Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Summer 2013…Where our parties stand

It has been another long political season yet again. All the parties must take their summer to reflect and rebuild. With a budget coming hard and fast in October they are going to have to hit the ground running fairly soon, then there is a Seanad campaign that might not be the cakewalk everyone predicted and that will be followed closely by the local and European elections, which will be the first real test of all parties strength.

It is time then, perhaps to take stock of where each party now finds itself.

FINE GAEL. The main government party will be feeling relatively happy. They are continuing to work through their economic programme and see more right wing policies protected which is vital to the FG vote base. There may be plenty of accusations of broken promises and the like but the fact remains that a lot of the people who currently support FG are happy enough with government policy. These voters seek stability most of all and are willing to accept the idea of cuts or spending controls in the firm belief that its better than tax hikes and will see the country through. Most of these voters still have something to lose and therefore they don’t want any big risks. FG will also be pleased that they avoided large numbers of lost TDs on the abortion issue. They will hope to move on quickly and there is no doubt that if Labour ever come knocking with demands FG will remind them very quickly that they delivered on the X legislation. FG remain convinced that the economy will start to turn and that people will reward them for it. It’s not all rosy though. FG has had government all its own way and it cant expect that to continue with Labour hurting badly in the polls. On current polls FG may still struggle at the local elections to hold what it has. Too many personalities within FG have lacked any real empathy with the public and a number of Ministers have become nothing short of despised. They cannot afford to ignore this. FG will watch FF closely, it is here that the greatest threat to their dominance lies. The next 12 months will seriously test the leadership of Enda Kenny, there has been a sense among many commentators that Enda has been ‘handled’ well and is ‘getting away with it’, the next year will decide that one way or another. Either Enda can silence his critics or he my yet face the door.

LABOUR. The Labour party are in a sorry state. Their poll ratings are abysmal and they look to be on the road for an apocalyptic local and European elections. Labour seem bewildered by the fact that they are taking more blame than FG for austerity policies and broken promises. Time and time again they try to remind people that they can be no more than a brake on FG and what would it be like if they were not there? That argument is pointless though. There is an idea that somehow these TDs will sacrifice themselves for the good of the country (an old line thrown out by FF in the dark days of the IMF arrival and the December Budget). They genuinely believe this, so did FF. The reality is very different. The problem for Labour is that the policies the government is pursuing are mainly FG policies; FG voters know and expect that. Labour voters expect something very different. If you are left wing then its better not to be in government than to be there doing right wing stuff, as you are essentially just killing your raison d’etre. For the general public they are a bit mystified. FG somehow mange to look younger and more energetic than labour and that’s saying something. The one high point for the party has been the X legislation. It has carried through on this promise and will keep a number of voters happy by doing so. The fact remains though that it is unlikely to be enough. Most voters are still far more concerned about the money in their pockets and their families’ economic survival than anything else right now. Labour needs change badly but they are not going to get it. Too many do not want to upset each other and hope that power can be transferred harmoniously. It doesn’t work like that and when it does its not always good, (ask Brian Cowen). Power is seized when the moment is right. Labour will wait until after the local elections and by then they will be facing a gargantuan task.

FIANNA FAIL. Although there are many who would call them much worse, FF is the Rocky of Irish politics. ‘It’s not how hard you hit but how hard you can get hit’ that counts. FF has shown us one thing; this party can take a punch and keep fighting like no other. The party is on course to at least hold the council seats it won in 2009 but only if it manages to keep going. It’s been a strange time. On several occasions Micheal Martin has been very poorly advised in his approach to party matters and discipline. That should be a serious concern for FF. The party has recovered somewhat in the polls but this remains very soft, it may be nothing more than the ebb and flow of the tide rather than resurgence in the party. It is desperate for new faces and voices and it knows it may have to wait until after the local elections for this to happen. With only 19 TDs the party also struggles to remain the broad church that was its strength for so long. The approach from the top of the party remains cautious and avoids risk, that’s not what is needed if it is to return to its former strength or anything like it. The party still hasn’t dealt with its economic errors and still has no real narrative about what the future should hold. Its communications is at best disjointed. Perhaps that’s as a result of its 2011 loss, but if FF is Rocky then they are not back on their feet yet, they are at that dubious stage where the sound and vision goes blurry as he is stumbling up to the ropes, desperately looking for a sign to get focus back.

SINN FEIN. Sinn Fein will be very content that they have solidified their base and seem to be holding firm in the high teens in opinion polls. This should not be underestimated in terms of achievement. If people have stuck with them that long then they may remain with them. They are the one party that does not have the stain of government attaching to them; this is a blessing and a curse. It’s a positive when comparing to other parties promises, but for many others it means they are a risk and potentially worse promise breakers than the others. They can’t win on that score. If SF remains where they are in the polls they can be quite content as regards the long term. However, SF is a highly ambitious party and will want more. They are perplexed by the lack of movement in the polls and the fact that FF receives more of a bounce than they have recently. Many in SF blame the voters’ ignorance for this. That is a mistake. They need to step back and look at it far more coldly. Gerry Adams is not and will never be a leader to inspire the confidence of the majority of Irish voters. The best gift he could give would be to step aside and continue his work in a different role, he would make a solid front bench member and there are several potential leaders in SF. Then they need to accept that all parties have a choice in politics. You can be driven by ideological policy of left or right and immediately exclude voters of the opposite opinion or you can move toward the centre and try bringing more people with you. Finally SF needs to give up its splendid isolation. There are policy matters where it agrees with Independents, FF, FG and Labour but they never admit this. SF does not want friends. But if you want to climb in the polls you need them. If an FF or Labour voter for instance feels they can give SF a no.2 vote then its possible they can be convinced to vote 1 in the near future. However, if every other party voter puts your candidates at the bottom of their transfer list then you have no hope of ever wooing them to you. SF is still very much in the game, they just need the courage to take it.

INDEPENDENTS. One of the statistics that often goes unmentioned is the consistently high showing of Independents in polls. They remain extremely popular with a public that is less concerned about ideological positions and policies than it is with trust. Voters are desperate to feel they can trust the decisions that are being taken; they have given up on trying to understand them. Independents are perfectly placed for this. You don’t have to put faith in a brand or in others, you can just pick the man or woman you like and know. When you want to question them you can ask them directly, and they won’t come back telling you they had to give in to another person or lost a vote in the party. The problem will be how you integrate Independents into government. Democracy of any shape or size has always ended up in parties of some sort or another; this is because if you do that you manage to get more of what you want through than if everyone remains on their own. 2,000 years ago Caesar, Pompey and Crassus came together to effectively end the power of the Roman senate by understanding that no matter how much they disliked each other, if they joined and compromised then they could achieve more of what they want than they could separately. The public will be placing a lot of trust in the Independents in upcoming elections, there will be a lot more of them, that much is for sure.

NEW PARTY. The old chestnut, will we see a new party? Everyone says they want to see a new party but that does not mean they would vote for one. Thus far all suggestions for new parties follow the same line. A group of people searching out a niche that they believe is not served. This means they look to the extreme right or left and try to hollow out a host of complex new policies which some will love but a majority will inevitably oppose. If we are to have a new party then it must have more ambition than that. It must look at FF and FG and decide it wants to replace them. That is where the big vote lies, that is where real power lies and that is were the majority of Irish voters sit. Voters like the idea of a new party because they want to trust someone again, feel like they have a true leader again. A new party needs to be broad and pragmatic but most of all a new party needs to organise on the ground. Nobody can defeat FG or FF in Ireland because no party has anything like their organisation. That’s where it starts. You must be broad enough to gain trust of urban and rural, right and left, rich and poor, then you can organise people in every parish, woo them from other parties. It’s a long term game though and few have the patience for that.

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