We are in an age of anti-politics. Such is the rage against the “establishment” politicians there is a sense that nothing they can do now can ever be enough.
Our politicians are terrified of this unpredictable, volatile mood and as a result they are motivated by fear. The voters can smell that fear, and it decreases their respect even further. There is the sense that if someone ran an “adopt a politician for Christmas” they would all be left on the shelf.
The public has decided politicians are fit for nothing, and the politicians reckon if they can just convince people the economy is about to take off all will be forgiven and forgotten.
But it is no longer just about the cash, the voters want a different quality to their politicians.
When Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald used Dáil privilege this week to read the names of former politicians who she said allegedly held Ansbacher accounts it merely fed into the massive cynicism that already exists about the political profession. The action didn’t seem unwise or wrong to most, it merely confirmed their basest beliefs about politicians past and present.
A homeless man dies tragically practically on the doorstep of our parliament, and the manner and location of his passing is seen as laden with symbolism – reflecting on an inept Government incapable of fulfilling even the most basic needs of its citizens by providing housing.
There has always been a cynicism about our political classes but that has now shifted into farserious territory fuelled by the pain of the austerity years. We have lost utterly that sense of the collective that we had during the worst of the recession. We didn’t have an arse in our trousers but it was our collective trousers, and we were making some sort of national atonement for the outrageous profligacy of the previous years.
Then the Troika left town last December and so too did our sense of togetherness; suddenly we decided that our toleration for austerity had gone beyond its elastic limit. At the same time the Government got an incredible case of the staggers and became a byword for ineptitude. Up came the local and European elections in May and the first opportunity we had to give it to them in the neck at the ballot box.
The establishment politicians from the mainstream parties are at an immediate disadvantage because of this anti-politics mood. This means politicians, by their very profession, are at an automatic disadvantage. We were not alone in the anger expressed in the European elections, with unprecedented numbers of Eurosceptic and populist representatives elected from all over Europe, including Germany and Greece, Hungary and Denmark. We’re all familiar with UKip’s Nigel Farage and his message that all the UK’s problems stem back to Europe and immigration. In France it is the far-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen, who has just been re-elected leader with 100% of her party’s vote.
This era of “anti-politics” is so new there is much we do not know about it, or that remains to happen as it develops. It is unstable and unpredictable but it is certainly a resilient force that people are feeling connected with, and feel a sense of belonging to, as it fills the void they believe has been left by “old style” politics.
Policy Network is an international centre-left think tank and research institute and its website is hosting an “Understanding Populism” strand at present. Writing on it, Matthew Wood, of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the public Understanding of Politics, makes the point that the protests, national movements and populist parties we are seeing so much of, while being a part of “anti-politics” are, of course, intensely political. They are just against a particular form of politics.
Borrowing from other political theorists he points out how “the political” is bottom up, and it is an unstable, contradictory and yet an exhilarating force. But letting the “political” run wild can have terrible consequences.
“Often uncontrolled and contentious it is about how the nooks and crannies of our lives, our commutes to work, shopping trips, job interviews and family conversations, evoke highly “political” issues of justice, rights and responsibilities”… The argument being that the elites don’t understand the everyday experiences of the population. Only the populists and radicals – the ‘people’s army’ – do, or so they claim”. It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
In a further discussion on that strand two British political academics at the University of Southampton, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, point out that populism in Britain is being fuelled by discontent with the political class.
But even Nigel Farage’s supporters do not believe that politics is a waste of time. They commissioned two surveys by YouGov last year and this year to explore public attitudes towards the motivations and capabilities of politicians in facing the problems in Britain. Their analysis suggests complex shades of light and dark in anti-politics. There was a dominant belief that politicians are too focused on short-term headlines and more concerned with protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in society.
A remarkable 80% of people agreed with the former, while almost three quarters agreed with the latter with just 8% disagreeing.
It is impossible to know where all of this will end up. In one way we will be finding out soon enough,in the fast approaching general election.
At this point in time it is impossible to imagine a situation where the Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be doing a whistlestop tour of the country. If one is being planned it might well involve an armoured as opposed to a ministerial car. It’s hard to see how Cabinet members will take part in that campaign without the return of their garda drivers for security.
There are bound to be entire sections of some constituencies where mainstream politicians will be afraid to go canvassing, and where other less personal promotional methods will be used.
If the Government think a simple narrative on the success of the economy is going to turn things around they better start thinking again.
People, as they have shown with the anti-water charge protests, as well as the election to the Dáil of people like Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, and Michael Fitzmaurice, endorsed by Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, in the recent by-elections, and Ruth Coppinger, last May, are looking for more than that.
I’m not sure they are going to find it in a new party led by Shane Ross or Lucinda Creighton. It feels, at the moment, as if the times have moved beyond them somehow.
I agree though with Matthew Wood when he says that politics is “speeding up when it needs slowing down” but it’s wishful thinking on the part of politicians to hope that those dratted iPhones will disappear and people will simply calm down.
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