THE MEATH EAST by-election was always a contest between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to retain or win back a seat, but the most interesting – and surprising – show was what went on between the other parties. Aping opinion polls, Labour’s vote has collapsed and a new party, Direct Democracy Ireland (DDI), showed up and stole 6.45 per cent of the vote almost from nowhere.
This percentage might not sound like much, and in a by-election it won’t even get you your deposit back. But for a party with almost no national profile that supposedly spent €3,000 on their campaign in a constituency flooded with every resource and recognisable name the major parties had to throw into it, it’s a tentative sign that the “Something Else” that the Irish people have been waiting for may have arrived. DDI were excluded from RTÉ’s Prime Time Debate because they weren’t one of the major parties. In the end, they got 41 per cent more votes than Labour.
Direct Democracy Ireland’s success
Caveats can be thrown around – and will be, particularly by the grand old parties – about DDIs success in the by-election. It’s not a normal election. It’s their ‘home county’. It’s mid-term for the government. Still, one wonders where they might have got to if they had not been a footnote in much of the coverage of the election; and where they might go to now that they have some national profile thanks to the voters of Meath East.
A by-election is always a strange snapshot of how the electorate might be feeling. On the one hand, an opinion poll samples 1,000 people to give us the state of the parties; the by-election sent 24,000 of them to do the business for real. On the other hand, regional concerns and the emotive circumstances in which it was called, as well as the fact that there’s only one seat up for grabs, play a hand.
But Meath East is a good bell weather constituency. In the general election of 2011 it flipped from two Fianna Fáil and one Fine Gael to one Labour and two Fine Gael. In the by-election we saw a trend continued from national opinion polls – Fianna Fáil are back in business, Sinn Fein are up on where they were and Labour are screwed. Fine Gael remain the undisputed top dog, but the “undecided” and “independent” voters that are consistently holding strong in polling either didn’t show up or voted in unexpected numbers for a new party.
A fifth of voters fall into the undecided category, and of those with intent to vote a fifth are looking to independents and others. There is a market there among disillusioned voters for “something else”, but so far it has not coalesced into anything particularly cohesive or interesting.
Support among the traditionally big three parties (though Labour is increasingly looking like the fourth or fifth party) is still strong: Despite the wipe out of Fianna Fáil in 2011, the three horsemen of the bailout won the exact same number of seats between them (133) as they had in 2002; the year we were writing Fine Gael’s obituary. They won 72.9 per cent of the vote in 2011, versus the 52 per cent they hold in opinion polls mid-term (when you expect softer numbers); and 76 per cent they won between them in the Meath East by-election.
The lack of cohesive alternatives to vote for has stymied any electoral shift, which is why Direct Democracy Ireland’s first run out is so interesting. Take a closer look at the party and it may or may not be your cup of tea, but somewhat cleverly they’re pitching themselves as a “political service” with a focus on a direct democratic model such as is seen in Switzerland.
The Swiss model
The Swiss can call referendums by collecting enough signatures, something they recently did in calling and subsequently passing a referendum on controlling executive pay at public companies. DDI seems broadly to be about giving democratic power to the people and opening up government to more scrutiny and account. This chimes with the disillusioned masses who, even as they vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, really seem to feel that they’re voting for the least worst option.
There’s a whiff of half-baked populism to DDIs policies beyond this simple idea, perhaps the product of a young political movement that, to date, has been shaped by a few individuals with certain things grinding their gears or general ideas about what to do with the place. Point number five on their ten points of policy is to review a €1 billion payment into AIB’s pension fund, a worthy exercise but perhaps not a vision for a brave future. Point ten is to “review all sectors of the economy… and implement any and all necessary reforms determined by the review process.”
In other words, “we know things are broken. We’d like to fix them by, err, supporting new businesses and such.”
I think DDI can be forgiven for not having a fully rounded policy on everything and anything. The existing parties all share in a trough of millions in state spending designed to help them with detailed policy formulation, allocated based on their share of the last general election vote. DDI can’t be expected to re-invent the wheel overnight, but I think that if they stick to their core ideal of people-driven policy then it will be the folks who choose to join their party who will shape a rounded political platform over time.
What DDI offers is the first seemingly serious attempt at a new political party to cater for the desire of Irish people for a real change in how the country works. They offer that through the simple concept of a more direct democratic model, but in a practical sense they also offer it by being the first people to get organised and go do the hard slog of a ground game and win some votes. Everybody else has, to date, been talking the talk about starting something new. DDI have gone and walked the walk around the estates and streets of East Meath.
If you’re serious about wanting change in Ireland, you could do worse than seriously consider getting involved with them. If they’re not your cup of tea, find something closer to your worldview. Irish voters, through the constituents of Meath East, have proven that they will vote for an alternative if it’s presented.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.