Soon after the General Election, the media widely reported that the General Election was an ‘earthquake’ and the result ‘seismic’. My chart below shows how things have changed since the 2011 election. In the period 2011-2016, some groupings coalesced, some split and some new groupings formed.
My view of the result of the 2016 General Election is distinct from the earthquake argument: the biggest victor of this election was not a single party but was instead collective populism. During February, parties on both the left and the right sought to out-promise one another. The Government promised lower taxes and higher expenditure. The opposition promised fewer charges and higher expenditure. In almost all cases, we were promised that we would be given more money and provided with better services.
The far-left has gained support through its populism. It wants to abolish USC, water charges, and property taxes, whilst also continuing to oppose bin charges. On the right, FG and FF’s populist rhetoric that they would bring lower income taxes and frozen property taxes, and FF’s plan to abolish water charges, split their vote, even though both parties’ message was very similar.
The outcome of all of this populism is political fragmentation and a rejection of fact-based objective analysis. The more water you use, the more you should pay. The more rubbish you produce, the more you should pay. The more valuable your principle asset, the more you should pay. The more you earn, the more you should pay. These are clear answers when you stand back and assess things. In spite of that, the far-left opposes those taxes and charges that make most logical sense and the right opposes those taxes that make most distributive sense. Divided by ideology, the chart below shows how the 2011 Dáil and the 2016 Dáil look.
As the election proved, populism has damaged the left, with the Labour Party declining to 7 seats and the populist left gaining in strength. By making politics a battle between the working class and everyone else, the far-left erodes the support base of the centre-left and leaves it with no bargaining power. As the centre-left is the only ideology the centre-right will govern with, attacks from the far-left on the centre-left make a centre-right government more likely. This is an absurd, circular, mess and one stemming from a failure of all on the left to be sensible and balanced.
On the right, fragmentation means that FF and FG, rather than working together as you would expect of two centre-right parties, must trade off. Already we are hearing that government negotiations could be based around water charges and the USC. To compromise on these issues, so that FF gets its way on charges and FG gets its way on USC, would be a mistake. And yet these issues will be subject to significant debate. The result will be the compromising of good policy in favour of populism.
The sad thing is that we have been here before. The weak tax base and bloated expenditure that proved unable to deal with the 2008 crash was due to FF’s auctioning during the boom. Now, in recovery, all the parties are making the same mistakes. The on-going auctioning and populism will weaken our economy and destabilise our society. We shouldn’t settle for this immaturity. We should demand that our new government is honest and pragmatic. We should demand that it deals with issues objectively, rather than deal in ideology subjectively.
Elsewhere on this site I analysed topics that mattered in the run up to the General Election, and did so avoiding populism. These include gender equality, religion and schools, the USC, children’s rights, crime, and abortion rights.