The latest MRBI opinion poll makes interesting reading. However, its results will greatly depend on whether a pattern can be borne out and whether other polls will agree on its findings. The last MRBI poll showed a sharp increase in support for SF that other polls did not mirror, this poll seems to have settled back into the normal pattern but equally could contain some anomalies. All political parties would do well to hold their breath until they see a pattern emerging across a number of polls.
Nonetheless we can take some things from this poll. For Fine Gael things are still looking good. The party will undoubtedly feel that despite the old chestnut of ‘taking the tough decisions’ they are still easily the most popular party. Anyone analysing these results should take into account FG history, and the fact that residing at 31% still makes it among the best periods of popularity that the party has ever seen. It’s not all good news though. FG is down 5% from its general election result and we have to examine what that means for them. The first and most obvious thing is a loss of seats. Much is made of how the Labour party would fear an election but despite the bravado scoring 31% in another election would not make FG happy now. They would lose a lot of seats. Before GE11 many maintained that FG could get an overall majority on a much lower figure than FF in it’s hey day due to getting more transfers. I have always had my doubts on this theory. Attaining those last few seats comes down to such a small amount of votes that it can be impossible to predict and as a party grows and candidates go over the line earlier they don’t get the same number of transfers (or need them). That said FG had a very strong return on 36% of the vote. Many feel FG would relish an election in the hope that they could gain an overall majority but on these figures I just can’t see it. The government would have to fall on a very polarising issue which would see a massive swing to FG. For any government party to get that swing in current circumstances is very difficult. FG can be pleased that it is holding on to the centre vote and that this vote values security over the unknown always. Put simply FG do not want a general election anytime soon, the plan must be to maintain their current position and then hopefully if a turn around comes in the economy or some major break is received in austerity they can get the credit and pick up a few points before a general election in 2016.
For Fianna Fail the poll is a morale boost. It should not be seen as much more. Just as FF did not disintegrate into doom and gloom when the last poll showed a rise for SF they should not get too elated by this poll. The reason the FF figure is receiving such attention is due to the fact that their vote has remained incredibly static since the general election. This poll shows them at their highest since 2010 and that is bound to raise eyebrows. The fact that the rise is mostly attributed to Dublin voters is also a positive for FF. They would be wise to await the results of other polls before welcoming this one too much if a pattern emerges then perhaps the comeback is on. But right now the reality that this poll again points to, as with all others, is that there is no real gap between SF and FF. SF may be disappointed to see support fall but then they may have expected this given the dramatic rise in their previous rating according to MRBI. At 20% SF remain in a good position for dramatic gains and would not fear an election if the opportunity presented itself in the morning.
Could FF be on the way back? It’s possible. An Anomaly currently exists in Irish politics when you consider FF had the biggest party conference and hosts membership dinners and events that are better attended than most parties. FF still has the internal machine to deliver a result. Their problem has been that they don’t quite know what the message is. If they figure that out they will take the first step. Recently on individual issues they have isolated the message and that may explain this bounce. The second issue is that in recent years FF had clearly forgotten how to use its massive organisation, making it big but useless. SF on the other hand does not possess as large a machinery but has people at the helm who know very well how to use it. IF FF can figure out what role its organisation can play then a comeback is possible. There is also the fact that at a certain point an old FF vote may start to believe in the idea of a reformed party and return, particularly from FG. I can’t see that tipping point being reached until FF would hit about 24%, so they are still some way off on that score.
In reality this is a morale boost for FF and not much more, the next Red C poll may confirm it or could just as easily see FF falling back, that’s how volatile the chasing group of FF, SF and Labour is right now.
Labour will be pleased that they rise 2% and there is perhaps a message in there. Recent controversies seem to have helped Labour and it appears that a small party standing up for itself in government will always do better than one seeking harmony and coalition peace. Labour will also take comfort from the fact that in all likelihood they would still be more transfer friendly than either FF or SF and this could give them a bounce in seats that might save a few TDs even though on these ratings they are definitely set to lose many seats.
So can we take it as a given that with both government parties looking set to lose seats an election will be avoided at all costs? Perhaps. Certainly that’s how the party leaderships will view the matter. On the other hand it’s not up to the party leadership entirely. As TDs begin to fear for their seat and grassroots become desperate to stem the losses they will always start to add pressure. Recent times have proven that waiting until the last possible moment does not necessarily give you any kind of electoral bounce. Brian Lenihan is said to have suggested to Brian Cowen that they should seek an election in the early part of 2010, the perceived wisdom was that with the party languishing in the low twenties that would be madness and they would be better to wait until things improved. The rest as they say is history.