C: Houses of the Oireachtas

Why the SocDems should (and likely will) bet on Holly Cairns

It would be churlish and unfair not to say that the outgoing co-leaders of the Social Democrats, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shorthall, deserve significant political credit for the fact that the party has six seats. It is very difficult, regardless of your political background or views, to launch a new political party in Ireland. The Social Democrats have been the most successful attempt at it in 40 years. There are many other parties of similar age which have no Dáil seats at all, because of how hard it is to break through.

At the same time, the SocDems are where they are largely because of the implosion of the Labour Party over the last decade. The party represents people who would, in most other times, be natural supporters of Ivana Bacik: Progressives, Academics, youthful idealists, economic left wingers, and alienated Greens. But for many of those voters, Labour remains too tainted by its betrayals, real or imagined, in the Government of 2011-2016, when the dream of Gilmore for Taoiseach became the reality of Burton for Austerity.

In many ways, the Soc Dems have long been in tune with the prevailing winds on the Irish left: Female co-leaders was one way to say “we are feminist, and different, and have a new inclusive approach to politics”. The shocking betrayal of Stephen Donnelly, when he abandoned the party for Fianna Fáil, created a certain purity cult around the party, suggesting it was no home for careerists. The purple people crusade was a pure and noble one, with all the more distasteful ambition and careerism that blights other parties tossed aside.

The problem was of course that Shorthall and Murphy were entirely out of step with the zeitgeist of the party they led: It is young and angsty, they are older and have seen it all. As much as they might try, they were never really suited to leading a party where many of the members want to scream all day about the racism crisis and the housing crisis and the climate crisis and the inequality crisis and the pronouns crisis and the whatever you are having yourself crisis. While they are two very capable leaders, nobody really looks at either of them on the telly and thinks “that’s the radical change we need”. Their skills were always in party building, and policy committees, and understanding the legwork of politics.

And so the experiment has run its course, the party announced yesterday. Time to become more, well, shouty. The new leader, we can safely say, will be either Gary Gannon or Holly Cairns. If they are smart, and you are smart and a betting person, then you’d put your money on Cairns.

For one thing, Cairns is already something of a media darling: She is young and she is a woman and she is a progressive, three things that the modern media simply cannot get enough of. If she becomes leader, then Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett will have stiff competition for the “record number of appearances on RTE in a week” award.

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.

Gannon, I fear, is too working class in accent and outlook to credibly lead a party that draws its support from the most self-consciously middle class people in Ireland. He would be much more at home – rhetorically speaking – in Sinn Fein or People before Profit than he is in a party whose brand is targeted at middle class college students angry at their parents. Plus, one more angry shouting lefty man on the opposition benches is unlikely to make much of a political impact, when we already have the aforementioned PbP twosome, and Pearse Doherty for good measure. Gannon would find it much harder to differentiate himself.

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.

We shall wait and see.

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