Conventional wisdom is a powerful thing. Take the budget: every year, regardless of whatever party is in power, pensioners get pandered to. Governments throw whatever they can afford at them, and opposition parties give themselves hernias protesting that it’s not enough. If it was polite to render garments and fling themselves on the floor of the chamber, they would. selves wailing onto the floor of the Dail chamber they would do so happily.
Nobody dares to ask if this is the best use of finite resources? Is giving a pensioner an extra €5 really a better use of millions of euro than, say, directing that money into providing affordable accommodation for students?
Of course it’s not. A fiver is a fiver.
But we don’t look at it that way, and we know why.
Pensioners scare the bejesus out of politicians. Young people don’t.
We can’t be that surprised that as a result young people get screwed on issues like housing or job security. Politicians simply don’t believe young people are an asset or a threat to them.
One reason is that nobody is corralling young people into a coherent political force.
Take the Union of Students in Ireland, which claims to represent 374,000 third level students in the country. If USI was a party with a first preference vote that strong it would have gotten a vote equal to Sinn Fein and the Anti-Austerity Alliance together in the 2016 general election. Between them they won 29 seats in the Dail. No mean feat.
Ah, says you, but students don’t all vote the same.
That’s true. That’s also the problem, because that’s exactly what politicians think too.
That pensioners do vote the same way on the issues that relate directly to them. Target pensioner voters with a direct negative policy like taking their medical cards off them and they will come at you with a vengeance.
Young voters, on the other hand, are all over the shop, assuming they even turn up, and so can be ignored.
Whose fault is that?
Supposing, say, USI decided to actually field candidates in the next general election. Could the union deliver anything close to its nominal membership in first preferences?
USI has pushed voter registration in the past, and “lobbied” on student issues, but that means nothing if you haven’t got a stick to wave and a willingness to use it.
Think the IFA or GAA accept a nominal pre-budget meeting and a few scraps? Think they don’t have a good idea what they’re actually getting in the budget?
Yes, student opinions are all over the shop. Polls show that Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail respectively are the two most popular parties with young people but surely a USI candidate running purely on a platform of building more affordable student housing should be able to take a respectable share of first preferences in constituencies with major colleges?
On a side note, by the way, the fact that SF and FF, ironically the most pro-life parties in the country, are most popular with young voters must raise an issue about how important those voters actually regard the abortion issue. But that’s a whole other debate.
Even if USI candidates failed to get elected, if a half dozen USI candidates got half a quota each, that would make politicians sit up because votes and preferences are the coin of the political realm. If USI warned that in the next election not only would it run candidates again, but it would publicly nominate specific candidates or parties for its second preferences, then they start to matter.
All that assumes that USI or other young voter advocates can get young voters to the polls in numbers that matter, and not just on a once-off like abortion or marriage equality. But make TDs fear for their seats and they’ll pay attention.
Decisions, as President Bartlet said, are made by those who turn up.