To be or to have… Labour and coalition

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I’ve read a couple of different pieces about the prospects for government amongst various potential parties and combined they allow for some useful insights into how the Irish political landscape may be developing.

Yesterday Fintan O’Toole had an impassioned column on his thoughts as to why Labour should wait… in other words to eschew entering coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

Has to be said, I’m not a huge fan of O’Tooles writing across the last decade or so but the crisis is bringing out the best in him. Not least when he characterises:

The Labour Party [as] the political equivalent of a mountain rescue team, or a cuddly Saint Bernard with a flask of reviving brandy around its neck.

He continues:

The scale of Fianna Fáil’s current crisis may be unprecedented, but twice in the last 30 years one of the catch-all Civil War parties has been in terrible trouble. In 1992, Fianna Fáil, under Albert Reynolds, had its worst general election result since 1927, with its share of the vote falling below 40 per cent. Fianna Fáil lost 10 seats. The party was almost as shocked, disoriented and at sea as it is now.

As Reynolds’s press secretary Seán Duignan noted, “we were on a roll, downhill”. To the amazement of most voters, it was Dick Spring’s resurgent Labour that threw itself in the way to stop that downhill momentum. Fianna Fáil was given the transfusion that always sustains life in politics – power. The moment was lost. The system survived.

And then for equal measure:

Ten years later, the moment came again, this time with Fine Gael. In the 2002 general election, Michael Noonan led his party to outright disaster. Fine Gael got just 19 per cent of the vote and lost 23 seats. It ended up with just three seats in Dublin, fewer than the Greens. A large chunk of its front bench (including Alan Shatter, Alan Dukes, Nora Owen and Jim Mitchell) was wiped out. In panic, the demoralised rump elected one of the few experienced TDs left standing – the unconvincing Enda Kenny – as its leader. Fine Gael was moribund.

Again, Labour took a deep breath, stood over the prone body of a wounded beast, and delivered the kiss of life. It accepted, with astonishing alacrity, the notion that the resurrection of Fine Gael was the only way to provide an alternative government. Pat Rabbitte, with the Mullingar Accord, gave Enda Kenny the credibility he otherwise lacked by dressing him up in the ill-fitting clothes of a would-be taoiseach. Labour’s position as a half-party, an eternal make-weight, was reinforced.

And concludes:

Fine Gael returned from the dead, gaining 20 seats in the 2007 election. Labour paid the price in stasis and irrelevance.

I’m not so sure about all this, though. Now it’s not that I entirely disagree with the overall analysis that in both instances Labour assisted its larger rivals at a point where they were in deep deep trouble. I think that both of those instances point to occasions where the Labour Party could have caved out a more distinctive niche for itself by refusing to enter coalition (despite my belief that the 1992 government was actually one of our better ones, not least because Fianna Fáil, so pleased simply to be in government and hugely focussed on the Peace Process, rolled over like a happy puppy and allowed Labour to run the show much as it saw fit which led to some significant reforms slipping through).

But. For there is a but. I’m not certain that Labour had the capability or was in a position to stamp the life out of either of those rivals in the way that O’Toole seems to imply.

I think that at best we could have seen a diminished Fine Gael or a diminished Fianna Fáil. But probably not both and not necessarily to the advantage of Labour. Firstly it seems that both of the larger parties have core votes. We can see that Fianna Fáil are currently in or around 25%. A vote share that could see them win 40 plus seats at the worst. Fine Gael probably has something similar. But Labour has never gone above 33, and that was on 19% in 1992 – a figure that it is remarkably close to today.

What is interesting is that the two larger parties don’t appear – so far – to see serious transfers of votes between them, but instead they drift to the proxy of Labour, dependent upon circumstance. And that drift while by no means minimal doesn’t ever (at least to date) seem to be sufficient to put Labour in an entirely commanding position.

In fairness O’Toole does recognise this. But there is a further implication. Even if one accepts his analysis (and I’m certainly in favour of Labour avoiding entanglements with centre-right parties) the very best we might see is a shakeout where instead of the famous “two and a half” party system we have a three party system with power ebbing and flowing between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour in more or less equal amounts.

And yet, is that really feasible? Is Labour on the ground anywhere close to having the sort of presence that Fianna Fáil has? Or, for that matter, Fine Gael? Look at the local government seats to see a more accurate read on the relative strengths of the parties and we see a marked disparity. In 2004, in what was a shockingly bad year for Fianna Fáil, they gained 542 seats (down 129). Fine Gael had 468 (up 32) and the Labour Party had 188 (up 18) – worth noting that Sinn Féin gained 125, effectively doubling their representation from 62. So, Labour remains mired on the second rung with Sinn Féin a ways behind – although news reaches me that polling for a certain party has indicated a not so great level of support for SF on the ground.

Of course there are many reasons for this. Simple history has allowed Fianna Fáíl, and to a lesser extent Fine Gael, to store up political capital in councils. Power has brought significant advantages (although as Vincent Browne recently pointed out Labour has been in power for more years that Fine Gael in the last three decades).

But, a party needs the sort of a base and the networks engendered by significant numbers of council seats in order to build Dáil seats, and more importantly to retain them. And for proof of that look at how those TDs who have even one or two councillors on the ground tend to do better at elections – they act as proxies.

Anyhow, to return to the central point, O’Toole may well be correct that Labour can act to shore up its support and become one of the three major players. But the idea that it can of itself remove one of the other two parties seems to be untenable. This has clear implications for government formation. If the current situation stabilises, a big if it has to be said, then Labour must attempt to gain parity with one or other of the parties because the only way in which a government with a majority Labour complexion is going to work is if it can gain around or about as many (or, happy day, more) TDs than its potential partner. Only with that level of representation in a coalition government could Labour put its stamp on it – and this is not to ignore the point that there would be considerable horse-trading and compromise in any event diluting the force of the Labour message.

But… and there’s that word again. A caveat. As can be seen it’s a remarkable achievement where a party which has become integral to government formation across the history of this state should somehow have left so little impact. Again, consider Browne’s words. For much of the last 30 years Labour was in pole position. I don’t mean this in some lazy, knock Labour way, but perhaps to underscore a point O’Toole makes when he argues that Labour has always seen its purpose in a sense to be ‘responsible’.

For all sorts of historical and cultural reasons, going right back to the early years of the State, Labour has bought in to the idea that it must facilitate the formation of a government or face the shame of being labelled as a self-indulgent party of protest.

And, as importantly:

The whole basis of Labour’s self-imposed duty to form governments is the notion that a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is inconceivable. To accept this proposition is to endorse the belief that the tribal and dynastic divisions between the two big parties are more important than policy and ideology. So long as that idea is taken for granted, Labour itself will always be marginal. It will always end up colluding in its own marginal status.

I’m not as certain about the second part of that analysis. I don’t think a coalition between FF and FG is inconceivable, but, it might requires some remarkable events to happen. And it hasn’t happened yet. On the other hand I think he’s spot on about the issue of government formation as a part of the Labour psyche.

But the approach O’Toole proposes would lead to a further step, but it is so unlikely as to be almost pointless to raise. That is a Labour Party which refuses to enter government thereby forcing either a minority government of the centre-right, a coalition of the two centre-right parties or another election. Thing is a Labour Party that is large enough to force those sort of outcomes would seem to be unlikely to wish to put itself to the electoral sword – a dynamic which in part explains the machinations of 1992. The minority government option would be barely more stable. And there still appears to be little enthusiasm between the other parties to coalesce. I don’t agree with the sort of thinking that has led to FG/Labour coalitions time after time, but given how even a ‘good’ day for Labour could lead to such complexities, it is easy to see the rationalisations for same.

Anyhow, all this links tangentially to issues raised by an article in the Sunday Times which muses upon the Enda Kenny leadership where they argued:

In November, with widespread anger among the public following a hugely unpopular budget, another TNS/mrbi poll showed a collapse in the government’s support. Fianna Fail was down 15 points to 27% and Fine Gael was the main beneficiaries, up 11 points to 34%.

Yet Kenny’s own approval rating dropped to 33%. Questions about Kenny’s leadership will not go away. In February, 86% of voters said they were unhappy with the Fianna Fail-Green coalition and more than half wanted a general election immediately.

Great news for Fine Gael? Not really. The party’s support fell two points from November and Kenny’s own support was down three points to 30%, just six points higher than Cowen.

Labour was up 10 points to 24% and Gilmore’s approval rating was 44%, making him the most popular party leader.

In the most recent Red C poll in March, with the government showing signs of tackling the economic crisis, Fianna Fail’s support increased to 28%, just three points behind Fine Gael. The only good news for Kenny was the five-point fall in support for Labour.

The analysis behind the figures above is interesting. Note that there is an expectation that the FG vote would increase above 34% and that not to do so was in some sense a ‘failure’.

But you know, this doesn’t make any sense at all. For Fine Gael to have gained 30% plus of the vote is pretty impressive in and of itself. Yet for Fine Gael to hit the higher percentiles it would have to pull votes directly from Fianna Fáil. There’s always a danger in Irish politics of overestimating the power of the Civil War to shape the overall context, but, there’s also a danger of underestimating the subsequent relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to generate a remarkable degree of antipathy considering the two parties share much the same political terrain (as an aside, one of the most interesting things I heard recently from someone within the Green Party was the thought that in essence on planning issues the two largest parties remain near-indistinguishable – that might be right, or that might be wrong, but as a piece of political triangulation it tells us much about the position the GP attempts to take).

In other words the idea that Fine Gael could get 40% plus seems highly highly unlikely. Consider that in 1982 at the height of Garret FitzGeralds popularity Fine Gael managed 39.2% of the vote… at a time when crucially the Labour Party was at 9.4%. And unless I’m mistaken that was the best vote Fine Gael has ever had in terms of percentages.

Where would those votes come from other than through the wholesale evisceration of Labour. Because they certainly aren’t going to come from Fianna Fáil. And that’s something that’s worth remembering. And just as it would be difficult to remove Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael from the body politic in the way that O’Toole appears to suggest, so it would be also difficult, if less so, to remove Labour which is what Fine Gael would need to do in order to see vote share climb higher again. And for those who look back at the 1982 figure and consider Kenny as ‘underachieving’, well, they should note that at that time there was no significant presence to the left or right of Labour which itself was weak. Now voter choice is much greater and in the context of that Kenny has managed to do remarkably well. Perhaps as well, short of a catastrophic collapse in the Fianna Fáil vote, as anyone could humanly do.

Often people point to the case of the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party as a case in hand, the wholesale disintegration of a political machine. But that comparison does not provide any degree of comfort to me.

For while it is true that the Progressive Conservative Party as an entity disintegrated at the 1993 election, going from 169 seats to 2 although intriguingly retaining 16% of the popular vote (still a crushing 26.9% drop from its previous position), 52 seats went to the Reform party of Preston Manning, an arguably more conservative party which ultimately became one of the constituent elements of the present-day ruling Conservative Party of Canada. And the percentile that went to Reform? Well, we can’t do a direct swap of votes, but since that party saw its vote increase by almost 17% it is reasonable to suggest that we can still see upwards of 30% of the vote staying with the ‘right’. And the rest? Dissipated towards the Liberal Party.

Actually in that respect Canada is not entirely dissimilar to the Republic, with two large centre right parties vying for power and a smaller left presence of the New Democratic Party. And what of the NDP in the 1993 context? How did it fare? Well, as ever the news for the left is less than great. The split towards the Liberals did it no favours at all with the loss of all but 9 of its previous 43 seats and a decline of 13.5% in its vote falling to a mere 6%. Today the NDP remains about and around that figure with 37 seats.

There’s no reason for that pattern to repeat itself. Yet it does provide a cautionary tale about how examples of party collapse need to be located within the general context. And it underlines the reality that there is no reason in the competitive environment that we currently inhabit to believe that the Left must of necessity make great gains or that the Left, even in the shape of the Labour Party, will be the obvious and self-evident alternative either in the short or medium term.

Which again points to the reality that one might see a three party structure develop, one with a broad equality between the three parties and with Sinn Féin and the Green Party and other leftish elements still extant. But that, feeble as it may seem, might yet constitute the best possible outcome at this point in time. As ever it’s about broadening the field of battle.

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