Graph based on analysis by Adrian Kavanagh at politicalreform.ie, 12th June 2014.
As a category for understanding electoral preferences, ‘Independents and Others’ only works in relation to major parties that already exist and are more or less established. This means continuing to look at electoral preferences -and the voters behind them- through a settled and established prism.
But this isn’t the only way of classifying electoral preferences. You could look at it in terms of voting for candidates with hair, or with more than three vowels in their surname, or whose election posters contained only capital letters, and so on.
When you put ‘Independents and Others’ alongside other recognised parties, you are looking at the data in a certain way, one that emphasises the history and fortune of entities familiar as parties. Nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s one particular way of seeing things.
But seeing things this way leads to the highlighting of certain tendencies at the expense of others. For example, many people whose candidate or party of choice falls under the ‘Independents and Others’ grouping might complain, with justification, that their political priorities, the political content of what they are expressing by opting to vote for someone who falls under ‘Independents and Others’, is hidden from view.
As a consequence, when it comes to public discussion of what is going on, our perspective is focused on what developments mean for the established state of things, rather than what different kinds of political thinking are expressed in the different voting pattern.
(I should also point out that regardless of a considerable ‘Independents and Others’ component, monitoring electoral preferences over time gives you no insight into how much confidence people have in the political system to address their concerns and needs)
Clearly ‘Independents and Others’ is a very bad place to end if you’re going to talk about the different kinds of political thinking that might be expressed by people whose vote winds up in this grouping. But this is often where it both begins and ends, especially in mainstream discourse.
Such votes then appear as a ‘protest vote’ or a vote against the major parties, an act that is purely reactive rather than conscious political expressions of this or that kind. We might also tend to imagine a vote for ‘Independent’ as a vote for something seen in the Dáil Technical Group (itself represented in media as a quasi-party), and interpret it on the whole as a vote for Shane Ross, or Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, or Catherine Murphy -or an amalgam of those three- when there may be a great deal more to it than that, and it’s unlikely that anyone voted for anyone with the idea of such an amalgam in their head. (At least you’d hope not, but you never know).
Not only does the ‘Others’ bit deprive the People Before Profit Alliance and the Anti-Austerity Alliance of any prominence, but it also relegates their radical opposition to austerity to a matter of political unimportance. And in so far as these groups ever get named in the media as part of this ‘Others’ and as part of this broader ‘Independents and Others’ category, there is an inevitable suggestion that they are, like other electoral options, mere effects of the established parties, rather than political actors in their own right. Hence we are led in the direction that there is no need to pay any heed to what they are saying, because what really matters is how well the established parties articulate their case, not what smaller groupings have to say.
To be clear, I am not saying that grouping electoral preferences in this way is completely useless. Actually, it tells us interesting things, such as the growing discredit of the established parties. We might conclude that this is a consequence of support for austerity policies and the fact of implementing them in government, the inevitable result of stripping away public services, introducing measures to drive down wages, privileging the financial sector whilst depriving other people of the basic means for a decent existence. That seems to me a reasonable enough conclusion, as far as it goes.
But what I’d like to know, and what such data does not tell me, is whether voting for an ‘Independent’ is a different way of voting. Is it, for example, a way of voting against being represented by a party machine? Is it a way of voting for greater democratic accountability? Is it a way of voting for people you identify with precisely because you do not perceive them as machine politicians but rather people you can rely upon?
As I have noted previously, a lot of these so-called ‘Independents’ are basically Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in disguise. See here for more details. However, that doesn’t mean people are voting for them because they are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in disguise. Similarly when people say to a pollster they are voting ‘Independent’ (assuming they did not mention any particular candidate that was classified as ‘independent’ post facto) that does not mean they were going to vote for any ‘Independent’ candidate willy-nilly; I imagine lots of them voted for independent candidates who showed particular traits and articulated their position in certain ways.
There are so many questions that will never even get asked through this perspective of Established Parties vs. Independent & Others, and so many perspectives that will simply be ignored. How much of an overlap is there between the reasons people had for voting PB4P or AAA, and people voting for other ‘Independents’? I am just guessing here, but I reckon a lot of people voted PB4P and AAA not because they are drawn towards the SWP or the SP as such, but rather because they saw the names and profiles of people with whom they could identify, not people who mean (big) business.
To sum up, rather hastily: I think the ‘Independents and Others’ category obscures a lot more than it illuminates, and the political effects of looking at things in this way are far from neutral. It may be tempting to look upon the votes in the category as ‘anti-establishment’, but you can have different kinds of anti-establishment vote.
There are lots of things worth investigating here, but one in particular is how much -if at all- people are voting in ways that they believe allow them to maximise their democratic agency, rather than simply allowing themselves to be represented by someone else. If there is such a thing, you have the nucleus of possibility for a new democratic common sense. I am wondering about this not because I want to classify certain voters in a better way, or because I am hoping certain people are this way inclined rather than that; it’s more like sifting through a pan full of sludge for a glint of gold.