The Swill of The People

A post-referendum note: I haven’t been paying a huge amount of attention to the post-referendum media coverage though I suspect I’ve paid enough to discern one tendency in particular: the analysis of the result in terms of its implications for each political party. So the high percentage of No votes in a working class area indicates that the Labour Party are losing even more of their supporters to Sinn Fein, such-and-such a party member performed badly, others did well, what has each party done to enhance or diminish its prospects for electoral power, and so on.

The other day I heard a little bit of a post-referendum discussion on RTE. In it Dan O’Brien, the Irish Times economics correspondent, deplored the rule that guarantees equal airtime for Yes and No arguments during a referendum campaign. This rule, he said (I’m paraphrasing), meant that allocation of airtime was disproportionately in favour of the No side because it was a distortion of the overall picture of party political electoral preferences. This complaint echoed an article written by his Irish Times colleague Noel Whelan during the campaign, and many similar arguments which are made whenever there is a referendum campaign. Why, they ask, should the No side get as much airtime as the Yes side when the people on the Yes side have been voted for by far more people?

What this preoccupation with the allocation of airtime in line with party political electoral power illustrates is the widespread conviction that politics is mainly a matter of getting represented. You vote for representatives, and it’s expected that they will act on your behalf, not only in advocating and voting on legislation in parliament (which is what you supposedly elect them for, after all), but what is more, in terms of persuading you what is in your best interest. It is not that your own opinion is of no importance; it is simply assumed ex ante that you don’t have any worth speaking of. So, this logic goes, when it comes to helping you make your mind up in a referendum question, it ought to be the people who have proven most successful at the most recent electoral contest who should get the most airtime. In other words, the government parties should always get the most airtime in putting their viewpoint across, which is how it is the rest of the time, and, so the logic goes, there’s nothing in the slightest wrong with that (provided it’s not one of those horrid Latin American left-wing governments, of course).

But -leaving aside the question of whether you ought to trust the government on anything- the whole point of a referendum like the one just held is that it has to be ‘the people’, as defined by the constitution, not the Government, who have to decide on the question of national policy. The Government’s capacity to make the decision is recognised by the constitution as insufficient. So the argument that political parties ought to be privileged in terms of allocation of coverage is contrary to the whole purpose of having a referendum in the first instance. To be fair to those who do make this ‘proportional airtime representation’ argument, they do not usually believe that at referendum is a useful democratic instrument at all, and tend to bemoan the fact that Ireland’s political elites cannot simply sign up to European treaties the way parliaments do across the European Union, which is to say, having a bourgeois democracy worthy of the name: one where you don’t even have to bother consulting the people at all. In fact, if push came to shove, many of them would assent to the idea that parliament was too unwieldy an instrument for proper decision-making anyway, that its powers should be pared down as far as possible, as with Troika programmes and the new Fiscal Treaty, and, where appropriate, done away with altogether. Anyway, that is beside the point, which is that the spectacle of representative parliamentary politics -the intrigues, the careerism, the dispassionate weighing up of electoral permutations- is relentlessly presented by media outlets and, of course, by professional politicians, as the alpha and the omega of politics. So, as soon as voters in predominantly working class areas had registered their overwhelming preference for a No vote, attention turned to the matter of winners and losers from the referendum campaign. Although a class division was apparent from voting patterns, the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ were, in the coverage I encountered, not categories of people who stood to benefit or lose out on account of the measures in the treaty getting applied -whose pay and state benefits would get cut? whose nearest A&E ward would get withdrawn? whose risk of financial suffocation, or deprivation, or long-term illness, would now rise?- but those political parties who could count on picking up more or less votes from the fallout. There is something rather neat about this. At the moment of holding the referendum, representative parliaments across Europe, as a means of ensuring democratic rule with all its attendant rights and protections, were spluttering into obsolescence, swept aside by the interests of major financial corporations. And yet the concern here -and not just in the right-wing media- is with how political parties are going to get on at the next election. At the very moment when an Irish referendum was determined, on the whole, by fear of destruction in the event of disobeying the will of anti-democratic institutions such as the IMF, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and various ratings agencies, hope in representative democracy seems to have sprung to the surface with sprightly vigour once again, like a young King Charles who has heard the sound of his leash getting rattled. Will the chains of illusion ever be broken in Ireland? Or will the soundtrack to wholesale social implosion be breathless reports on the latest party leader satisfaction ratings?

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