An interesting move, on a number of levels:
— Social Democrats (@SocDems) April 2, 2021
On one level, it’s a really excellent career move by Browne. The Soc Dems are, for better or ill (let’s face it: ill) a party on the up, with the wind at their backs. Running their communications shop for the next two or three years in opposition means that Browne will be top of the queue for a well paid, and CV-enhancing, position in Government whenever the party gets its hands on some ministerial mercs. A few years in Government, and you can name your own price when you move to take up your new post as the Chief Executive of the taxpayer funded National Association for Pansexual Hobbits, or whatever. Once you make it into that circle, you’re the Irish establishment’s equivalent of a mafia made man, or made woman, in this case.
It’s also a job where it’s going to be relatively hard to fail. The Soc Dems have lots of things going for them: They’re in opposition, and they’re on the soft left. They have a range of good media performers already, in Roisin Shorthall, Gary Gannon, and Holly Cairns. They also fill a niche in the political system where their brand is much more important to voters than any actual policies that they might have: They’re calibrated to appeal to the kind of voter who cares mainly about climate change, LGBT rights, and uses “wellness” as a noun.
To the extent that there’s a challenge, it’s to grow the brand, and the party, beyond that niche. At the moment, they’re competing for middle class lefty votes with the Greens, and Labour. Given the state of those two parties, that’s not a race that should be hard to win. But growing the party beyond that (assuming it wants to grow beyond that) won’t be easy.
One of the interesting things in Irish politics at the moment is the surprising political resilience of the Government – despite the longest lockdown in the world, high unemployment, rising crime, and all the rest, the Government parties still run, by and large, neck and neck with the opposition. Part of the reason for that, surely, is that Sinn Fein are the main alternative. There is, still, substantial resistance to Sinn Fein from many voters, and there’s a good argument to be made that Sinn Fein, by being a threat to take over, are actually propping the Government up.
The environment is relatively ripe, then, you’d think, for another opposition party to position itself as an alternative to both the Government, and SF. The problem, of course, is that in Ireland’s absurd PRSTV voting system, Social Democrats who criticise Sinn Fein risk losing the number two and three votes of Sinn Fein voters. So creating distance from Sinn Fein, while keeping Sinn Fein voters relatively warmly disposed, is the big challenge.
It’s likely that the Soc Dems won’t even bother trying. Why would they? They’re on course to be in Government by default, so there’s no real need for them to change anything.
What they should be doing, though, is identifying the things that they want to do in Government now, and making sure that those things are achievable, and reasonable, and identifiably Soc Dem. The problem for every party of the Soft Left that enters Government in Ireland is always the same: They over-promise relative to their supporters expectations, and then find that Government is about “difficult decisions”.
Some of that is unavoidable: The kind of people who vote for Labour, the Greens, and the Soc Dems are not very loyal voters. At the first sign of any difficulty, they’ll switch to Labour, just as they switched from the Greens before, and from Labour before that.
It’s a cycle none of those parties have been able to break, so far. Perhaps Colette will have better luck than those – like John Downing, who moved from Journalism to the Greens – who have gone before.