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Responsive parties don’t want reform, responsibility or even power

This Dáil will have the appearance of a protest meeting

The election is over, but the prospect of forming a government is still somewhat distant. This probably shouldn’t surprise us. Apart from the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour government none of the other parties were really proposing to go into government. Their campaigns were based on a critique of the incumbent government.

The Irish people roundly rejected the outgoing government. But it is not clear what positive choices the voters were making, if any. The result was remarkably similar to the result of the local elections in 2014. Local elections are regarded as second-order elections, in which voters aren’t making a decision on the choice on offer, rather making a judgement about the government of the day. These are protest elections. In 2016 each party came within 1.5 percentage points of their result in the local elections.

This Dáil will have the appearance of a protest meeting. It’s not just the Trotskyite left, but also Sinn Féin and many independents. It is not that these don’t have any interest in policy – they do – but they have no interest in taking responsibility for policy delivery. At the moment Sinn Féin repeats relentlessly that it will not compromise its principles. We have rarely seen so many on the left anywhere greet the prospect of a right-wing government (of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) with such jubilation.

But, problematically, they are in effect telling their voters – the ones living in hotels, or lying on hospital trolleys, or waiting for treatment – that they don’t matter. Those people will have to wait five years until the party is bigger, because their political movement’s long-term growth trumps effecting real change to people’s lives through compromise.

These are ‘responsive’ politicians, responsive to every real or perceived grievance on the part of the citizens they represent. Populists on the left and right offered voters simple solutions to these grievances. All we needed to do was tax the rich, burn bond-holders, spend more money and everything would be solved. They appear to believe that we live in a world without external constraints.

These parties and independents were not only responsive to voters’ concerns, they fed them. They sought to say to voters that any problems experienced by them or their own community were the direct responsibility of the state. Though many rise up as ‘community activists’, by being so demanding of the state they are actually disenfranchising their communities.

The government parties’ politics were ‘responsible’. The Greens took responsibility. Labour took responsibility.

Certainly they made mistakes; in pursuit of ‘responsibility’ they were often too anxious to please markets and Europe. They ignored, or weren’t responsive to, the often genuine concerns of voters.
But surely the establishment parties’ unwillingness to promise the undeliverable wasn’t one of their mistakes?

Between the harsh realism of ‘responsible’ politics and the utopianism of the ‘responsive’ politics, languish ordinary people who struggle with increasing insecurity. Issues such as rural services saw the rise of independents, issues such as the affordability of childcare, homes, and transport led to ‘responsible’ parties seeping votes to ‘responsive’ parties who have no real solutions.

The ‘responsive’ don’t want reform, they want to protect failing systems. They offered few ideas beyond investing more money into services. That we already spend above OECD average proportions of GDP on health appears not to matter. They want to protect poorly designed redistributive payments that help create a small underclass so removed from society that many of us cannot actually understand them.

Accepting that people’s diminished disposable income, which affects their ability to afford consumer goods – atter at-screen TVs – is a genuine problem that the state needs to care about, the ‘responsive’’s answers to issues such as the housing crisis are firmly rooted in the twentieth century – rent controls and rent allowance. They are more interested in protecting failing teachers than helping the children they damage. All their answers deal with the symptoms of inequality, accepting the disease of inequality of opportunity as if it is the natural order of things.

If our politicians are going to be ‘responsive’, voters need to start to take responsibility. We should avail of the time over the next month or so when there is no ‘government’ to reflect on whether punishing parties who make compromises is going to deliver anything other than more fantastic promises by parties who eschew power and, especially, its responsibilities.

Eoin O’Malley