A POPULAR TOPIC of conversation amongst those working in politics and the media is whether or not Irish politics is about to witness the birth of a new political party. The perceived wisdom is that Irish politics is ripe for a new party to shake up the old order parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein. Those who advocate for a new party point to the high percentage of ‘don’t knows’ cited in opinion polls as a sign that the public want a new political party.
The polls illustrate that there is a large section of the electorate that is either undecided when it comes to which party to vote for or already of a mind not to vote for any of the parties currently on offer. While public dissatisfaction offers fertile ground for any new party it does not mean that one will be created or guarantee any new party longevity or success. If any new party new is to succeed it would need substantial financial backing and a large amount of high profile candidates. It would also need serious policy proposals and a gap in the electorate to target. One of the most widespread assumptions is that there is a ‘gap in the market’ which is just waiting to be filled. Does such a gap exist and if so where on the political spectrum does it exist?
‘The ‘right’ gap in the market’
The assumption is widespread but where is this gap? Many who talk about the gap in the political market point to some prime real estate to the right of Fine Gael on the political spectrum? Fine Gael however is a very different party to the one Garret Fitzgerald led. The 2011 intake, led by a younger generation of TDs such as Brendan Griffen, Sean Conlan and Eoghan Murphy have contributed to remaking Fine Gael as a fiscally conservative party. Lucinda Creighton and the other rebels from Fine Gael that formed the Reform Alliance group have sparked talk of a new party but who would they appeal to?
Fine Gael voters? Why would traditional Fine Gael voters support a Reform Alliance Party if they are largely echoing what Fine Gael is saying? Indeed, Junior Minister Brian Hayes recently talked about easing the burden of taxation on working people and we are likely to see the Government introduce tax cuts in the run up the next general election. Just last week Eoghan Murphy reiterated his call for bigger cutbacks in public expenditure and has spoken before of his desire to see fiscal consolidation continue. Restraining public expenditure and cutting taxes are among the first principles of fiscal conservatism. It is therefore hard to understand those who argue that a gap exists to the right of a fiscally conservative Fine Gael party who are already espousing these values. Fine Gael would undoubtedly lose some voters to any new party of the right but it is hard to see it haemorrhaging voters to any new right wing party.
Fianna Fáil voters would run a mile from a new Reform Alliance party fearing that any party led by Lucinda Creighton or Declan Ganley would always put Fine Gael in Government should it ever hold the balance of power. People of a centre left/left wing persuasion would for obvious policy reasons be unimpressed by any new party of the right.
Room on the left?
So if political space on the right is currently crowded is there room for a new party of the left? The prospects for a new party of the left are not much better. Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin’s leadership has taken a step to the left. The party’s pre budget submissions included an increase in the universal social charge for those earning over €100,000 and a tax on sugary foods. These are all measures designed to curry favour with disillusioned Labour voters. Fianna Fáil’s electoral recovery means that the path to winning seats is even more crowded for any new centre left/left wing party. Labour while sinking rapidly in the polls is a well-established party of the left that will not disappear entirely from the political landscape.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to any new party of the left is Sinn Fein. The party is actively promoting younger candidates such as Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire who are untainted by ‘the troubles’ to run in the local elections in 2014. The party is building a solid support bases amongst those who are deeply dissatisfied with politics. Indeed, a post Gerry Adams Sinn Fein would also be more appealing to socially liberal middle class voters that currently find it difficult to vote for a party led by Gerry Adams. When you consider all these factors and you add Joe Higgins, People before Profit and independent left-wing candidates into the mix then it becomes clear that any new party of the left is unrealistic.
While a new party of either ideological hue is unlikely, the established parties would do well to listen to the large number of people who are dissatisfied with the political process. Fail to do so and the space for a new party may widen and the cry for new politics may become too loud for those currently sitting on the side-lines to ignore.