Pendulum of power swinging to parties outside the mainstream

An earthquake is rumbling under Irish politics. Below the froth and noise of the campaign trail, the clashes and soundbites, pitches and policies, a seismic shift is under way.
Pendulum of power swinging to parties outside the mainstream

The pendulum of power is swinging. But it isn’t swinging from one party to another. It is swinging towards groups, coalitions, and alliances outside of the mainstream.

It is swinging, especially, towards candidates willing to step into the political ring and fight elections outside of any party machinery, and without a party brand. We are seeing the rise of the Independents.

In the 2007 election, Independent candidates were a marginal force.

They received 5.1% of first preferences, and won just a handful of seats. In 2011, Independents received 12.1% of first preferences and won 14 seats. Now, with days to go before the election, a Red C poll has put “independents and others” (a category pollsters use to handle the sheer variety of different affiliations) at 28% (+2%).

This rise is against the backdrop of the failure of any mainstream political party to surge ahead. If the Independents’ popularity holds up, they, collectively, may hold the balance of power in the Dáil.

There are lots of reasons for their rise. People are angry with politics and politicians.

Many are sick of parties and the way they fight elections.

Disaffection with politics and political parties has been on the increase not only in Ireland, but in mature democracies across the world. From Beppe Grillo in Italy to Podemos in Spain and Ukip in Britain, anti-establishment sentiment is building, and voices and movements have sprung up to puncture the complacency of business-as-usual politics.

Independents, shedding the bind of party discipline, are an important part of this angry insurgency.

There’s another reason too. Fighting a general election is daunting to anyone, but has always been especially difficult outside of a party machine.

The practical difficulties of going it alone are numerous, but probably the most difficult for non-celebrity candidates is to get the visibility, the name recognition needed so that, come election day, voters actually remember who you are.

Parties have always been essential for this: A supply of volunteers, a media department handing out interviews and grappling for column inches, and a ready-made brand where voters, at a glance, know what you broadly stand for. Independents have none of this.

No party support or machine, no protective spokespeople, and little access to the resources and PR muscle that professional political parties provide. Newspapers and broadcasters struggle to know how to handle Indep-endents — they can’t be dealt with as a group, they aren’t a voting bloc — they sometimes don’t even have a logo.

However, all of this is changing. The conventional furniture of politics — the party machinery, press spokespeople, coverage in the mainstream media — all matters a little less than it used to.

The practical disadvantages facing Independents have got a bit less formidable, and the reason for this is the rise of social media. The digital world can now — much more cheaply and easily — be used to replace and replicate the benefits that only parties could once bring, and those sitting outside of the political establishment have readily, hungrily taken up this opportunity.

Independents, and other non-mainstream groups are on the rise, using social media to close the gap with their better funded, more established mainstream opponents. A vitally important platform where this is happening is Twitter.

How they use Twitter radically varies; Independent Kevin Murphy has sent over 1,800 tweets during the campaign so far, the second-most of any candidate. Some have sent just a handful.

Some are barely followed at all on Twitter, while Shane Ross has over 35,000 followers, more than any candidate other than Gerry Adams and Enda Kenny.

Overall, Independent candidates are very active on Twitter. Together, they have sent over 12,000 tweets, around a quarter of the total sent by all candidates in the election so far, and thousands more than the collective output of any of their mainstream rivals.

It isn’t just the Independents. Members of non-mainstream groups have also gone into overdrive to pump out digital messages.

Over the course of the campaign, the Greens have sent, on average, 146 tweets per candidate (who are on Twitter in the first place). The Anti Austerity Alliance has sent 151. The Social Democrats have sent 518. Fianna Fáil has sent, on average, 89 tweets per candidate, and Fine Gael just 73.

The three most prolific tweeters, Social Democrats’ Ken Curtin and Anne-Marie McNally, and Independent Kevin Murphy, have sent more tweets together — 5,413 at the time of writing — than every single Fianna Fáil candidate combined.

All of this digital noise begins to win these candidates what they most desperately need, days out of an election: Visibility. Over 30,000 tweets have mentioned an Independent candidate since the start of the campaign.

This isn’t as much as the 55,000 mentioning Fine Gael, or the 57,000 mentioning Sinn Féin. But take away Mr Adams, and other members of Sinn Féin are mentioned 29,000 times. Take away Mr Kenny, and other members of Fine Gael are mentioned 36,000 times. Take away Joan Burton, and Labour has over 20,000 mentions. Independents, without a nationally famous figurehead, are in the same ball park.

Whatever happens on polling day, this particular earthquake will continue to rumble, and the familiar architecture of Irish party politics is beginning to shake under our feet.

Carl Miller is research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media @carljackmiller

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