Above: Corbyn speaking at a leadership election rally to his supporters in August 2016. Photo by paulnew. Source: Flickr.
With the recent renewal of the Labour Party in the UK reigniting the politics of hope, Patrick McCusker takes a look at how the Irish political system has perfected its barrier against the influence of the grassroots.
The almost inevitable rise of Leo Varadkar to the office of Taoiseach was understandably overshadowed within a fortnight by events in the UK. Suprisingly for some, Jeremy Corbyn defied all but the most blindly optimistic prediction by not only avoiding disaster, but increasing Labour’s seat count by 30 and the share of the popular vote by 9.6%. Not forgetting also, being largely credited for inspiring an unprecedented surge in turnout amongst under-25s.
This was particularly impressive given his campaign had largely been waged in spite of his parliamentary party’s opposition to his leadership in a fascinating inversion of Leo Varadkar’s situation. Whereas Corbyn thrived on the support of the party membership to the degree of being effectively able to run against the parliamentary party on three occasions in three years with greater success on each occasion, Varadkar was preferred to Simon Coveney by only a third of his party’s grassroots but an overwhelming majority of his fellow TDs. The grassroots constitute the activists and members upon whose time and enthusiasm any future Varadkar campaigns will depend.
Despite the fact that their vote share in the last election fell below 50% for the first time, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil remained the only Irish political parties with the geographical spread, means and support to field sufficient candidates to form a majority government in even the best-case scenario. This testifies to both the extent and depth of their organisation, but also to the massive uphill struggle that running against them entails. Even at the height of its popularity in 1992 or 2011, the Irish Labour Party neglected to field sufficient candidates to form an outright majority.
This makes the democratic deficit inherent to the internal electoral and selection structures which both major Irish parties have particularly egregious. Whereas both the British Labour and Conservative parties allow for the membership at large to choose the party leader (albeit with some restrictions), to say nothing of the American system’s open primaries being arguably more entertaining and engaging than the general election itself, both of the main Irish parties favour electoral college systems which allow for the election of a new leader without a single grassroots vote.
Fianna Fáil’s is fairer than Fine Gael’s, but only by a question of degree – the most Fine Gael’s grassroots can ever realistically hope to achieve at a 25% weighting of the overall vote is to act as a tiebreaker should TDs and councillors fail to reach a consensus or compromise. Whereas Fianna Fáil’s slightly larger number of 45% can still be overcome should elected representatives unite behind a candidate. The unfortunate by-product of this is that Ireland has been left with a political class dominated by two parties who almost live in fear of what their own supporters might prefer, much like the British Labour Party in 2015.
This is compounded by candidate selection procedures which see both parties interfere with selection in the party interest regardless of the wishes of members – how often have people found themselves with a local councillor who barely knows where their ward is, let alone what keeps residents up at night? There is no risk of a sudden upsurge in young voters here when our political establishment were unwilling to change polling days to Friday to encourage students to vote until very recently, let alone put forward a platform that acknowledges their concerns.
The tragedy of this is that the insurgencies on both left and right which have rejuventated political parties in the US and UK are thereby impossible here – even the most vocal and enthusiastic grassroots movement can’t mount a proper challenge against the party hierarchy. A candidate like Corbyn capable of inspiring 35,000 new members (which is the estimated entirety of Fine Gael’s membership, or a figure greater than the population of Leitrim) to join in the space of a week even after finishing second in a general election is almost inconceivable when major parties can insulate themselves so much from their grassroots, as to deny the possibility of a candidate connecting with the wider public in spite of the parliamentary party’s own consensus.
This is keenly felt for community activists in rural areas, for whom the two main parties often represent the only viable political outlet to address the problems in their communities. Running as an independent or a representative of a smaller party is often merely a case of putting oneself at a massive infrastructural disadvantage, given the sheer expanses of land that have to be covered (for example, Donegal’s 4,861 km2 is represented by 5 TDs, in contrast to Dublin Central’s 3 TDs for a drastically smaller area), access to money and ability to reach out to volunteers and voters. In such circumstances, it’s little wonder that so many enterprising and concerned citizens across the country prefer to try to affect change through voluntary organisations tied to community politics such as youth groups, farmer’s associations, resident’s groups and charities rather than trying to work through electoral politics.
An insurgency by a party’s grassroots such as that led by Corbyn in the British Labour Party could easily tap into this energy and goodwill to rejuvenate mainstream Irish politics by giving people a reason to feel their voice is heard even in defeat. The grassroots are the people who put up posters, hand out leaflets, knock on doors and ultimately sustain a political party system. Treating them as an afterthought when it comes to determining the policy direction of the party is not only an insult to their immeasurable contribution to Irish politics, but also an inoculation against any real change driven by the concerns of engaged voters or drastic shifts in society happening.
Whilst the first cracks are appearing in the age-old dominance of the two main parties, real change won’t come until the closed shop which dominates Irish politics is exposed and properly challenged to allow the long-suffering volunteers to have their voices truly heard as equals.