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The subtlety of Ireland’s leftward shift explained.

Where they vote left, young  voters tend to focus on redistribution and inequality. Only 31% of 18-24 year olds and 32% of 25-34 year olds support Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

By William Foley.

Ireland is on the cusp of a general election which will see an unprecedented transformation of its political divisions. Surprisingly, it will be the first time in generations that questions of economic distribution will have affected the outcome. Evidence from opinion polls and surveys shows that where younger voters (under 29 years of age) reject the dominant right-wing parties they do so because they want greater economic equality. This gives the left a unique chance by focusing on their core issue – redistribution – to galvanise today’s youth to an egalitarian agenda  if, despite the failure of commentators to read the situation, they keep clear heads and take the opportunity.

In postwar Europe, political parties in most countries traditionally competed over who got what, and how much. Parties were aligned along an axis – on the right were those who believed that the market should be the primary mechanism for determining the distribution of wealth, and on the left were those who believed that this distribution should be fixed in large part by the government. 

Ireland has usually been regarded as an exception. Here, the main political division does not run between the left and the right.  Here it has not been between those who favour greater redistribution by the state and those who are against it, but between descendants of the opposing sides in the civil war. Those lineages may have some importance today – Fianna Fáil would probably not have attempted to rehabilitate the RIC – but what they amount to in practice is a system in which the vast majority of people have always voted for parties which have been economically right-wing, at least since Lemass. 

This state of affairs has not prevailed because Irish people are inherently more right-wing than other Europeans. Political views are not the result of a simple transformation of broad values and social attitudes into party support; they are the indirect outcome of a process which filters those values and attitudes through a given ideological frame. These frames function like lenses, capable of magnification and diminution, distortion and concentration. Certain values may be filtered out – considered irrelevant for the determination of political preference. In Ireland, due to a conjuncture of historical reasons, left-wing ideological frames were largely absent. 

Other factors were at play which determined political identities: the legacy of a brutal and traumatic civil war, the personalisation and parochialisation of politics, the hobbling of economic development under British imperialism, the passive role played by the Labour party from 1916 onwards, and so on. Questions which concerned the just distribution of resources were simply filtered out by the dominant post-civil war frame.

Historically, the left has failed to pry even one finger loose from the FF/FG stranglehold. Parties such as Clann na Poblachta and The Workers’ Party occasionally sparked into life, achieving fleeting electoral success before flickering out like tealights in a children’s nursery. Because one of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael was usually in opposition, the see-saw effect of electoral politics meant that when one became somewhat unpopular, the other could take its place in government. 

But the confidence and supply arrangement that prevailed in the last Dáil has meant that, while Fianna Fáil were not in the cabinet, they were not entirely in the opposition either. The economic crisis dealt them a blow from which they have not really recovered, nor have Fine Gael truly taken their place. 

The result is that the two right-wing parties are more closely associated than ever – and more unpopular. Opinion polling since the general election seems to show them combined  on about fifty percent or less. Most striking is the age gradient: only 31% of 18-24 year olds and 32% of 25-34 year olds support either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, according to an Irish Times / Ipsos MRBI poll.

If these trends hold true, then what appears to be emerging in Ireland is a more traditional “left-right” divide, characterised by competition between parties who favour more economic redistribution and those who oppose it. Survey evidence seems to support the increasing relevance of attitudes towards redistribution for determining party support.

Figure 1 Support for redistribution and combined support (%) for FF / FG over time.

Figure 1 makes use of Irish data from nine rounds of the European Social Survey (ESS) to illustrate this dynamic. Each round of the ESS asks respondents to indicate their support for the following statement: “Government should reduce differences in income levels”. 

The respondent could say that they strongly agreed, agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed. I recoded the question so that everyone who strongly agreed or agreed was categorised as “supportive of redistribution” and everyone else was categorised as “unsupportive”, excluding those who didn’t answer the question (about 2.7% of the sample). 

The ESS also asked respondents if they felt close to any party (about 36% did), and which party they felt closest to. I used this question to calculate the combined support for FF / FG over time, among those who are supportive and unsupportive of redistribution, excluding those who didn’t support any party. This relationship is shown in Figure 1.

The data are weighted to reflect unequal probabilities of inclusion in the sample (though the unweighted results are the same), and the years given on the horizontal access correspond to the calendar years in which most of the Irish respondents were interviewed for each of the nine rounds of the ESS.

These data probably overestimate support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – at least compared to present opinion polls –  but the emerging relationship that they depict is valid. 

As can be seen, preferences for redistribution matter a lot more after 2011. In the preceding years, those who are supportive and unsupportive of redistribution gave their support to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in more or less equal proportions. 

The widest gap is in 2007 when there was a gap of 6% between both groups. In other years – 2003, 2009, and 2011 –  the gap is more or less zero. However, from 2011 onwards, the gap steadily increases until, in 2019 , 75% of people who didn’t support redistribution supported either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, whereas only about 62% of those who wanted the government to reduce income inequality supported either of the rightwing parties. 

The change is striking: before the economic crisis preferences for economic redistribution don’t seem to matter for voter choice much at all. Now, they matter quite a bit. The opening of the gap seems driven by pro-redistributionist voters who have moved away from the right-wing parties – those who do not support redistribution seem to favour Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in more or less equal numbers as before the crash. And it does not signal an increase in left voters but rahter an increase in their number who vote left because they want redistribution.

Curiously, just as the old left-right divide seems to be breaking down in the rest of Europe, in Ireland it seems to be finally emerging, with the historic salience of the old civil war divisions in decline.

Table 1 Support for redistribution by year and age group


Why has income inequality become salient? Who are the people who take account of their preferences for redistribution when choosing the party to support?  Table 1 shows support for redistributive policies across the years for different age groups. Data are, again, taken from the ESS and weighted (with, again, only negligible differences between weighted and unweighted data), and support for redistribution is defined in the same binary way as used to generate Figure 1 above. 

The data again seem to show an interesting trend across the last two decades. We can see that in the years running up to the crash, older people actually tended to be more left-wing on economic issues than younger people. Now, the situation has reversed, and young people are more economically redistributionist than older people. In general, it is striking that attitudes towards redistribution have not changed a whole lot in the last two decades. What is significant, however, is not who is the most pro-redistributionist, but who considers questions of economic equality to be an important factor in determining their political views. Just because 77% of the country supported wealth redistribution in 2003 does not mean that it was an important issue for them. 

What makes the young people of today unique is that they are actually voting for redistributionist parties rather than simply supporting redistributionist policies. By this metric, they are considerably more left-wing than their predecessors; they are less supportive of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael than any other age group. If the growing unpopularity of the mainstream right-wing is due to the growing importance of economic equality, then this is likely to be one of the factors which has turned the youth away from these historically dominant parties.

Left-wing groups, seeking to erode the hegemony of the two main parties, have often sought the support of the young. There are likely two main reasons for this. First, young people are often believed to be more “idealistic”, which often translates as more economically redistributionist. Secondly, the personality of youth is a work in progress. The young are supposedly more open to new ideas, not yet having established a settled political identity; in other words, they have not been fully enmeshed in the dominant ideological frame. These two assumptions have not always hold true, but it appears that they do now, leading to a historic opportunity.

Perhaps the most important question – relevant to the forthcoming election, and to subsequent ones – is whether young people will continue to shirk the right-wing parties as they age. As of yet, the majority of them have not yet been enmeshed in the dominant ideological frame, a frame which has been battered and rotted by the economic and political crisis unleashed in 2007. Today’s young – who’ve grown up in the economic and political maelstrom of the years that followed the crash – are more suspicious of the neoliberal economic policies which caused such pain and resulted in such transparent injustice. They are trying to make their way in a post-crash economy characterised by high rents and insecure working conditions. 

These issues are not abstract for them; they are a part of their everyday existence, and that is why young people are assigning them so much importance. There is every reason to believe that the next generations will forge a new political identity, independent of the stale divisions of previous ones.

Still, nothing is guaranteed. Do the tremors precede an earthquake? Or are they a minor rumble which will leave the foundations untouched? Much depends on what the parties who have benefited from this leftward shift will do after the election. Will they yet again prop up a right-wing government, dissipating their replenished energies into the old see-saw movement which has forever seen power swing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? Maybe. Or maybe they will change, as the youth have.