Tuesday, 4 Aug 2020

Theresa Reidy: 'It's too soon to call if it's really a Green Wave or a tide that's going to turn back to the big parties'

Voters who participate in local and European elections are aware that these contests differ in important ways from general elections. They do not choose the government and, unfettered by concerns about income tax rates and national policy, voters are often more experimental in their voting preferences.

The Green Party is the latest beneficiary of the more open form of political competition at local and European elections.

The Greens look set to make significant gains at local government level and could return two, and potentially three, MEPs.

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Their success is rooted in social change, the mainstreaming of climate issues, the odd structure of government that entangles the two centre-right parties and the fading anti-austerity sentiment that has opened up space for debates about the crisis for humanity posed by climate change.

In the 1970s, Ronald Inglehart, a US political scientist, first began writing about the effect that relative affluence had on the political attitudes of voters.

Mr Inglehart began by looking at the post-World War II generation that rebuilt Europe and showed how they valued social order and material concerns, often because their very survival had been at stake during their lifetimes.

He then went on to show that voters who reach political maturity during times of peace, with reasonable economic security, have the freedom to concern themselves with softer issues of equality, human rights and climate change. He labelled these values post-materialist.

A global study of Green Party support published in 2018 found that the Greens do particularly well in wealthy countries with low levels of unemployment. These ideas resonate strongly in 2019, Ireland is a wealthy country with low unemployment.

The climate crisis has also begun to affect people in tangible ways. Extreme weather events like flooding and snowstorms have caused national shutdowns.

Alarming research on biodiversity, discussions about climate refugees and campaigns on single-use plastics are a regular part of the news digest.

The Green surge should be evaluated against this background of the direct impact of climate change and heightened consciousness of it as an issue.

The Spring 2019 Eurobarometer (EU-wide opinion poll) showed that 34pc of Irish voters thought climate change should be a priority during the European Parliament elections. The EU average was just 16pc. The RTÉ exit poll showed that by polling day, a remarkable 88pc of voters declared that the Government should be doing more about climate change.

And this is where the unusual government arrangements come in.

Usually when voters think that a government is not doing a good job, they vote for the opposition. But in this case, the Opposition, in the form of Fianna Fáil, is keeping the Fine Gael Government in power.

And voters may also have a well-founded suspicion that neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are really committed to policies to deal with climate change, especially where they may conflict with other important interests groups such as farmers and the wider rural community.

Economic growth has pushed austerity policies into the recent past and there was a notable difference in the big issues discussed through the 2019 campaign.

Water charges and cuts to services dominated in 2014, but housing and climate change were far more important over the past six weeks.

The Green surge is not an exclusively Irish phenomenon.

According to some early results and exit polls, the Greens are on course for gains in the Netherlands and Belgium and they may end up the second largest party in both Finland and Germany.

The Greens are displacing older social democratic parties that are struggling to define themselves. The party is proving very appealing to young, educated, middle-class voters.

In many ways, the stars aligned for the Greens in Ireland in 2019.

The economy is recovering, voters are more affluent, climate change is beginning to really bite and the other parties are poorly placed to own the issue, and appeal to voter groups most concerned with the climate crisis.

There is a possibility that a partial realignment of voters is taking place. For some young voters, this was their first election and they may have initiated a pattern that would see them become life-long Green voters. It is too early to tell.

To go back to the start, voters are often more experimental at local and European Parliament elections.

Small parties tend to do very well and the Government often takes a beating, the governing penalty.

It may very well be that the Green tide will recede and the educated, urban middle class will go back to supporting Fine Gael, Labour and other parties of the centre. This election will have been a wake-up call for all parties and we should expect a political rush to low-energy light bulbs, electric scooters and hybrid cars as all parties seek to wrap themselves in environmental concerns.

But returning to the 2018 research, it showed that when Green parties are well established, it is much more difficult to steal their ideas.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork

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