Forgive me a little bit of a victory lap here: When you’re in the business of writing daily, chances are you will get a few things wrong, and when you do, people are quick to rub your nose in it. So let me just re-post these two paragraphs I wrote ten days ago, when Holly Cairns emerged as the frontrunner for the leadership of the Social Democrats:
For another, she creates a generational problem for Labour and the Greens in the competition for the self-consciously-intelligent lefty vote that divides itself between those three parties. The other two will head into the next election lead by Ivana Bacik and Eamon Ryan – a pair of old warhorses whose best days are behind them. Cairns would offer the brooding guardian podcast listener something different: a world in which a new generation of young women rule. This has been the progressive utopian ideal in Ireland now for some time, and it is not hard to imagine the likes of Miriam Lord and the National Women’s Council going potty for it.
I saw somebody saying yesterday that they thought the high-water mark for the SocDems had passed. I am not entirely sure that is correct: Even if we got to the unlikely situation where 85% of the public turned entirely on the soft-left approach to politics, there is still a solid 15% or more of the vote that floats between Labour, the Greens, the middle class Neale-Richmond-type Fine Gaeler, and people like the Soc Dems. Give those voters Cairns, with the media kid-glove treatment that she is basically guaranteed to receive, and it would not shock me if they emerged as the largest party out of the SD/Lab/Green trio at the next election.
I confess that when I wrote that, I didn’t think it would happen quite so quickly:
POLL: Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks
(March 3, MoE 2.9%)
Sinn Féin 29 (-2 in a month)
Fine Gael 21 (-1)
Fianna Fáil 19 (+1)
Social Democrats 9 (+5)
Green Party 4
Solidarity-PBP 2 (-1)
Aontú 3 (-1)
Labour 3 (-1)
— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) March 4, 2023
Two well-connected observers who I know were quick, yesterday, to remark to me that they did not think the current Social Democrat bounce would last. One of them, a Fine Gaeler who is very clear eyed about politics, is of the view that in due course, as the questions about policy mount, Cairns relative lack of fluency on a range of issues will come to haunt her. There’ll be some unconvincing interviews ahead, was his take, and the momentum will naturally peter out. A journalist of many years experience echoed this view, noting that while Cairns has undoubtedly made a good first impression on the public, “they really know nothing about her other than that she seems very nice”. When they hear her talking incessantly about climate change and the need to take more refugees, he reasoned, the shine might wear off.
I’m here to tell you folks: I’m not so sure.
It is very tempting to write a politician off simply because you would never vote for them. And, in the spirit of disclosure, the Social Democrats will not be ranked high on my ballot. But I do think, with relative confidence, that their vote may well soar at the next election, for a number of reasons more to do with the psychology of politics than the boring stuff like policy, which – and I am only half joking – hardly anyone cares about anyway.
General Elections are usually, for voters, a simple choice between two broad alternatives: Stay the course, or change direction. If a majority are happy with how things are going, then Governments will usually be re-elected. If a majority are deeply dissatisfied, voters will look for some form of change. Change can come in several different ways: A change of policy. A change of tone. Perhaps just a change of faces – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dominated Irish politics for a century by repeatedly offering much the same, but with a change of faces. It works.
But change can also be generational. Cairns is – ironically enough – of the same generation of Leo Varadkar, but they do not appeal to the same voters. But she offers a generational change in leadership on the left. Across the democratic world, the left increasingly depends on the votes of the young to get ahead – most especially the votes of young unmarried women. In the most recent US election, for example, Democrats won the votes of single women by a margin of 68% to 31% while losing the national vote overall.
What’s more, aside from offering generational change on the left, Cairns offers something else that nobody else can: Purity.
The Greens and Labour are both tarnished by spells in Government within the last decade, and must answer for various betrayals and underachievements. Sinn Fein, though we are not supposed to mention it, still carry the moral discomfort for many voters of getting a little too close to the cordite and sulphur. If you want a dream of a better Ireland unblemished by the sins of the past, you can project all of that onto Holly Cairns without ever having your hopes tarnished by unfortunate things like the past.
The message is not hard to see: She delivered it herself just last week when she noted that some of the people currently in power bankrupted the country a decade ago. In other words: It’s time for a new generation to take power and clean up the mess.
It is tempting to understate the appeal of that message to the young in particular, but that would to my mind be foolish: These people – the youth – tend to love a historic cause. They rallied for Gay Marriage and Abortion. They made Greta Thunberg an icon. The idea of young people saving the country and the planet from all that has gone before is a brilliant message because, like all the best messages, it flatters the voter. It makes them part of something.
Add to all this the media love in, and I think it will be very hard for Cairns to fail. One is not supposed to write about politician’s appearances, but Cairns will benefit from the great hypocrisy where at once, her picture appears on as many front pages as possible, while at the same time you are to be told that it’s not about her appearance. That last bit, my friends, is a lie.
Add to all of this the media desire for an Irish feminist icon – their own Jacinda Ardern or Sanna Marin or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez – and I’d be surprised if Cairns gets many questions of the kind that might land her in trouble. If anything, watch for her to benefit from regular charges of sexism tossed at those who fumble a criticism of her, and features about the challenges of being a young woman in politics.
The stage is set. It would not shock me if the Soc Dems polled above 15% on election day – assuming they can find sane candidates.
That, as ever, is the one political challenge that all parties struggle with.