Monday, 28 February 2011

Lessons from the Irish General Election

I'm not an expert on Irish politics, but this week's election provides some useful lessons for Liberal Democrats.

Firstly, the obvious one: the need to retain a distinctive philosophy and not be perceived as easily surrendering on key policy issues. The Green Party, the minor party in the coalition with Fianna Fail, were completely routed, losing all their TDs and gaining a mere 1.8% of the vote. The problem for the Greens was that (unlike Nick Clegg) they initially appeared to rule out working with certain parties in a coalition and then did the opposite. More crucially perhaps is that they were seen, fairly or otherwise, as offering nothing distinctive to government and were simply propping up an unpopular government. Interestingly, it was the Greens' attempt to break free of Fianna Fail that led to the election being called prematurely and the meltdown that followed for both coalition partners.

There are obvious differences between the Irish Greens and the Liberal Democrats, not least in regards the respective parties' approaches to government. But it is an inescapable fact that the Greens' downfall was so complete as to be as stunning as Fianna Fail's punishment at the polls. It is clear that minor partners in coalition have to be seen as providing support to the senior partner while not being too close, to appear to be critical in relation to policy matters and retain a distinctive platform separate to that of the coalition position.

While I would not advocate public disagreements among coalition partners (even though I suspect some of my fellow Lib Dems may take a different view) it is vital to present ourselves at every opportunity as a distinct party with a separate agenda. We have to avoid the appearance of either having been "fused" with the Conservatives, of being used by them or of meekly surrendering to them. Put simply, the party's identity should be set by its membership rather than association with the coalition agreement. I strongly believe in coalition, but we should avoid being defined exclusively by it.

Secondly - electorates don't reward, they punish. The Irish voters proved this. Nick Clegg seems to feel that the Liberal Democrats will be rewarded for providing stable government. He was arguably right to suppose that the party would never have been taken seriously if it had exchanged participation in government for an easy life in opposition. But the voting public does not reward achievement - it punishes perceived failure. This is a vital lesson our leadership needs to learn: failure to strategically adjust to take into account the nature of electorates may result in future electoral disaster.

Nick Clegg's hopes that the British electorate will reward policy achievements seem naively optimistic. The Irish Greens were able to implement much of their own policy in government - notably an increase in renewable energy output, a carbon tax and significant progress on legislation for same-sex partnerships. Their considerable achievement in doing this paled into insignificance when contrasted with public anger over the government's austerity measures.

Thirdly - the economy is crucial. Fianna Fail's record in government was hardly perfect, but I'm not convinced that any other party would have been able to handle the economy any more effectively. It was the Irish economic disaster (like Gordon Brown, Brian Cowen seriously believed that the only way was up for Ireland's economy) that ultimately proved the undoing of Fianna Fail, in spite of the Taoiseach successfully negotiating a bail-out. It should be noted that there is little difference in policy between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (neither are exponents of liberal economics); the key factor was Fine Gael's ability to play to voters' anger and isolate Cowen. Fine Gael already appear to have backpedalled on some of their more populist positions towards the banking industry and certainly are not prepared to reverse the austerity measures that made Fianna Fail so unpopular.

The coalition will be judged on many things, but ultimately it's the handling of the economy that will prove crucial. There will be a high electoral cost if the coalition's actions do not create the expected economic growth. This is why it was right for George Osborne and David Laws to prioritise tackling the deficit so early on, even if some of the proposed measures are unpalatable. But care should be taken to ensure that austerity measures do not bite too hard, especially if economic growth takes longer than expected to achieve.

Fourthly - the minor party in the coalition is not necessarily protected from the unpopularity of the senior party. Fianna Fail became spectacularly unpopular and ultimately the Greens also paid the price, becoming a target of public disillusion. The kind of annihilation suffered by the Greens is unlikely to apply to the Lib Dems, because the Greens were already starting from a very low electoral base. But it's true that the public standing of the senior partner inevitably affects the minor party - a reality that must be appreciated by those who would love to see our leadership actively undermining our Conservative partners. If they suffer, so do we.

Perhaps I should finally mention the demise of the Progressive Democrats. A key player in Irish politics for decades, the party shared power with Fianna Fail from 1997 until 2007. In the 2007 election, both coalition partners lost seats, but the PDs suffered disproportionately and were reduced to two TDs. The party was wound up in 2009.

I am not predicting disaster for the Liberal Democrats - far from it. Coalition government offers genuine opportunities for our party. But with it also comes significant risks, and the experience of the Irish Greens demonstrates the awkward position minor partners can find themselves in. The parallels with Ireland only run so far; Fianna Fail's most recent term of office began when the Irish economy was extremely strong with the party becoming the victim of mid-term dissatisfaction with its performance, whereas the Westminster coalition has inherited Labour's economic problems and is already acting on them. But there are clear lessons to be drawn from the outcome of the Irish general election and Nick Clegg would be wise to take heed.

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