Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics

Do normal people go into politics anymore?

Posted by Jason O on Nov 12, 2013 in Irish Politics |

Repost: Originally posted May 2012.

I recently had lunch with someone not involved in politics who had been asked to consider running for a party. He refused, and was surprised at the reaction of non-political friends who encouraged him to run. What was interesting, and I’ve experienced it myself, is how non-political people’s view of going into politics differs radically from the reality.

The first big difference is the cost. It amazes me the amount of people who believe that political parties actually fund candidates campaigns. When I ran myself, friends who helped me could not believe how much time was spent fundraising, having assumed that the party just picks up the tab. I know people still paying off overdrafts from campaigns fought a decade ago. I also know a person who refused to believe that campaign workers weren’t all paid by the party.

Secondly, they couldn’t believe how many party members who demand an input into candidate selection vanish when the campaign starts, leaving candidates for the most part with their own family and friends, often running a campaign with people who are not even supporters of the party. In “The West Wing”, you never saw Jed Bartlett sitting at his kitchen table pleading with friends to give him an hour on a Saturday afternoon to drop a leaflet in an estate, or settling to bring his still half-drunk brother from the night before to drop leaflets with the promise of a dirty fry.

Finally, the sheer amount of time and physical door knocking required stuns non-political people. It always raises a smile amongst veterans when a new campaigner, when asked what they can do, suggests something like “I can help hone your message, spin, that kind of thing?”. This is one of the big jaw-droppers from people who believe that an election campaign is only a month long. That and the realisation that the most welcome contributor to a candidate is not the guy with the campaign politics degree from Harvard but the weirdo wafting of BO who religiously drops 1000 doors every Saturday.

The truth is, not only do normal people not get deeply involved in politics when they realise the sheer effort involved, and the disruption it will cause to their normal work and family life, a new generation of people are not getting involved because they…get this…are actually interested in discussing politics.

What’s that, you say? Surely people interested in politics should join a political party? Actually, no. Don’t. Because there isn’t time with all the above to actually discuss what a given party is for. A candidate who spends his time in a pub discussing political ideas will not get elected. Modern political parties are dominated not by the politically interested but the politically ambitious, people who do not want to do as much as want to be. To them, politics is not an aim but a tool.

Recently, I mentioned to someone the idea of setting up an informal “Chatham House Rule” political debate club that would meet maybe once a month to debate a political issue. No party ding-dongs, just discussion about a given issue, maybe around a motion or policy paper. What surprised me was the amount of party political people whose eyes lit up with enthusiasm for the idea. Not as a forum to further their party interest, but somewhere where they could discuss political ideas that could not be raised in an actual political party.

Somewhere outside of their political activities where they could actually discuss politics, which says it all, really.


James Lawless
Nov 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Had to sadly shake the head in agreement with many of the observations in this. As a candidate shortly contesting the locals, what I wouldn’t give for a weird and wonderful hipster ready to drop 1,000 doors every Saturday. All the Harvard, Eli Gould, campaign honing, hocus pocus would be great – if there was any possible way to incorporate into a constituency campaign. The reality of it is that the opportunities for that sort of messaging are so limited. Some element of branding or theme may permeate early drafts of campaign literature but that is probably about the extent of it. And most of those materials land in the bin anyway within seconds of dropping onto the doormats. Anywhere below the top of the tree (i.e. excepting potential candidates for Taoisigh involved in Leader’s debates where the colour of ties or word patterns may actually be analysed, albeit only then in a filler piece) that sort of forum just doesn’t arise in Irish politics. There are no panel discussions, campaign debates, nuanced policy considerations or political strategy opportunities. For one thing Irish political campaigns tend to be very non-combative (at least at local level). The norm at public meetings where you may encounter opposition candidates is for everyone to agree with each other – and just hope whoever makes the most reasoned point wins the plaudits. It’s a lot more slog and a lot less sloganising than anyone could imagine.

On the point about money I had an interesting conversation very recently with a non-political friend. We (the local FF cumann) had just organised a fundraiser for a local charity. My friend asked after the event “Well I hope ye (FF) gave them a good donation yourselves”. We didn’t – we organised the event, we staffed it, promoted it, ensured all our supporters attended it, shook buckets, sold tickets, collected admissions, the whole shooting match, and every cent was duly handed over to the charity. We were delighted to do it and from a political perspective the publicity was a win for us as much as the cash was for them. But we didn’t give them any of “our own money” as such for the simple reason that we don’t have any! My friend couldn’t get his head around that. Sure Dublin HQ has a few quid to run the party but they’re hardly going to send cheques down to every local constituency unit for disbursement to local worthy causes. And local units just don’t have cash. To me this was all very intuitive and obvious – but not to my friend. It just harks back to the perception of candidates being funded – as a candidate still paying off a credit union loan from last time round, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry :-|

Dermot lacey
Nov 13, 2013 at 4:58 pm


So true on so many counts. As ever your insights are both accurate and enjoyable. Politics should sometimes also be fun

P McKeena
Nov 20, 2013 at 11:45 am

Politics is a vocation really… kinda like social work, but with well paid positions towards the top of the career ladder.
Out of interest, what sort of 1. time and 2. money are people pouring into local election campaigns?



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