How Parties Win: Shaping the Irish Political Arena, by Sean D McGraw, University of Michigan Press, 303 pp, €30, ISBN 978-0472036127
Though you might not think it, the Irish party system isn’t studied enough. This is a problem for political science more than it is for Ireland. Having pioneered the use of mass movements in politics and the first tightly-controlled parliamentary party, Ireland then provided an unusual case of a dominant party system in a democracy. We had catch-all parties before it was a concept in political science, and we dispensed with class politics well before it was dismissed in much of Europe. In many ways Ireland’s politics offers a bellwether for trends in the rest of the world.
The breakdown of the Irish party system was quite spectacular in 2011 – though we might say that we just swapped one conservative right-wing party for another. On many metrics this was a big election. It was the most volatile election in modern European history. The party order was overturned as Fianna Fáil became the third largest party, overtaken by Fine Gael and Labour. And this was in a country that had seen Fianna Fáil come first and Fine Gael second in every election since 1932 (see Figure 1).
So it is ironic that after an election that saw Europe’s most successful electoral machine all but destroyed we have a new book which focuses on how Irish parties win. This book, by Notre Dame political science professor Seán McGraw, seeks to explain the stability of the three main parties in Irish politics, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Though the explanation is meant to cover the time since the 1930s, most of the data it is based on comes from the 1980s onwards. Probably more interesting than why the three parties continued to be the top three is that the order of party support was almost constant from 1932 to 2007, and especially that Fianna Fáil maintained its dominance. In many ways this is a complementary study to Richard Dunphy’s The Making of Fianna Fáil Power in Ireland.
Figure 1: Party support from 1932 to 2007.
The main argument of this well-written, comprehensive and serious study is that the three-party dominance and remarkable stability is not due to traditional demand-side explanations. Party systems in Europe used to reflect cleavage divisions, that is, deep and institutionalised divisions within society that were reflected in politics. Perhaps the best example in western Europe is in Northern Ireland, where the two communities were separate from one another and had their biases transmitted via churches, schools, newspapers and at the dinner table. This was aided by physical segregation, in housing, education, sports and even work. These cleavages are reflected in politics, and encouraged by politicians in Northern Ireland.
No such deep cleavages existed in the Republic, though work by Kevin Byrne and I did find that there may be deeper cultural traditions reflected in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But Fianna Fáil was consistently the most popular party among urban and rural voters, among the working class, the middle class and farmers, among men and women, among young and old. So these demand-side explanations don’t work here. This is especially true when we consider the rapid social and economic change Ireland underwent that wasn’t really reflected in the success of the big three parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
There were new challenger parties in the 1940s and 1950s, primarily in the form of the two Clanns, and from the 1980s in the form of the Workers Party (later DL), the Progressive Democrats and the Greens. Though the Workers Party still exists it is a rump of what eventually span into Labour. The PDs dissolved and the Greens are left without any Oireachtas representatives. These parties brought new issues into the political market but failed to displace the big three. McGraw painstakingly gathers evidence that the issues we are concerned with have changed over time, though one might observe even if we talk at different times about tax, unemployment, inflation, really we’re always concerned about the economy. He also charts the remarkable demographic and attitudinal changes Ireland underwent.
Why didn’t we see these parties grow and sustain themselves? Some argue that the electoral system institutionalises a sort of localism which means that parties don’t, indeed can’t, compete on policy grounds. As a result we see change at each election, but much of the real change is masked by constant party support. Underlying this is the defeat of many TDs by others from their own party. This is plausible, but according to McGraw the localism we complain about might have as much to do with the small size of constituencies. In any case even where we see much larger constituencies, such as in the US, localism and pork-barrel politics are as prominent. And in small constituencies with the same electoral system as ours, such as Malta, this doesn’t happen. McGraw also points out that the electoral system doesn’t explain why new parties and independents can occasionally appear to successfully challenge the big three, only to later recede.
Seán McGraw argues pretty convincingly that supply-side factors matter. These are the ways in which successful parties shape societal demands and how policy demands are dealt with by the political system. It is the parties, not the voters, that shape electoral competition. If we go back to Northern Ireland we can even see that cleavage divisions, though extant, were shaped by political entrepreneurs who taught ordinary citizens to demand new policies. The SDLP emerged out of this. It is what we often just call leadership.
He shows us that the parties benefited from changes to party funding rules. Though it was forced upon Fianna Fáil the restrictions on private funding and their replacement by large scale public funding gives incumbent parties (and as a result the status quo system) a huge advantage, making it more difficult for new parties to challenge the big three. The most successful recent challenger has had to grow slowly, probably using cross-border subsidisation to strengthen its resources in the Republic.
But as McGraw points out there are other mechanisms. Parties can also use institutions such as referendums or the courts to displace controversial issues, such as abortion, from the party political realm. This allows the big three to concentrate electoral competition on areas where they have an advantage. Another example of this that McGraw looks at in detail is social partnership. Rather than allow tax and wage rates become party political issues they were effectively removed from polite discussion. It is here that I wonder about the inclusion of Labour as one of the main parties. First it was overtaken by the PDs in one election, and apart from a few elections was much smaller than both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It also suffered from social partnership because it disentangled demands for wages and workers’ rights from ordinary politics. The unions, who had never really been as close to Labour as Labour might have wanted, no longer needed Labour in government to get their preferred policies.
The explanation, if it works, only really works for Fianna Fáil. In fact what we have seen is that Fianna Fáil has effectively created a new coalition of workers, unions, and employers who support its policies. This approach worked, however, mainly because the state had enough resources to fund all the demands of the different groups: tax cuts and public sector wage increases.
McGraw argues that Irish governments have used other technocratic bodies to displace issues from the political sphere. Bodies such as the HSE might be thought of as a way to depoliticise an issue. But if that was indeed the purpose it hasn’t worked. Irish Water was surely a technocratic solution to a problem, and an attempt to deflect an issue, but the government has suffered badly both from its lack of control of these quangos and from their incompetence.
I am not convinced that this displacement and deflection “strategy” can explain the resilience of Fianna Fáil, and let’s face it, it is really the dominance of Fianna Fáil that fascinates us. (Also strategy may be the wrong word because there is no evidence any of these structures were deliberately designed for this purpose.) Social partnership emerged only in the late 1980s. Any explanation needs to extend further back in history. Why did the party system maintain itself from the 1930s to the 1980s? We could argue that such theories only need to account for the party system’s resilience since that period as only at this point was there any real upheaval in the system. But we could say that the big three haven’t really been that resilient. At the first sign of trouble since then the arrival of the concept of the Celtic Tiger the party’s support collapsed.
I am left thinking that other factors, some of which McGraw does include in his analysis, are important. One thing he focuses on is the ability of the big parties to ideologically shape-shift. Fianna Fáil was able to move from being the working man’s party, offering nationalism as its distinguishing characteristic in the 1930s, to become a party of business by the 1960s. The party was flexible and agile enough that when challengers emerged it could move into the ideological space that the new party had made electorally viable. But that flexibility might show that ideology wasn’t that important, especially in a country where the policy space is so narrow. How could voters look with favour on the ideological agility of a party that campaigns on the slogan “Health Cuts Hurt the Old, the Sick and the Handicapped” yet then goes in to govern as if such cuts were a good thing. People in 1987 weren’t attracted by Fianna Fáil’s ideology; they wanted competence.
We trusted Fianna Fáil to deliver this, but when it failed we turned to Fine Gael and Labour. When they in turn failed to satisfy, new challenger parties emerged. We can see that when Ireland has undergone its most severe recessions, in the 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and the 2000s new parties have emerged or small ones have grown. Thus we can see that the party system is shaped to a great extent by participation in government, and the timing of this.
Fianna Fáil was lucky or smart enough to go into opposition during difficult periods such as the 1950s. It finished a sixteen-year stint of government just as the 1970s oil crisis put pressure on western European economies and was out of power for most of the 1980s. It had a free run at the reasonably prosperous times in the 1940s, 1960s and the 2000s. Had it lost the election in 2007, which Bertie Ahern gave every impression of a man trying to do, would Fine Gael and Labour ever have been trusted again? Fianna Fáil would have maintained its image as the party of competence, and by 2011 we might even have given it an overall majority.
The luck of when you happen to govern also affects smaller parties. One of Fianna Fáil’s man “strategies” was the “co-opt and kill” mechanism of coalition. By bringing small parties into coalition the bigger party neutralised them. This happens because government blunts the smaller party’s ideological distinctiveness and weakens its resources. The leaders of the small parties become busy with the demands of government and neglect the party organisation. Here we should note with admiration Gerry Adams’s decision to stay out of government in Northern Ireland. The PDs made a serious strategic error by re-entering government in 2002, and the Greens’ decision in 2007 to enter government was near fatal. Had they stayed out they could have reasonably claimed to have been the only party to have questioned the property boom and the policy of low taxes and high spending that even the PDs and Labour were looking for more of.
Labour’s election experience next year will bring the party back down to earth. Had it chosen to stay out of office, it would have called Fianna Fáil’s bluff (remember that Micheál Martin said he would support the troika plan) and allowed it to be the by far largest opposition party criticising cuts and new taxes at every turn. Whether it was a sense of responsibility or a desire for office that brought Labour into government, the consequence is that it is likely that Sinn Féin and not it will be the party of the left just as we witness a realignment of the party system.
A real strength of McGraw’s fascinating study is his analysis and description of the machines and campaigns of individual TDs. He obtained access to various politicians, such as Ruairí Quinn and Jackie Healy-Rae and uses candidate surveys to see what they cared about, interviewing TDs to understand their motivations and activities.
In referencing these McGraw points to the organisational flexibility of the parties and in particular the development of the personal political machine as a positive in enabling Fianna Fáil to endure. But in these machines we may have seen the seeds of the party’s destruction. A few years before his death Paddy Hillery noted to me that the Fianna Fáil he canvassed for in the 1940s never distinguished between candidates. You canvassed for Fianna Fáil. He dated a change in this to the 1970s. This was the introduction of what Ken Carty calls the “franchise party”. Under this model the candidate is a sole trader who adopts the party label, but provides resources such as money and canvassers – promising to deliver a seat for the party in exchange for the branding. Now factions within Fianna Fáil are frequently on view – just look at the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election campaign. When Michael Lowry left Fine Gael, he took his party organisation with him, killing the party in North Tipperary for years.
Whether it was due to this or something else, we can see that from the 1970s there has been a sharp decline in loyalty to parties among Irish voters (see Figure 2). The foundation on which the stable party system had been built was removed long before 2011. It just took the crisis election to bring the edifice of the party system crashing down.
Figure 2: The decline in people identifying as close or very close to a particular party.
It will be 2016, not 2011 that will be the earthquake election, the one in which Sinn Féin will break the big three cartel. This in itself isn’t remarkable. Sinn Féin is not as radical as it likes to pretend. Its behaviour in government in Northern Ireland demonstrates that it will be as pragmatic as any of the parties down here. It just has a more difficult job to do in keeping together an odd coalition of old-style anti-Brit nationalists, disaffected urban youth, cultural conservatives and socialists happy. Its organisational structure, however, is different. It has rejected the franchise model and is instead a tightly controlled party with a leader who doesn’t appear to have to deal with dissent. In many ways it is reminiscent of Fianna Fáil in the 1930s. And like that Fianna Fáil it understands the power and perils of government. It will wait until it is firmly established as one of the top two parties before it takes that risk.
McGraw has given us a useful study of Fianna Fáil dominance and the pressures on the Irish party system from the 1970s on. It will help inform us what to expect next. The more interesting aspect of the new multi-party system is that it will be one where class and other demographic factors will be important. Already we can see that a class divide has emerged. Now Fine Gael is the most popular party among the middle class and Sinn Féin the most popular among the working class. Ireland should provide lessons to those in the rest of Europe who have decided class is no longer important. It may be coming back.
Dr Eoin O’Malley is the director of the MSc in public policy in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.