Trends in party political support since the 2007 general election
[Update 1/2/11 9.15PM] A new poll has just been published which shows Fine Gael at 30% (-4) and Sinn Fein returning to an earlier high point of 13% (+3). All other parties are the same. It is significant that Fianna Fail have received no further boost from the election of Michael Martin as leader and that Fine Gael have gone down despite (because of?) their meeting with Barroso. The Chart above has been updated to reflect these latest figures.[End Update]
Two new opinion polls published on 30th. January have given us additional data points on the likely outcome of the General Election to be called by Brian Cowen tomorrow (Tuesday) and expected to take place on 25th. February. Both polls were in the field last Wednesday and Thursday, after the Cowen implosion and just as Fianna Fail were electing their new leader, Michael Martin.
So what outcomes can we predict based on:
i) The data to hand
ii) Experience of previous polls/elections
iii) Campaign events to date?
1. Fianna Fail
As the most recent polls were in the field just as Michael Martin was being elected, it is unclear whether they capture the full effect of any Martin “bounce”, or, indeed, any criticisms and negative impacts his leadership may have. There is certainly a concern that a Cork based leader will be of little help to many beleaguered FF candidates in Dublin.
However as several polls both before and after his election of shown, he is by far the most popular leader FF could have elected, and there is already some evidence that his effect on their polling will be generally positive. The last comparable poll showed FF at 13%, so their current polling at 16% is already an improvement. However a small poll (sample 200) front-paged by the Sunday Independent last week without any methodological details showed FF at only 8% at the height of the Cowen implosion. So it is possible that the FF vote has already doubled since its low point.
There may also be a “shy voter” effect whereby some of those polled are embarrassed to admit to voting FF and this may be behind at least part of the rise in those saying they will vote Independent to 15%. As voters vote for candidates rather than parties under the Irish single transferable vote system, there may also be a local candidate effect whereby FF have a preponderance of well known and established incumbent candidates who are not shy of distancing themselves from the FF brand when it suits them.
FF numbers generally improve as campaigns progress (they achieved 42% in the last election even though the average of their polls over the previous 6 months was only 38%) and their leader is now the most popular personality and perhaps most able debater. Most pundits would therefore expect FF to “achieve” c. 20% of the vote and 30+ seats – a huge decline from 42% and 77 seats at the 2007 general election.
2. Fine Gael
Fine Gael have been polling consistently in the mid 30’s in recent polls, and like Fianna Fail, tend to do better in the actual election than prior polls would suggest – they polled 27% in the last general election having averaged 24% in opinion polls over the previous 6 months. This is largely because their base – middle class, rural and older – tends to have a higher turnout at election time.
As against that, their Leader, Enda Kenny, has consistently polled badly and is regarded as a poor campaigner/debater. Under most circumstances, the electorate has difficulty in identifying policy differences between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – Fine Gael generally presenting itself as more prudent, competent, and ethical than Fianna Fail – as befits a party largely representing professional and propertied classes.
However in this election Fine Gael has successfully differentiated itself from Fianna Fail by opposing the blanket bank bailout/guarantee and by arguing for a renegotiation of the IMF/ECB deal. They can thus present themselves as a genuine alternative despite the fact that in terms of economic ideology they are at least as elite orientated as Fianna Fail. They just represent different strands of the elite!
It is thus likely that Fine Gael will be, by far, the largest party after the election, and may even have enough seats to form a minority Government with some independent support. They would fit in very comfortably with the EPP majority within the EU.
This has been a difficult campaign to date for the Labour Party, squeezed on the left by Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance (lumped under Independents in all polls to date); and on the right by a more assertive Fine Gael successfully differentiating themselves from Fianna Fail’s policies in Government.
Labour has lost c. 10% in the polls since its high point of 33% in Sept. 2010 when it actually out-polled Fine Gael by 33 to 24%. There are various views on why this has been the case. Fine Gael have recovered from a failed leadership heave against Enda Kenny in June 2010. Many regard Labour’s refusal to countenance any prospect of working with Sinn Fein as a mistake – given that Sinn Fein have been able to work even with Loyalist parties in Northern Ireland.
Neither were Labour helped by a petulant performance by their Finance spokes-person, Joan Burton, in a television debate with the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins MEP on “Tonight with Vincent Browne” – admittedly not helped by a characteristically boorish performance by the host. For a flavour of this debate, see the you tube clip below:
The bottom line is that Labour is now fighting to retain second place against a slightly improving Fianna Fail and could end up (again) as the junior partner in a Government dominated by Fine Gael. Given Labour’s failure to develop any kind of working relationship with others on the left, and determination to work only with Fine Gael, it is a fate which they have perhaps created for themselves.
4. Sinn Féin
Given that Sinn Fein are the only party to have opposed the IMF/ECB bail-out in full, it is perhaps surprising to see their support declining from 13 to 10% in the last poll. However their leader, Gerry Adams, is seen as a near illiterate on economic matters in a campaign dominated by economic issues. With only four TD’s in the outgoing parliament Sinn Fein have lacked effective spokes-persons with the exception of the recently elected successful candidate in the Donegal by-election, Pearse Doherty. Labour never misses an opportunity to remind all who will listen that Sinn Fein failed to oppose the Bank guarantee initially – almost certainly because of Sinn Féin’s inexperience in parliamentary manoeuvring.
Sinn Féin also, typically, does less well in actual elections as opposed to opinion polls, partly because (like all smaller parties) they do not run candidates in all constituencies, and also because their younger and working class base is less likely to turn out. Undoubtedly they will significantly increase their parliamentary representation this time, but the moment when they might even have out-polled Fianna Fail is probably over, now that Brian Cowen has resigned as leader.
The Greens are bumping along the bottom within the 3% margin of error of most polls. However they are only running candidates in a few constituencies and some of these are high profile resigning Ministers. The Greens may have regained some credibility by finally pulling the plug on the Government and they only need a few of their candidates to buck the national trend to be in with a chance of gaining a couple of seats. However they may only be clutching at some of the straws which have already broken the camel’s back…
Although they may form a technical group to obtain more parliamentary rights, the Independents tend to be quite a disparate group of small parties like Joe Higgin’s Socialist party and “colourful personalities” like Jackie Healy-Rae who are focused almost entirely on issues local to their constituencies.
Groups such as the United Left Alliance which includes the Socialist party, have (so far unsuccessfully) sought to persuade pollsters to disaggregate the Independents vote and poll the ULA separately. This is a not unreasonable request given that the Independents poll numbers have now risen to 15%, and the Green Party, which is polled separately, is down at 1 or 2%. However much of the support for independents is of the “plague on all your houses” variety, some shy Fianna Failers, and a wide variety of local candidates with no collective brand identity, so it is very difficult to extrapolate those numbers into likely seats actually won. Many higher profile independents such as Senator Shane Ross, a stockbroker and financial journalist and author who has written widely condemning crony capitalism and bank bail-outs will undoubtedly do well.
Based on the above, I would expect an outcome something approximating to the following:
(Labour to do better than Fianna Fail in terms of seats on similar first preference vote totals because they attract much higher numbers of lower preference votes from all corners).
What is interesting about this outcome is that it is fundamentally unstable. Fianna Fail are campaigning to go into opposition, not into Government. They have said they might support a minority Fine Gael Government if it implemented the IMF/ECB plan, but the entire history of Fianna Fail in opposition is to be as obstructive as possible, and it is difficult to see such an arrangement lasting for long.
Fine Gael, on their own, would have difficulty forming a Government as many independents and Sinn Fein are significantly to the left of them. A Fine Gael Labour coalition would be incredibly unwieldy with an imbalanced 105/60 Government to Opposition split and with many disappointed bank-benchers not receiving a Ministerial job. The history of all coalitions is that the junior partner tends to be decimated at the next election, so why would Labour write it’s own death warrant to become, once again a 10% marginal party? (Ok ok, so why change the habits of a lifetime…)
Sinn Fein and the ULA have argued for a right-left re-alignment of Irish politics with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail forced to cohabitate and faced by a (more or less united) Labour/Sinn Fein/Independents opposition. Perhaps Labour’s biggest strategic mistake has been to rule out any alliance on the Left which left it with no option but to seek to coalesce with Fine Gael. Voters tend vote for leading parties, not junior partners, and Labour to form a Government on it’s own was never a credible alternative. Now even a second place finish by Labour is no longer a foregone conclusion.
On the numbers above, a Labour Fianna Fail coalition is just about feasible, but there is no way that I can see Fianna Fail agreeing to an arrangement which might consolidate its minority status in Irish politics. Unlike Labour, Fianna Fail realises that it needs to play a long game if it is to capitalise on the unpopularity of a successor Government implementing more or less the policies it has institutionalised through the IMF/ECB deal.
Readers may wonder how the disastrous conduct of economic policy by the present Government could lead to so little change – a perhaps marginally renegotiated IMF/ECB plan implemented by a Fine Gael or Fine Gael/Labour government with a broadly similar economic ideology. Why has the economic implosion of Ireland not led to a political implosion like Tunisia or Egypt? The presence of a broadly functioning democratic system is perhaps part of the answer. A broad consensus on EU membership and the responsibilities this entails is perhaps another reason.
But unless I am missing something rather dramatic, the economic implosion is not yet leading to political revolution, or even anything much more than a change of Government with marginally different policies. However if the next Government fails to lift Ireland out of a deflationary/recessionary cycle, all political bets will be off as well.