POLITICS IS STILL QUITE A CLOSED PROPOSITION
Frank Flannery, Political Consultant, former Director of Organisation & Strategy, Fine Gael
With the polls before the May elections, there was a sense of expectancy; what was going to happen? Politically, were we opening ‘a door into the dark’. The question is, now, whether those elections were a manifest political gale, or a mid-term political gust? Certainly, the exhaustion from austerity, the apathy of ‘they’re all the same’, together with an element of protest, all played their part in the voter turn-out of just 51 per cent; the ensuing vote, in my view, not giving persuasive evidence of what would be called, a fundamental or sudden, political shift. In addition, when we consider that in general elections, the Irish voter is traditionally such a careful and cautious voter, then I believe the election result may not be so much a gale as a gust.
A brief overview of how the Parties performed.
If we look at Fianna Fáil, the election was good for morale and confidence, and therefore, for Micheál Martin’s leadership; or at least among sensible people who see no value in ‘change’ for the sake of it. Becoming the biggest party in local government gives Fianna Fáil both a political boost and an electoral base, with potential Dáil candidates male, and crucially, female in place now throughout the country. They made valuable gains in Dublin. Though saner heads will realise that here, and nationally, the ‘rehabilitation’ of the party is still fragile and must be nurtured.
If we look at FF’s actual result we see it was well down on their 2009 performance in terms of votes. In fact, it exceeded their ‘Black 2011’ by only around 30,000 votes nationally. They know, then, that at the next election it’s not so much the ‘brand’ as the candidate that will be crucial. So for them, candidate selection is the key not just to improving party performance, but to really challenging for government at the next general election. Between existing TDs and interesting candidates they must ‘look’ like they are a government in waiting or at least like part of one. This is essential in an election.
Sinn Féin had a seriously good election. So serious and so good that if this success were replicated in a general election, it would confirm Sinn Féin’s arrival as a major force on the political scene and as genuine contenders for power. What is interesting though is that, once again, the party managed to under-perform on their polling figures and, as a party, Sinn Féin is still not transfer friendly. This is something they must fix.
Their characteristic ‘pragmatism’ in their approach to policy issues and their willingness to go a bit of the road with everyone, reminds me of a young Fianna Fáil in the 1920s and 30s. This populism, so handy to date, will be challenged, and hotly, in the next general election. Their fatwa on going into government with Fine Gael will be a relief to Enda Kenny while their apparent desire to cuddle up to Fianna Fáil might see Micheál Martin asserting his relationship boundaries, or feeling a little queasy. Though maybe Mary Lou MacDonald dispensed a suitable anti-emetic last week, with the news that Sinn Féin would like to find common ground with Labour. There may be something in that as we will see.
They of course had a bad election, to go with their bad experience in government and not just in this government but in any government, because Labour is the kind of party that thrives in opposition. Suffering within and without because it cannot retain its principles or ideals in power, it’s almost as if Labour was designed not to be in government.
Under their new leader, Labour has a new opportunity to go to the people and say ‘Here – look at us. This is what we did to save the country. We’ve played a major part in the recovery. We’re asking now for another term so that we can make sure the recovery takes hold and is experienced by everyone’. Crucially, they have the opportunity to present themselves as a party with human emotion, with empathy, because that is what is missing in what we see of the government today. They must, much more firmly, claim credit for their share in the good things that are now coming through in an Ireland emerging from recession.
Fine Gael remains a conundrum. They do not govern with political intelligence. They have been in government six times since 1932 and in each of those six times they have never been re-elected. People put them in, but they didn’t want them back. Something unique, perhaps, in modern global politics. Why? I believe it is because, from the beginning, Fine Gael never managed to translate the enormous intelligence of those within its ranks, into a hard ‘political intelligence’ for the party in the business of governing. Therefore, when it gets into government Fine Gael loses two things: its sense of itself as a party, as a political entity and its rapport with the people. So while the old Civil War politics is over – and it is over – to be replaced eventually by centrist politics of Right and Left, when it comes to Fine Gael, in a sense, they still inhabit that post-Civil War mindset. As they see it, they are the party that founded the State, they are the party that established the civil service. Therefore, their first duty is to the State. With their humanity, the politics of the party, their connection with the ‘popular’ banished, they govern you almost as an extension of the civil service. But it is a party with its raw politics that a people elect into government.
Of course, we know they do this for the best and highest of reasons: since for Fine Gael the idea of government, the act of governing, are the holy of holies, these cannot and must not be ‘contaminated’ by the politics of the party. It is a noble principle but, for the party in practical political terms, it has proven to be a problem, in that they get sucked into ‘the system’. Their efforts tend to be always and only about ‘the Government’ as if that were something separate from Fine Gael. As they lose their sense of the raw politics of the party, they scorch the political area around them, holding themselves aloof from the electorate. In that exclusion zone, always, they forget. They forget that at the next election, it’s the party, again, with its raw politics that is going to be knocking at the doors of the electorate looking for their vote. In short when they do knock, they are told where to go; and don’t let the door hit their politics on the way.
But, for all that, Fine Gael is today in an excellent position: it has opportunity now to stop making the mistakes of the past. The party has 18 months to move away from its almost sacred, some would say fetishistic, position of being the party that does the business of the ‘state’, to being the party that does the business of ‘the nation’ and the business of the people. I believe they can do it. I believe that, despite what happened to Fine Gael regarding the Seanad, the local elections, the Presidency, and other more recent issues, the party is still in a key, strategic position to win the next general election. It will do it, if it acts with the kind of political intelligence that balances its laudable sense of duty to the State on the one hand, with a practical sense of the politics of the party and a palpable sense of the needs of the electorate, on the other.
Remember, in opposition, Fine Gael re-invented itself to win a general election and decisively within 10 years. I believe it can do the same thing in Government. This involves empathy with the nation; putting a ‘human’ face and mind, on the government and on its decisions, in the context of the party and of the electorate. If it does, it will be the end of the ‘own’ goals.
For the next election, then, Fine Gael’s task is to make it clear to the electorate that it is the only party that can lead Ireland from its hard-won recovery on to stability and growth. It has to convince the electorate that when it comes to a recovery that will be felt by everyone, there is simply no alternative.
RIGHT AND LEFT
When it comes to the country and the various parties, a single set of election results cannot reveal a new trend. What it can do, instead, is expose elements of a trend that already existed.
Certainly, the Civil War politics of the past are over, but in Ireland what do we replace it with? Especially considering Ireland never really shared the European experience of the often bloody ideological battles of Right and Left. It is only in relatively recent years, since the start of the new century, that we have seen a significant shift in the political orientation of the electorate in that regard.
For the purposes of this talk, let me set up the alignment. On the centre Right – and I know some of you will object to this – I put Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the now-defunct PDs. On the centre Left, I put Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens. Thereafter, are those we call ‘Others’, where the entire range Right to Left will be found, but mostly in small or individualised formations even if, in the future, this could change.
TREND CENTRE RIGHT
Over the last 15 years then, a clear trend would seem to be at work. If we look at the seven elections since 1999 – general and local – and take them chronologically, we see that the Centre Right grouping support was as follows: in 1999, it was 70%; in 2002 it was down two to 68%; in 2004, it was down another five to 63%; in 2007, it jumped back to 72%; in 2009, it tumbled to 58%; in 2011, it was down again to 54%; in 2014, down another five points to 49%. Apart from the bump upwards in 2007, these numbers show a distinct and steady decline in support for this Centre Right grouping taken as a whole. It goes from winning 70% of the votes cast in 1999 to 49% in May, a decline of 21%.
TREND CENTRE LEFT
At the same time, the trend in respect of the Centre Left grouping is in the opposite direction, though it must be said, this movement is not as consistent or well established. Over the same seven elections, the group did as follows: in 1999, 17%; in 2002, 21%; in 2004, 23%; in 2007, 22%; in 2009, 24%; in 2011, 31% and this year, 24% . The significant bump here was caused by the Labour surge in 2011, but the overall trend seems to have been re-established in 2014, with the collective support for the Centre Left trending upwards from 17% to 24% – up 7% over the 15 year period. The differential between the Centre Right and Centre Left groupings therefore narrowed over the period by 28%.
In terms of the ‘Others’, support is a less consistent factor but reaches a high point in 2014, with both Right and Left losing to them in, perhaps, a protest vote. We need more evidence. In 1999 ‘Others’ gained 13% of the vote. In 2002, it was 11%; in 2004, 13%; in 2007, 7%; in 2009, 18%; in 2011, 15%. In 2014, they gained 27% – a 14 per cent increase overall in the period in question. If the 2014 bump were smoothed out, that increase would be less, in fact only 2%, so the jury remains out on that for now. I should say that to evaluate its significance beyond protest, this result would need to be replicated in a general election, as in 1948 for instance.
We also need to be aware that a plethora of Independents each seeking to make their own deals with the government would make the job of governing almost impossible. Therefore, to achieve cohesive and good government in the future, we will still be relying on the party system in our general elections – though, perhaps, a party structure might emerge from independent groupings. People should realise however that there is a fundamental difference between the independent mind set and the discipline of a political party.
If we look at the general elections of the period on their own, these trends are confirmed. As we know, general elections have a higher turnout than locals and, equally, they are taken more seriously by the electorate. However, the trends shown in the full series of seven elections are also evident in the three general elections held over the period. In these, support for the Centre Right grouping was 68% in 2002; 72% in 2007; down to 54% in 2011 – an overall drop of 14% over the period. Interestingly, it was in the 2007 general election, before the stench of a putrefying Tiger had settled over the population, that for the last time, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael not only performed well but showed their capacity to garner confidence and support from all quarters. The Centre Left went from 21% to 31% through the same three elections. The collective swing was 24%.
Within these Left – Right grouping then, which puts a European-type model on our politics, there has been and is considerable change particularly with reference to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand and Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens on the other. There is equally the demise of the PDs who had been an enduring force since 1987.
Notably, the turnout for these elections – May 2014 being the exception – tended to improve over the period, indicating a growing engagement by the electorate with the democratic process: general elections alone showed 62% in 2002; 67% in 2007; 69.9% in 2011.
That the shift to the Left over the last 15 years is not altogether surprising, since the Right grouping has been associated first with the chaos of the collapse and then with austerity. The goal is wide-open then to the anti-austerity players.
To conclude, I would say that even if the goal is wide open, politics itself is still quite a closed proposition, with the system hardwired almost, for inertia. The fact that we fund our political parties on the basis of their past electoral performance is itself, a barrier to the formation of new, organised forces in Irish political life. And the new fundraising laws make it almost impossible to fund raise for a new party.
In the European context, I was struck recently by a story in The Irish Times about a parador in Leon in Northern Spain that was once a detention centre for the forces of General Franco. We post-modern Europeans taking a little luxury R & R on a site of political torture and very particular ‘interrogation’. I believe we don’t value enough our peaceful and united Europe; the union we created and so astonishingly quickly from the ashes of war. As our near neighbours decide whether they want in or out of Europe, or indeed whether they even want to stay together, perhaps we need to think again about the intrinsic value and function of the EU as a political entity, especially in the context of those who died on flight MH17 in recent days.
As we move more to a political than economic union, issues of Right and Left, the matter of whether we want more Europe or less will become an issue for the voter. After the May elections, Europe itself has a major task to reach out to and reconnect with its voters. It will have to convince them that the EU is not about a eurocratic elite but is in fact all about them, us.
In the meantime, what about Ireland and its politics? I would say that in the logic of the trend, it is the destiny of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to increasingly come together and for Labour and Sinn Féin to do likewise. In both cases, history stands massively in the way of these developments coming about. However, we can only ever learn from our past. It is the present and the future in which we must vote and live. I think the voters are inexorably speaking.