Monday night’s leaders’ debate should put in the ground the idea that the left-right dimension is the key one in politics. On Monday we saw parties such as Renua (the right) and Social Democrats (centre-left) taking aim at what they saw as the enemy, not each other, but the ‘Establishment’. Similarly Gerry Adams tried to distance Sinn Féin from what he cleverly termed the ‘Three Amigos’ of Burton, Kenny and Martin. It was an attempt to distinguish Sinn Féin from the other bigger parties.
These so-called anti-Establishment parties aren’t necessarily radical; in policy terms the Social Democrats would fit snugly into Labour. It’s Labour without the baggage of government. For most of the 20th century choices facing voters in Europe were to go for parties that said they’d tax more and spend this on public services (the left) or those who would provide fewer public services and aim to take less in tax (the right).
What we might consider the centre shifted about a bit. From the 1950s to the 1970 most, even the right agreed to tax and spend more. From the 1980s the centre shifted right. All this time most parties were identifiable on this left-right dimension. Voters too could usually identify themselves on this economic left-right scale. If you were working class you tended to vote left, if you were middle class you tended to vote right. Sometimes middle classes who worked in the public sector would vote left, and sometimes the left was too left or the right too right for their ‘natural’ group to support it fully.
Then there was a convergence on the right, and so in the UK the Labour Party became New Labour, and essentially became a right-wing party. In Ireland Fianna Fáil’s shifting policies offered a good barometer of which direction the ‘centre’ was going.
In the last decade, particularly since the Great Recession in 2008, left and right have become less meaningful as an explanation of what divides the parties. While Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appear to have little in common, they are both appealing to voters concerned about the same crisis. Those voters are demographically very similar (white and working class). While Trump and Sanders interpret the crisis in different ways – one a crisis of capitalism, the other a crisis of border control, among other things – they agree in many ways. They both rail against a corrupt political and business elite, they both claim to represent the ordinary worker, they agree on protectionism in trade.
They probably disagree on much more, but it is the nature of their demand that is more interesting than the content of their claims. More than anything they are both angry.
They represent the frustrated in life. It is this emotion that might be the main division between people in elections.
Rather than left-right, parties can be distinguished by whether they are portrayed as angry at the establishment or are part of it. If we look at the rise of UKIP we can see that the party’s support comes at the expense of what Labour might have thought its core supporters – the working class. Labour was (and perhaps still is) seen as a part of the metropolitan elite.
The party divide in Ireland was always hard to understand. There wasn’t a strong left-right divide, but it was Fianna Fáil’s genius that it could simultaneously portray itself as a party of the ordinary man AND be the main party of government. Bertie Ahern used to talk about the government as if it were some third party, not the organisation he was leading. In this election Fianna Fáil still likes to portray itself as the party of the working man, painting Fine Gael as a party of the rich. But it’s not angry. It’s a part of the establishment.
Labour is trying to sound as if it represents the frustrated. Its ‘Standing up for Ireland’ slogan is designed to pit it on the side of the ordinary against some elite, but it is not plausible, having campaigned to deliver Labour’s way not Frankfurt’s way in 2011. It has for some time been a party that gets much of it support from the middle classes. And Fine Gael is actively appealing to those in Irish society who are content.
The other side are the frustrated: people who feel unfulfilled and unable to do anything about it. It’s a toss-up whether the parties representing them will be on the left or right, but in Ireland they tend to be on the left. However Shane Ross and his alliance of independents position themselves as anti-establishment rather than obviously left or right. Renua will attract some of the angry on the right, who perhaps see Ireland as being ruled by a liberal elite.
Sinn Féin bases its proposition on the assertion that there is a cartel of bankers and politicians who rule Ireland for their own interests, a proposition shared by the alphabet soup parties on the left. This is made more plausible by the banking crisis. Sinn Féin talks of a two tier recovery ‘that benefits [the government] and their friends at the top, not the majority of hard-working, fair-minded Irish citizens’.
These are sentiments that one could hear a Le Pen, a Trump or UKIP using as easily as Alexis Tsipras or Pablo Iglesias.
The main difference distinguishing left and right internationally, which no Irish parties have focussed on, is immigration. It’s to Sinn Féin’s credit that it never used immigration, especially given it is a populist nationalist party. Many young working class men hold views that make them ripe for anti-immigrant politics but Sinn Féin’s nationalism (and Ireland’s history of emigration) makes it difficult to be an anti-immigrant party.
But parties can’t be anti-establishment forever. What happens when the parties representing the frustrated get into power? They usually disappoint. The compromise of government rarely allows parties deliver radical change, when it does it rarely works. The frustration at Syriza is testament to this.