October 2013        

There is an alternative

Part 1


The wiping out of Fianna Fáil at the last general election would seem to have put an end to its particular reign in government for at least the foreseeable future. But, lo and behold, that same party, which all but bankrupted this state, resulting in a new wave of mass emigration, has now emerged as a serious contender for forming part of a Government at the next general election.
     The latest REDC opinion poll (15 September) puts Fianna Fáil in second place, after Fine Gael. The results are: Fine Gael, 27 per cent (down 1 point), Fianna Fáil, 23 (up 1 point), Sinn Féin, 17 (no change), Labour Party, 10 (down 2 points), Green Party, 4 (up 2 points), independents and others, 19 (no change).
     One would seriously have to question whether the Irish people have been struck with a serious case of Stockholm syndrome! It’s one thing having to listen to Mícheál Martin and the other Fianna Fáil lackeys spewing their hypocritical opposition to the present Dáil, but to think that after only one general election it might be in a position to get back into government . . . If this isn’t a tragedy it certainly is a farce!
     Just how has Fianna Fáil been able to slowly gain ground that it should never be allowed to gain back? I have previously written about political parties and the historical trends of parties and party systems. The most up-to-date literature on political parties holds that party systems in the United States and Europe (Ireland included) have been “cartelised,” to stop governments intervening in market relations: in other words, competition between parties on policy choice no longer exits; it is only on the effective management of the economy that parties compete against each other. What has resulted in the Irish case is best described by the CPI’s term “internal troika” for Fine Gael, the Labour Party, and Fianna Fáil.
     There are four major criteria of the cartelisation process:
     (1) Decreasing dependence on grass-roots funding, in favour of funds raised by central government.
     (2) Organisational changes designed to free central party leaders from control by active elements of the party on the ground (professionalisation).
     (3) Policy convergence among parties, to (a) reduce expectations and (b) free parties from traditional policy responsibilities and constituencies, increasing the institutional externalisation of such commitments. Rhetorical issues like “global competitiveness” are used to play down traditional voters’ expectations.
     (4) An ideology of managerial competence to replace the various ideologies of principle as the basis for choice among parties.
     With a lack of policy differentiation, the risk of a party being wiped out is much less likely. Parties insulate themselves within the cartel, which guarantees (virtually) that they will always have a chance to govern as long as they can “stay in the race.”
     In other words, this convergence towards an ideology of management and the professionalising of politics means essentially that whatever party is in power, policies will fundamentally remain the same. When a party is removed from office because of bad management, as Fianna Fáil was, it must rebrand itself so as to distance itself from the old guard; then, given enough time in opposition, it can regain its support, allowing it the opportunity to get back into government.
     Fianna Fáil’s position in the REDC opinion poll should not surprise us if we give credence the cartel party system to Ireland.
     Does this mean that every party is within the cartel? Not exactly. There are, of course, substitutes and minority parties in opposition today that do propose a different policy agenda. We could include Sinn Féin, the Green Party, independents, and various socialist parties. The CPI would also be a substitute but is not represented in Dáil Éireann.
     The question, however, is whether such groups can be principled enough to stay out of the cartel if they come into power.
     In the case of the Green Party—well, history would reveal that it left its core principles outside the Dáil gates as soon as it entered government, so we can confidently say No.
     In the case of independents, they cannot form a block government, as they come in all shades of the left political spectrum—so their main goal will be to work for their constituents and to make deals that maximise the chances of their return to power. Some may remain principled (Tony Gregory being a case in point); however, they are not large enough to compete against the cartel.
     So we are left with Sinn Féin and the left block, which have not been in power yet, so the question is, Can they be relied upon?
     Sinn Féin, for its part, seems to be taking every opportunity, both in the Dáil and also at every demonstration attended, to twist the knife in the Labour Party’s vulnerable and, it has to be said, shameful reign in government. It is smart politics by Sinn Féin, trying to gain the electoral support of disenchanted Labour voters. Nevertheless, while it has policy positions that most people on the left would favour (the same could be said of the Labour Party if you read its policy statements before the election), having these as policies while in opposition is one thing, implementing them while in government is a totally different thing—something the Labour Party is finding out to its cost.
     The policy choices that would be considered a substitute would necessarily contradict those on offer by cartel parties, i.e. expansive public services, social security, social housing, universal health care, free education, full employment, and with the state itself a large supplier of all these services, all of which to a greater or lesser extent are advocated by Sinn Féin.
     There is one fundamental problem in implementing such policies, and that is that the rules and the ruling body governing such policies don’t allow them! Put simply, EU law makes it illegal for European states to move in such a direction.
     Another major problem in implementing such policies would mean that large amounts of state funding would be needed—i.e. the tax base and government revenue would need to expand. Working people cannot afford the taxes they pay now, never mind a substantial increase, so inevitably the bulk of the deficit would need to be made up from the business and industrial sectors. This would necessitate industry signing up to this arrangement with a government in power; but given the fact that industry is run on a neo-liberal economic framework, with maximising profit as the motive, we can only conclude that with the present system these types of policy choice are an impossibility for any party, because the whole reason for the emergence of the cartelisation of parties was to formally stop governments from interfering in market relations: our sovereign ability to adopt such policies is superseded by EU law!

■ Part 2 will be published in November.

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