June 2012        

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour—they’re all the same!

What we need is a party of a new type

Many of the readers of Socialist Voice, and even a wider section of society in general, would consider that the degree of policy choices and options taken by the current government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party have been no different from those that the previous Government implemented, especially relating to the current economic crisis. Putting it crudely, there doesn’t seem to be any difference in policy terms between the dominant political parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour.
     What I want to convey to the reader is that this is indeed the case. A term has been attributed to such parties—“cartel party”—first adopted in 1995 by Richard Katz and Peter Mair and a term that I believe people should become more accustomed to using.
     The “cartel party” theory is a development in research on political-party systems that have moved from the original cadre or elite parties into mass parties; then from mass parties they have shifted to catch-all parties. The cartel party is the latest expansion, whereby, according to Blyth and Katz, “this adaptation of the party system type is to form a cartel, in which all participants tacitly agree to restrict policy competition . . . through the externalisation of responsibilities (privatised services; independent central banks; devolution; the EU). It has been supported by an ideational shift towards neo-liberal economics and the associated rhetoric of globalisation.”
     In the Irish case, membership of the EU and the euro and the ratification of various EU treaties, which have taken more power away from national government, can be seen as a clear indicator of externalising policy commitments.
     The three parties in question here (but not exclusively restricted to these) have shown their commitment to the cartel in the light of the forthcoming Permanent Austerity Treaty, their support of a private bank debt that has been burdened on the public’s shoulders, and their dedication to the privatisation of state assets.
     For all the rhetoric that the Labour Party and Fine Gael churned out over the course of the election campaign, it’s certainly clear that it’s just business as usual.
     Restricting policy competition is not the only factor in the cartel party thesis. Another is that parties “downsize constituents’ expectations,” whereby political parties are less vulnerable to being wiped out if they have fewer essential functions to control in government and therefore cannot be held directly responsible for the failure of these functions.
     This is a self-motivated incentive, given that politics is now regarded as a profession rather than a passion. “The result has been to reorient electoral competition towards questions of managerial competence.” Fianna Fáil fell, but only because of their managerial incompetence of the economy; although in retrospect, would or could any other party have avoided the economic crisis?
     I would argue that by adopting the euro, and its being such a pivotal factor in the European crisis (which in Ireland’s case led to an interest rate that was too low for Ireland’s growing economy, with banks throughout Europe were homogenised, in itself leading to the ability of core-country banks to lend recklessly to deregulated and irresponsible banks in peripheral countries), means that any political party in the cartel that was in office could only have steered Ireland in much the same trajectory as Fianna Fáil have done. This, of course, is all hypothetical—but what this has to say about whose interest the state is run for is anything but.
     Following that, if the cartel is made up of a number of political parties, then what is the class basis of these political parties, and how does this reflect the overall class base of the population, and in whose interest is the state then run?
     This writer has undertaken a research paper that seeks to answer just this. In my findings the population and political parties are broken down into three classes by sub-categorising the occupational status of elected TDs over four decades, from 1977 to 2011, and comparing them with CSO census data of the population from 2002 and 2006. The three classes include the (middle to upper) professional class, the farming class, and the (middle to lower) working class.
     The professional class represents those with an ownership, managerial or professional status. The working class represents those who work and sell their labour, up to and including the skilled-labour category. The farming class represents those engaged in farming, fishing, forestry, or agriculture.
     These classes are not meant to rigidly box in certain occupational groups to a certain class but are used merely to differentiate the type of relationship between the owner-worker (class) cleavage and the type of trends that these present. Some of the findings are presented in the three diagrams reproduced.

     It can be shown that in comparing census data on the occupational and class basis of the population with those of the members of the Dáil, political power is unevenly distributed among different classes in society. When this method was used it could be clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of representatives in the Dáil are categorised as the professional class; most if not all parties have close to or above 80 per cent of TDs from this class. Only the working class, who constitute the majority of the working population, have a major deficit in their political representation.
     Framed in the cartel-party theory, the professionalisation of parties and political representation should be viewed as an embodiment of a ruling class in full control of the political decisions and policy choices open to its citizenry—a ruling class that is in the minority in the population.
     The evolution of the cartel party has been a necessary mechanism, in which the ruling class solidifies its political power and, by extension, its economic, social and cultural dominance. The effect that the cartelisation of Irish political parties has had on class representation is most evident when looked at in this light.
     Given this data, what is to be done? Evidently, the working class have to organise politically, but not just on issues or umbrella campaigns or in the guise of “social partnership.” The working class and its allies need to build a mass party to begin to take a majority stake of political representation and, by extension, to steer the trajectory of its economic, political, social and cultural legacy, in its interests. A policy emphasis on providing housing, health, education, social protection and employment, rather than providing a bail-out to the rich and austerity to the poor, is where the majority of the population’s interests lie. I would argue here that this party would need to be based on Lenin’s “party of a new type”—a Marxist party that is the leading and directing force in the development of society.
     The CPI is ideologically situated to be the vehicle of the working class, but because of historical and cultural barriers its growth has been stunted. But with no end to the economic crisis in sight, with continued austerity measures and the encroaching reach of the EU in all things sovereign, can the working class and its allies afford to keep the Communist Party in a stunted position?
     We need to build the people’s resistance, we need to build an alternative, but to do that we need to build the party in the villages, towns and cities of the whole country. Only with this type of representation and organisation will our position in society strengthen.


     Richard Katz and Peter Mair, “Changing models of party organisation and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party,” Party Politics, 1(1) (1995), p. 5–28.
     Mark Blyth and Richard S. Katz, “From catch-all politics to cartelisation: The political economy of the cartel party,” West European Politics, vol. 28, no. 1 (January 2005), p. 33–60.

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