Saturday, April 26, 2008

How Fine Gael can win - and why it doesn't.

Last year, the Irish people again rejected Fine Gael for the sixth election in a row. But you wouldn't know it from the phoney triumphalism of the party. 'We won 20 seats' they say. They did, but it was only winning back those lost in 2002 - and even then not quite. The party scored 27.9% in 1997, 22.5% in 2002 and 27.1% in 2007. It is evident, in retrospect, that the vote lost by FG to the PDs in 2002 was a loan to that party, grounded among other things in a belief that the party would act as a watchdog on FF sleaze, as well as a general belief by the traditional Blueshirt electorate that a FF overall majority was likely and voting PD was the only way to avoid this appalling vista. In that context, this vote returned to FG in 2007 when the polls made clear this was not a likely scenario on that occasion. Seen in those terms, the increase in seats/votes between the 2 elections, while at first sight rather impressive, becomes decidedly less so when all is considered. This is all the more so considering the fact that 25% of those who voted FG in 1982 did not do so in 1987, and have overwhelmingly not returned since. While most of that vote defected to the PDs in that year, the decline in the PD vote since 1989 did not translate into the Blueshirt Prodigal Sons' returning to the fold. Why is that and what are its implications for the party's fortunes in the future?

One lesson is that people are no longer prepared to elect a government merely on the basis of "not being FF/FG". They want some meat on the bone. They want policies. They want to vote for a party that is actually "for" something, not merely "against" it. The electorate are not dumb - they know there is sleaze in all the parties, and following Lowrygate, are not prepared to accept some notion that any party is on what Dick Spring once referred to as "high moral ground". Pompous claims of moral purity by Fine Gael, especially with regard to the Tribunals, did not benefit FG in the election - this was a natural, inherited FG vote that was always going to return to the party once an election arrived where clearly the prospect of a Fianna Fáil overall-majority no longer applied. The party remains stuck under 30% in actual elections. It briefly polled 30%+ during the election campaign, just as it has in recent polls. But unfortunately for Fine Gael, it is performance on election-day that counts. The final national opinion-poll of the 2007 General Election campaign was from Red C, which had FF on just 38% - 3.5% lower than their actual showing on polling-day. So if anything it is conceivably that however unintentional, their polls are against understating the Fianna Fail vote. Like the Fine Gael vote, the Fianna Fáil vote is largely an inherited vote, based on traditional family voting-patterns, especially since both of the parties have lost most of the swing-vote since 1987, which has since migrated between the PDs (1987), Labour (1992), and the Independents, SF and Greens from 2002 afterwards. What remains is largely the core vote of FF and FG, and is unlikely - barring a 2002 style scenario - to repeat itself based on the current electoral demographic. We are an electorate with a far smaller swing-vote than in most democratic countries.

How can Fine Gael address this? They are unlikely to listen to me - others on the forum know I am no fan of theirs. But it seems clear that possible solutions are:

Tell the electorate what they are for, rather than just what they are against.

Break the alliance with Labour, which has long been the party's Achilles Heel. When voters know you will enter Coalition with Labour, your credibility becomes undermined when your policies conflict with theirs. When you come out supporting Aer Lingus privatisation and they come out against it, Fianna Fáil can rightly say that these 2 parties are too divided to govern the country, and that there is no credible alternative government. This is also so when you come out calling for an end to compulsory Irish in the schools while Labour opposes it, or when Labour calls for an age of consent of 16 while Fine Gael opposes this and so on. By breaking the umbilical-cord with Labour and ruling out electoral-pacts, the party can run as an independent party, ruling out noone as a coalition partner but ruling noone in either. In this way, the party will no longer be undermined in the way that cost them the election last year by announcing a policy that is then shot down by the Labour party.

Another solution might be for Fine Gael and Labour to merge. The reality is that a government involving Labour is likely to be left-leaning anyway, so why pretend Fine Gael can deliver centre -right policies like public-sector reform or greater efficiency by merging state-agencies, as suggested recently by Leo Varadkar? The reality is that Labour, a party bankrolled by the unions, is not going to cross them - it would be like turkeys voting for christmas. There remains a strong Social Democratic wing in the Blueshirt party, and they agree on most issues with Labour, so why not band together to form one party? At least that way, the Opposition is not plagued by fundamental policy-disagreements such that an announcement from one party leads, as night follows day, to a rebuttal by the other. This was one of the reasons the would-be Rainbow lost the election last year.

Thirdly, they could replace Enda Kenny as leader. The outgoing govt of FF-PD outpolled the Rainbow, scoring 44% to 42.%. Exit-polls showed the electorate wanted a government led by Bertie Ahern. They rejected Enda Kenny, who was seen in polls not to have fared well in the debate against Bertie. Bertie caught him out on FG's unfair tax plans, and on the lack of clarity over Kenny's plans to 'reprioritise' spending within the National Development plan. So competency was a factor too. Maybe they ought to consider replacing their leader in that context, so that someone the electorate has more faith in with regard to the framing of detailed and credible policies, and who has less to say about the Tribunals and somewhat more about policies, can take over.

Lastly, a move to a more Eurosceptic position would be a wise decision. It is risible that FG, supposedly a party of Opposition, is giving Fianna Fáil a 'get out of jail free card' on the Lisbon Treaty. The near unanimity of consensus on Eurofederalism inside the Dail is not matched within the general public outside it - 30-54% of them have voted to reject EU treaties consistently since 1987. We elect Irish politicians to govern us. The men and women of 1916 and the War of Independence were not fighting to trade rule by Britain with rule by Brussels. To hand over precious and hardwon national sovereignty is to dishonor their sacrifice and betray the principles for which they died - national independence. While generally pro-EU and the euro in particular, and accepting of the need for greater international cooperation and some common policies with our European partners to meet the challenges of globalisation, the Lisbon Treaty is a step too far, for reasons I have explained in an earlier post. By opposing Eurofederalism, FG could present a positive model of a Europe of nation states, and perhaps attract some of the swing-voters for whom national sovereignty is something worth defending.


James said...

Excellent blog FT and welcome to the blogosphere. You'll find, as I did, it is a much more hospitable environment than where one can vent or muse at leisure and far from the madding crowd. And yet still hiding in plain sight. Liked your post on how FG can turn around, your figures are always good. Would love to see a post on how FF can reclaim some the lost base, how to bring the base back up to 40+ or how to come in shout of the OM once more. Cheers and enjoy the blogging.

FutureTaoiseach said...

Thank you james.

Anonymous said...

It's hilarious hearing "advice" on Fine Gael from the man who posted in schoolboy Irish on "Fine Gael are supporters of Britain, I don't like them".

FutureTaoiseach said...

Anon when did I say this? I have no such recollection.