopt a Unionist tactic from the 1990s when Sinn Fein were branded as one and the same as the Provisional IRA. Unionists never said the words “Sinn Fein” without “IRA” attached, nor vice versa. The “IRA-Sinn Fein” rhetoric was effective. Labour and Sinn Fein could brief their members to never refer to Fianna Fail without also attaching Fine Gael and vice versa. “Fianna Fail-Fine Gael” should become the new collective term for the two parties who have held their grip on power since the state’s birth.

On top of that, the parties of the left should present an alternative to the country’s current business model. Low corporate taxes were a good way of building a technology industry, but this incentive has outlived its usefulness and is no longer sustainable. Giving a permanent tax holiday to wealthy corporations but taxing the income of the people working for them is not bringing in enough revenue to fund the state. If the 12.5 percent corporate tax rate were raised as high as 14 percent, the country would not budge in the table of EU corporate taxes and would remain competitive with Germany. Moreover, there is still plenty of scope for ending sweetheart deals with individual companies and closing tax loopholes to get companies to pay an effective rate as high as 12.5 percent.

If the British go through with pressing the self-destruct Brexit button then Ireland will become the only English-speaking country in the trading bloc. The state would remain a perfectly attractive location for investors, and access to it does not have to be given away at bargain basement tax rates like a cheap knock-off item in a Wal-Mart store.

This is a perfectly plausible alternative to the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael narrative. The “investors will flee the country” message can be dismissed as scaremongering.

If Labour and Sinn Fein were to get on a consistent message, they could form a credible pairing in government. Some voters on the left may have a hard time giving their first preferences to Sinn Fein, but the party has been involved in conventional politics for long enough to deserve serious consideration at least as a coalition partner. Southern politicians who support the northern peace process cannot rightly argue that historic ties to the IRA preclude them from government in the south while simultaneously supporting the power-sharing institutions in the North in which Sinn Fein are a senior partner.

Voters across the western world are crying out for an alternative. The Irish left deserves a chance to provide it.