I couldn’t say that I know Kenneth Egan, the Olympic boxing silver medallist, but I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve heard him on radio and TV. He’s a decent man who would like to give something back to boxing and to his hometown. When I heard that he intended to be a Fine Gael candidate in the 2014 local government elections, I knew that the smart asses would attempt to flitter him. They did.
He was characterised at worst as a fool and at best as naïve, knowing nothing about politics. Well, he’s certainly not a fool. He readily admits that he knows little about politics and that he’s with Fine Gael because they were first to ask him.
Kenneth Egan was open and honest about his intentions. He wanted to do community work. He reckoned that being on the Council would facilitate this. He was elected.
A cursory reading of the 2014 local election material – leaflets and posters – reveals that he was not at all unusual. Local election material was of two familiar – almost ritualistic – types. Firstly, there were lies that national controversies like property and water taxes could be resolved at local level, and futile Labour/FG efforts to counteract the lies. A variation on the lie was that the County Council was irrelevant and that the election was a method of sending a message to national government. Secondly, there was canvassing to secure employment/recognition as a community worker. Completely absent from the election material was any suggestion that the council would be an assembly which would debate politically, a chamber in which local issues would be addressed from the standpoints of competing ideologies and political values.
A consideration of the role of lies and indirect messaging in election campaigns and how mass media encourage or at least facilitate them will have to wait for another day. Here the intention will be to consider the election of community workers to local government.
At first glance politics and community work are quite distinct and it is tempting to view the routine approach to local elections as a misunderstanding or even as a kind of corrupt populism but it might be better to treat it more seriously. There are two possibilities: 1. that candidates believe local government to be non-political; and 2. that the community-work approach reflects a political perspective to rival, say, both liberalism and socialism. Let’s look at the two possibilities in turn.
1. Belief that local government is non-political has its equivalent on the national scale where clientelism thrives. Here candidates compete to provide some sort of service while trying to avoid anything divisive, like a political argument or an overall political perspective. There is a view that a national interest exists which supersedes all divisions including the entire structure of economic inequality. Many people dispute this view and it is particularly rejected by the left. However, its equivalent in local government goes largely unchallenged. Leftists seem to be as committed to the notion of “the community” or “local people” as anyone else.
After the recent 2014 local elections Labour councillors formed a second coalition with Sinn Fein and others to govern South Dublin County. A party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply is revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.”
It is true that power has been shifted to the county manager. It is also true that it is difficult to identify particular council votes that split along ideological lines. The problem is this: If the council is not a battleground of political values, then it has little function. That is to say, if it manages by reliance on a shared view, then it is no more than a supervisory management board and it could or should be replaced by a smaller board or even by an individual. The small board or individual could be charged with being the community’s representative to counterbalance the career managers. Whether or not election is necessary to choosing the counterbalance will be put to one side for consideration another day but the point is that if the council is not riven by political values, there is no reason to continue with its present quasi-parliamentary form when something a great deal smaller would suffice.
2. There is a danger that commentators and political scientists will fail to take the community-work approach seriously, that they will refuse to consider it as a political perspective – a complex, functional, conservative whole, very suited to maintaining privilege in today’s conditions.
A Fine Gael TD (MP) of my acquaintance – a very decent, hard-working person – argues that ideologies are divisive and unnecessary. He sees his election to the Dáil (parliament) as voter recognition for the years of hard work he put in as a county councillor. In other words, voters promoted him to a higher grade. He takes his role as public representative seriously but it is a role which many would dispute or indeed decry. He attends meetings, holds advice clinics etc. He is, to use the familiar term, “active on the ground”. His activity has a purpose: it is how he establishes what his constituents want. Once he’s established that they want something, his role is to do what he can to help them get it. He will write letters/e-mails, attend and speak at public meetings, lead deputations to government ministers or to senior managers in state services or companies. He uses his status and influence to apply pressure for the delivery of some local demand. He might operate similarly on behalf of a family or an individual provided it did not contradict what the community generally wanted. This is his political perspective; this is politics for him. He is aware of course that many criticise him on the basis that all of his activity is about nothing more than ingratiating himself with voters in order to be re-elected. He agrees that his activity “on the ground” is necessary to re-election but he also enjoys doing it, sees it as his function as an elected representative and supports the whole as a sensible, working political system. He is not in the least odd; he’s mainstream.
This is an old, conservative perspective perhaps best understood as the Fianna Fáil tradition of constituency service. They insinuated themselves into each and every locality and organisation and developed a reputation for “getting things done” or “delivering” and indeed bizarrely for being anti-establishment. Leftists behave no differently but they tend to have a different rationale for precisely the same activity. Leftists tend to be in thrall to “working people”, “ordinary people” or increasingly seldom, “the working class”. Like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, leftists sincerely want to advance popular demands but they also want to lead “working people” who are viewed as essentially progressive.
I know quite a few Labour county councillors. They are thoughtful and acutely aware of inequality and the class-divided nature of Irish society. They live to change that society by way of gradual reform, i.e. the parliamentary route. They realise that there is little or no conflict over political values at council level and that they must do community work. Some have ambitions to be elected to the Dáil and see the county council as a stepping stone. Again like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, they work “on the ground” hoping that voters will promote them. They are aware too that promotion to the Dáil will not mean elevation to a realm of political conflict with a constant clash of political values because re-election will to a great extent depend on that same work “on the ground”. There is no easy escape because not only is that the established way of things but the vast majority of electors shares the political view expressed by my Fine Gael acquaintance. Some voters, candidates and elected representatives may adopt a bogus anti-establishment swagger by talking in terms of the “political class” being pressured by “working people” but it amounts to the same stable conservatism: politics reduced to getting facilities or services for one group of citizens/constituents at the expense of others. Community work – together with protest, agitation and pressure – has become part of the management of dissent, a way of avoiding differences over political values.*
It is very different at party meetings. At times a meeting can inhabit another world, a world in which class, oppression, equality, legitimacy, power and their likes have real currency. Here’s the thing: A prospective council candidate seeking support at a Labour convention or – I presume – any other left party’s convention simply could not say that socialism was irrelevant and that they were putting themselves forward as an excellent community worker. The tradition (It may be a myth at this stage.) has to be maintained that community work, leading protests, etc. are directed towards socialism or at least a more equal society. The thought that they might be directed towards maintaining the system would be unbearable for most socialists.**
There is little point in suggesting or debating reforms at this stage. That is to say, there’s not much point in talking about elected county managers or elected supervisory boards because the overwhelming majority – including most of those who would see themselves as anti-establishment – support the system. There is a more basic argument to be addressed first. The republican approach which would include both liberalism and socialism views democracy as a matter of citizen participation in debates about the direction of the republic. It’s a tiny minority viewpoint. Given the forces opposed, it could be termed deeply unfashionable or even eccentric but it is old, basic, democratic and worthy of support.
Yes, council elections are for the most part about appointing/ recognising community workers. Voting for community workers or local-delivery agitators – even when they belong to ideological parties – is at best mildly democratic but in any republican sense might better be seen as counter-democratic.
It would seem time to recognise that a county or a city council is not a little parliament and making an explicit difference between the two might help to revitalise citizenship and push parliament back towards its neglected deliberative role.
* This is not the place to consider the possibility of a post-political age.