Guest post by Dr Rory Costello, Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick.
Ireland now has a decidedly fragmented party system, which brings a number of challenges but also potential benefits. Party fragmentation can make effective government difficult, as we have seen in Ireland over the past year. On the plus side, it should make it easier for voters to find a party that represents their views at election time.
The 2016 election was contested by around a dozen parties and over 160 Independents. While the parties competing in that election were not all ideologically distinct, there was certainly a significant degree of ideological diversity, ranging from the People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance on the left to Renua Ireland on the right.
In terms of their policy positions, did these parties reflect the range of views in the electorate? Did voters tend to agree with the policies of the party they voted for, and if so on what types of issues? These are some of the questions I have investigated in an article in Irish Political Studies (free to view here for the month of June). Using data from a survey conducted at the time of the 2016 election, I map out the new policy space in Ireland, comparing the location of parties and voters in this space.
The survey was part of an online ‘voting advice application’ called WhichCandidate.ie. Voters, parties and candidates were asked an identical set of questions on a wide range of issues, ranging from taxation to water charges to abortion. An enthusiastic uptake from the general public meant that there were over 40,000 completed voter surveys, and a representative sample of voters was drawn from this pool.
The good news is that when it comes to socio-economic issues such as taxation and housing, voters are reasonably well represented. The distribution of party positions on these issues broadly mirrors the distribution of voters, and in general people tended to vote for a party that they agreed with on these issues. As these were among the most important issues in the election, it is reassuring to find that parties are generally in line with the views of their voters.
More problematically, there are significant gaps in representation when it comes to non-economic issues. This is illustrated in the figure below, which plots the positions of voters and parties on the economic dimension and a ‘cultural’ dimension that includes issues such as immigration, crime, the environment and European integration. Areas of darker colour in this graph indicate a greater concentration of voters, while the labels indicate the party position. What is striking here is the large number of voters who are left-leaning on economic issues but towards the authoritarian/conservative end of the cultural dimension. These left-authoritarian voters are estimated to make up about 30% of the electorate, but none of the political parties fits this description.
Nearly all of the parties are more liberal than their own supporters when it comes to this cultural dimension. This is especially true for Sinn Féin: the party is located towards the libertarian end of the spectrum (for instance, it has progressive policies on issues like immigration and the environment), but the majority of its voters are located on the authoritarian end of the scale. Gaps in representation are also found in relation issues such as abortion and the role of the Church in education (these issues constitute a separate dimension, not shown in the figure above); however, on these issues it is the parties that are generally more conservative than the voters.
Identifying gaps in policy representation is important because these issues could in the future be exploited by a political party seeking to win new voters. This has happened in a number of other countries, where previously low-salience issues such as immigration and European integration were politicised by new populist parties. The party that is arguably best positioned to exploit the gap in the Irish electoral market is Sinn Féin, but to-date the party has defied the ‘populist’ label that its critics often apply to it by continuing to support a markedly more liberal and inclusive set of policies than those favoured by many of its voters.
However, if issues such as immigration and the future of the EU continue to become more important across Europe, this is likely to also feature more prominently in political discourse in Ireland. If and when these issues become politicised, parties are likely to come under increasing pressure to re-orient their positions towards that of their supporters, particularly if a new party emerges that attempts to win support from this segment of the electorate.