Can the government recover its popularity?
As the Christmas season gets underway the news on the political front has been remarkably quiet. Yes we had the Labour conference, the Keaveney transfer, and of course the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. However, since the budget there has not been a huge amount of domestic political stories. This is very good news for the government. A former government press secretary once told me that when working for a government the best news day is a day when you don’t feature at all.
There has also been some encouraging economic news. It’s by no means a complete change or a guarantee that all is improving, but it is a ray of hope. Even the Labour party managed to gain a couple of points in the last opinion poll.
All this suggests that the government will be pretty content as things stand. They may even dare to be optimistic. Waving the troika goodbye will be another good stunt. The government is well aware that it does not mean a lot in reality as the EU remains in a supervisory capacity, it’s only the IMF that’s really departing. The point is though that it marks another step in terms of progress. The government knows that symbolism and hope mean a lot in difficult times. Not much will change in terms of policy but it at least allows people to trust that the government may have a plan and direction that are working.
2014 will be a test. After years of problems with banks Ireland can hope that the latest stress tests will prove that we have got to the bottom of the problem. This will indeed be progress. Any problems or holes in the banks finances could spell disaster for all the hope and economic talk. Ireland also needs the markets to have faith and to avoid interest rates nudging upwards. The government requires more patience from the people. It is a fragile time and they cannot afford to let markets think that post bailout Ireland is going to return to pleasing the electorate. These are all big risks that could upset the best laid plans of the government. There is no doubting though that a certain pride and swagger has returned to the government step as they can finally see a path through the trees no matter how treacherous it may be.
The question is can the government recover in the opinion polls? The answer depends on what a recovery might be. Labour showed faint signs of life, but it’s still within the margin of error. When parties fall so low it is very difficult to see them regaining a major share of the vote without drastic change. That said, if they can hold on to recent gains, get some improvement in the economy and bring some new faces to cabinet with a renewed message, then perhaps they might pull something back.
Fine Gael has lost a large portion of the vote they gained in 2011. It’s difficult to see it returning en masse but they will gamble all on an economic recovery. If unemployment does fall back below 10% in the lifetime of this government and if they can sort out James Reilly’s problems in Health, then FG should be confident of remaining the largest party in the state and crucially staying ahead of FF while retaining some of the ‘old’ FF vote.
The opposition still seem confused. It’s a difficult job. The public have been burned too many times by empty promises and wild reforms (even by the current government). They want a far more realistic approach from the opposition, but how do you do that while still opposing the government in crucial areas?
Fianna Fail began its recovery effort after the 2011 election. It had some success but as soon as the party recovered a couple of points the old habits returned. Caution became the name of the game. The party still lacks real energy or direction. It is a party that badly needs to focus. The problem is that the more Micheal Martin and others turn to face the general public and try to woo the electorate the more the cracks appear within the party itself. FF needs to be out there fighting for every vote but it does not appear to me like the time spent renewing the party internally has resulted in any kind of real change or vigour. Everything still hinges on the Leader and the parliamentary party.
Sinn Fein remains stuck where they were within a couple of months of the 2011 election. Given the economic circumstances this is just not good enough. After all that has happened, for SF to consistently trail FF in the opinion polls is a sign that something is very wrong. Now you can blame the electorate and call them names, you can blame the media and shout about agendas, you can praise your own people till kingdom come but it won’t change the facts. Politics is about knowing your own weaknesses and addressing them. Ignoring them or trying to argue them away is a sign of failure. Sinn Fein needs change. It has a very strong base if only it could reach out and take the next vital steps. It will not do that unless it starts to listen to people outside of its own bubble. It must be willing to listen to harsh criticism and face problems.
Most importantly, any government needs to be held to account. Whatever we think of the current administration they are following a policy line and they are committed to it. Questions must always be asked, and governments need to fear questions and debate at times, this is a healthy thing. However, so long as FF, SF and Independents remain in their current state it is difficult to see a coherent opposition. Both FF and SF are so concerned with each other that they have little time to oppose the government. SF in particular is keen to distance itself from every other party. This won’t work. IF FF and SF are intent on avoiding anything that might help or support the other party then they will inevitably end up backing the government at the most inopportune of times.
An opposition does not need to be close or even intend ever going into government together in order to work together. There is no need for a ‘Mullingar Accord’, indeed such a development is a bad thing. They must admit that they need each other for now. With such a small opposition, if they cannot trust each other and find some common ground then they are doomed to be swept aside by the government.
As for Independents, well, it’s hard to criticise when their poll ratings are higher than they have ever been. That said, there is no guarantee that each independent is as popular as the polls suggest. Those that work their constituency may hold their own. Those that wish to talk at a national level need to be aware that there will be problems come an election. 2011 was very unusual. The next election may see economic debate polarised in terms of recovery rather than a state of complete disillusionment. The independent who may have got lots of support for their national views in 2011 may find the parties squeeze them out in the next election by framing the debate differently.
Its 5 months until the local elections. It’s time for all sides to gear up.