As election 2020 enters its final week, a completely unexpected possibility emerges. For the first time since the historic election of 1918, a radical change of direction becomes a real option for voters as a poll shows Sinn Féin overtaking Fine Gael and achieving support equal to that of Fianna Fáil. Might it be that, with the momentum behind SF, the dominance of FF and FG could finally be coming to an end?
The steady growth in support for Sinn Féin, as well as the more modest growth in support for the Green Party and the Social Democrats, shows a strong appetite for change. But, with Sinn Féin offering a manifesto that has echoes of the UK Labour Party’s 2019 radical manifesto of social transformation, the change being offered is more than a change of faces around the cabinet table as has happened for decades in Irish elections.
Instead, there are signs that voters are finally fed up with Ireland’s low-tax, low-spend model of development and are demanding a decisive change of direction. For the one central idea that unites the parties getting a bounce in the polls is to make the state the driver of social development, in housing, in health, in transport, in infrastructure and in addressing the enormous challenges of climate change. This is most evident in Sinn Féin’s manifesto with its pledge of an NHS-style health system North and South, and promising ‘the most ambitious public housing programme in the history of the state’, building 20,000 public homes each year to meet the need for social and affordable housing.
On the economy, too, there is a pledge to rebalance support for business away from the foreign sector and to support the growth of small businesses. The promise of an agency for small businesses equivalent to what the IDA does for foreign businesses has been long overdue. This would include the tripling of funding to develop the capacity of Irish SMEs to engage in e-commerce.
Perhaps most significant is the quite concrete pledge to establish a Worker Co-Operative Development Unit at the cost of €4.5 million to ‘provide capital and technical assistance to existing and start-up workers co-ops’. This has for long been badly needed as the co-op sector has never been taken seriously by state agencies, despite the fact that the co-operative movement was a key driver of economic development a century ago.
Of course, these are the sorts of promises that all parties engage in at election time. But in the commitments of Sinn Féin, the Green Party, the Social Democrats and Labour to develop the capacity of the Irish state to replace the free market as the driver of social and economic development lie the seeds of a new vision of how state, market and society can interact to achieve a much better quality of life for all in Ireland.
Here too lies the basis for a stable re-alignment of Irish politics. It clarifies where the real dividing line lies – no longer the dividing lines inherited from the constitutional divisions of a century ago but the real dividing lines between a commitment to incentivising the private sector to develop our society in the interests of capital and profits, and the imagination to develop a new partnership between state and society to transform the quality of life for all. One can take issue with some of the detailed proposals of any of the parties sharing this vision, but it is the central logic that provides the basis for a radical change of direction.
Of course, one’s enthusiasm for what could be achieved is tempered by knowing that Sinn Féin in government in the North has been far from a force for radical change and the experiences of the Greens and Labour in government in the Republic have been far from transformative. However, there seems substantial evidence on this occasion that voters in significant numbers want to see radical change and, dependent on what happens in the polling booths next Saturday, have the potential to deliver the number of TDs to achieve that.
So, how might it play out? If SF continues its momentum in the polls and translates this into seats on February 8th, they could emerge as the largest party and therefore in a position to attempt to form a government. Though the Green wave has receded in the political discourse as the election campaign came to focus on SF, the party is likely to come back with multiples of the three seats they had when the Dáil was dissolved. A good day for the SDs could see them pick up four to six seats and Labour will likely be a little higher.
If SF get around 40 seats, the Greens 12 to 15, and a similar number between the SDs and Labour, a solid basis for a progressive SF-led government exists, supported by Solidarity and PBP (though they may choose not to join a coalition) and progressive independents. Another option, of course, and maybe the more likely one is that FG and FF are finally pushed into one another’s arms to keep the left out of power; such a government would make a surge to the left even more likely whenever the next election came.
In some commentary on the UK Labour Party’s defeat in December 2019, attention was focused on the fact that many voters simply don’t believe any longer that politics can change anything. So they chose to vote for the devil they knew since the option for social transformation was simply not credible for them. Such has been the success of the neoliberal undermining of a belief in the power of politics. In Ireland, after decades of a culture of hyper-consumerism and the lauding of the private sector over the public, perhaps the average Irish voter has also lost their faith in the power of politics. February 8th will show how much this is true.