New Politics is not just AN OPTION, it is the ONLY OPTION
Noel Dempsey, former Fianna Fáil minister
It is my contention that “New Politics” is now the only option open to parties and politicians of the centre. The Irish electorate are now intensely intolerant of the status quo. They believe we can do better. They demand it of all political parties.
If centrist parties like Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Social Democrats fail to do better, those on the fringes, left and right, will capitalize further on the disaffection felt by many. It will also mean the end of at least one of those parties within a decade. Centrist politicians have to buy into the system of real and genuine collaboration. New politics is the only way they can reclaim the centre for the benefit of Irish politics and society. For today’s discussion let me attempt to describe what I believe “new politics” is and why it is essential to our democracy.
It strikes me that people’s definition of new politics is very much like what their definition of Fianna Fáil used to be – “all things to all men”. There is certainly plenty of evidence that many people have no idea what it is and are using every current example of silly political behavior and ascribing it to the new politics, even if it is of no relevance. For that reason, defining or describing what it is becomes important. Otherwise, it will be dismissed as a “dressed up version of old politics” and if that is how it is perceived then people will be further alienated from politics, the political system and politicians.
To me it is a fundamental shift in how our political system and our politicians must work. It is a complete reversal of the position where Parliament ended up being a mere rubber stamp for the Executive. It is a transformation from autocratic governance to an open consultative and participative democracy; from a system where the winner took all and dictated policy for the lifetime of a government to one where all elected representatives have a say and an input to policy and legislation. It is politics where ideas and idealism will replace party shibboleths. It is politics where policy replaces personality. It is politics where the real needs of people are put before party interests and before vested interests. In new politics, the politicians see politics as a means to an end (serving the people) rather than an end in itself (serving themselves). New politics, properly executed is a way to rebuild trust.
Whether many of them know it or not our politicians have little choice but to embrace this change. The results of the last election made this clear. Trust and faith in our political system and our politicians is at a low ebb. The economic crash completely undermined faith in our system of Government and our political system. It removed old certainties. It left people unsure and frightened. Our fears replaced our dreams. It fundamentally changed our society and our politics.
Older people, who came through previous depressions, recessions and poverty adjusted and coped better but for many of those born in the eighties and later this was a new and terrifying experience. It left them bewildered and angry, with no hope and ready to lash out. The political system was supposed to protect them from such catastrophe and it had failed them. Politicians were too caught up in party politics and too tied to the system to be able to act effectively to the new realities and real issues that affected the lives of their people. It became apparent that the problems of a post-recession globalizing world were beyond our political system and politicians. The system has to adjust and adapt to the new realities. Dressing up old politics and calling it new politics will not work because the electorate is too savvy to be fooled by that. They have seen a major recession and a political system that was unable to cope with it. They know it has to change or be changed.
Many have reengaged or engaged for the first time with politics. The status quo does not satisfy them. If the established political parties do not recognize this they will look at alternatives that promise a better, safer future. It’s a risky, uncertain alternative but even uncertainty is better than an uncaring status quo that sees you squeezed within an inch of your life. These people will have to see evidence that in the new politics the politicians are prepared to adopt the old maxim of business “Think Globally, Act Locally”. New politics means that our national politicians can no longer be mired in the local. For as long as they are, we will be reactive and susceptible to global events. We will dutifully wait for global problems to wash up on our shore rather than put in place mechanisms locally to deal with them.
The financial crisis is one example. Irish water is another. And there are more pressing ones coming such as the ageing population, global terrorism, and disruptive technologies constantly rendering millions of jobs obsolete.
The trick for moderate centrist politician is not to veer left or right but to hold the centre. The centre must hold against those whom Yeats described as “the worst who have passionate intensity”.
Irish people are inherently fair and moderate and will row back to the centre when they see it working for them and for those less fortunate than themselves. There is some evidence of that from the last election results. To get that trust back we need to ensure our system delivers the services required in a civilized society; good healthcare, good childcare, proper housing, an education system that delivers for all and a care system that ensures that no one gets left behind.
The political system must deliver and share prosperity. Increased prosperity has meant that the electorate isn’t content to watch extreme poverty and extreme riches on television. Economic equity and opportunity are becoming more important to the voting public. People no longer accept a world where corporations can make astronomical amounts of money whilst the countries in which they operate hardly receive any taxation in the teeth of austerity driven misery.
A start has been made. The Dáil reforms are making the House more inclusive and consultative. Government has to negotiate and convince a majority to support their proposals rather than being able to ram it through using a guillotine. Opposition parties have the opportunity to have their policies and legislation passed and implemented. A wider spectrum of voices is heard. In a sense, we are returning to an era where politics was defined as the art of compromise. Latterly, this was portrayed as a sign of weakness. It should be seen as a sign of strength.
The alternative to all of this is the risk, for the mainstream parties, of alienating the electorate further from their naturally centrist political view to the extremes. The result of that in the medium to longer term would be disastrous. More and more people will look to the false prophets who claim they can deliver an alternative without ever having to explain what happens the day after they bring down the current system. If you don’t think this is a serious matter – look at our neighbours; politicians selling a picture of complete negativity to win a referendum with no vision beyond the immediate aim of bringing down the system.
Almost 100 years to the day after British generals sent thousands of young men to their deaths in the Somme, the modern British elite gambled with their country in an effort to seize political power. And then proceeded to walk off the pitch. Don’t get me wrong. “New Politics” will not prevent politicians from being politicians. It will not prevent parties from seeking to gain political advantage whenever they can. But rhetoric will have to be replaced by responsibility for parties and politicians to be trusted. To ensure it works will take time and patience from all sides. It will mean more and more time spent in preparing, proposing and implementing policies that put people first. It will mean Deputies having less time working for individual constituents and more working for all the people. That is virtually impossible if we do not change our electoral system. Sooner or later this has to be recognized and acted upon.
The centralization of most of our decision-making also needs to change. We have the most centralized system of government in the OECD. It has been changing over the last twenty years but at a snail’s pace. Most of the services we need on a day-to-day basis could and should be delivered by local government at a local level. Yes, there is a policy-making role for national politicians and a supervisory/regulatory role from central government departments but what we have goes way beyond that and is largely ineffective and inefficient.
Our Civil Service structures are arcane and outdated. The hierarchical structure, based on the ranking structure of the British army is well past its sell by date and leads to inefficiencies on a large scale, a system of deference among the grades that has no place in a modern society and a serious underutilization of the talents of many young people. Add to this the fact that most sections of most Departments, and the Departments as a whole, operate in a silo system with a silo mentality and this adds to the difficulties we face as a country.
I have always been an optimist. I still am. I believe that the current situation gives us an opportunity to fundamentally change our politics for the better and for the benefit of the people. I won’t deny my optimism has been dented since this Government was formed not least by the internal rumblings in Fine Gael in a time of crisis post the Brexit results. Old politics.
There is a danger of paralysis by analysis and lowest common denominator politics where policies are decided not by ideas and ideologies but the next headline, as parties try to ensure they are not wrong-footed by opponents. Ministers deciding they can ignore the advice of the Attorney General and support legislation repugnant to the Constitution is not “new politics” but worse than some of the very bad examples of old politics. A lack of respect for the Constitution and for collective cabinet responsibility is the start of a slippery slope. There are other threats. The first one is a danger to all Governments, majority or minority and that is arrogance. Saying all the right things in public but disrespecting opponents in private through media leaks and media manipulation is the most obvious way this will become apparent.
A second threat is posed if you say you are committed to new politics and then feign hurt, shock and surprise when your opponents vote down a measure on which you did not consult them. New politics means “no surprises” from any side. The lines of communication need to be kept wide open all the time.
Third, the new politics will need to see a new level of maturity from the media. With some notable exceptions among political correspondents, who are the real media experts on politics, it seems that some media simply cannot get their head around the fact that change is afoot, that there is no going back, that politicians will have to work differently to respond to the needs of their electorate.
The media will have to adjust too. Committees will be much more important in the future and this should be reflected in the coverage given to them. Highlighting the positives of the work done by many of our hard working public representatives might enhance our democratic system and people’s belief in it.
New politics will take time to bed down. It will take effort and openness from our political leaders to make it work but I believe it is worth the effort because it can restore the people’s faith in politics.