An historic defeat for Fianna Fáil, an historic victory for Fine Gael… but what of Labour?

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There’s a certain notion in the air that an election is near inevitable now. And, in one sense hasn’t that always been the case. But, it is correct that the chances of an election this year are better now than they have been. So, with that in mind what are the rumours swirling about out there and what possibilities can we extrapolate from them? Granted none of this is scientific. All is hearsay, but, let’s consider this exercise as a thought-experiment and perhaps in the days and months to come we will have the opportunity to see how closely it aligns or diverges with reality. Also it raises some of the issues that will be central to government formation in the relatively near future.

Recently a colleague was talking to a member of the parliamentary Labour Party and was surprised to hear the belief expressed that the Labour Party had peaked too early in the current crisis. Indeed the idea was raised that Fine Gael might well be now in such a commanding lead that there was a distinct fear amongst some in the Labour Party that it would be in a position to more or less ‘go it alone’. This last term wasn’t defined in any detail and obviously could cover a multitude. Perhaps a Fine Gael so large in terms of numbers returned to the Dáil that it could ignore whatever representation the Labour Party returns. Or perhaps in a slightly less dramatic context an Fine Gael that needs only a small number of Labour Party TDs, and/or others to make up numbers.

I’ll return to that latter scenario in a moment. But there are some curious straws in the wind. Not least a piece by Stephen Collins recently which argues something not entirely dissimilar. Now, when I hear that sort of rumour from the LP and read an accompanying piece by the redoubtable Collins alarm bells tend to go off in my mind, for one wonders whose benefit this concept is being put into the public sphere for. But, even so, we are currently in a vacuum between serious polling data. As of yet we have no sense of the shape of the political landscape we are about to enter this late Summer and Autumn.

So, what does Collins say? Well, he’s far from coy about raising the possibility, as his headline puts it that a Sudden election could spell political meltdown for FF”

And his reasoning goes something like this.

“Following the drubbing which both parties received in the local and European elections last June, the assumption in Fianna Fáil is that the party will almost certainly lose power and a significant number of seats.

However, the scale of the electoral disaster facing the party is still not widely appreciated within Fianna Fáil or even outside it. The common assumption is that it will drop from the 78 seats it won in the last election to somewhere around 60, or a even a bit lower on a very bad day. In fact, the odds are that the outcome will be far, far worse than that.”

He continues:

“Everything hinges on whether the Fianna Fáil share of the vote is in the high 20 per cent range or down closer to 20 per cent. The difference between the two positions amounts to 30 seats, or even more. An outcome at the higher end would represent defeat, but one from which a recovery could be planned; if it was to be at the lower end, the rout would transform the nature of Irish politics.

In June, Fianna Fáil won 25.45 per cent in the local elections and 24 per cent in the European elections. If the party slipped a couple of percentage points lower in a general election it would be in a disaster zone, facing an electoral wipe-out. On the other hand, if it gained two or three points it would be back in respectable territory.”

Which is to say that it could go either way. But, he has a point. He maps this to the Fine Gael record.

“One of the anomalies of our electoral system is that a shift of a few percentage points in the 20 per cent range makes a huge difference to the result. This comes about because our system of proportional representation (PR) is tied in with a mix of three-, four- and five-seat constituencies.

On a national average, with 27 per cent or so of the vote, a party will win one seat in every three-seat constituency, one in every four-seater and two in some five-seaters where the party exceeds its national average. This is because a quota in a three-seater is 25 per cent, it is 20 per cent in a four-seater and 16.6 per cent in a five-seater.

On the other hand, if the national share of the vote slips to around 22 per cent, a party will win one seat in many but not all three-seaters, one in most four-seaters and just one in every five-seater.

A classic illustration of the effect is provided by the recent electoral performance of Fine Gael. In 1997 the party won 28 per cent of the vote and 54 seats. Five years later its vote share dropped to 22.5 per cent and the party lost almost half its Dáil seats, ending up with just 31. In 2007 it was back up to 27 per cent and 51 seats.”

And he posits that if there is a further attrition of the Fianna Fáil vote then from the June percentage that would return about half its current Dáil representation. Let’s remember that currently it has 75 TDs (with one byelection yet to be held). So, to be charitable we could say that Collins is looking at a level between 35 to 45 Fianna Fáil TDs. This would, it hardly requires saying, be unprecedented in the history of that party.

And as an additional snippet, consider this from Deaglán de Bréadún also of the Irish Times on his blog where he notes that…

“More narrowly, I discussed the likely outcome of the next election with two FF backbenchers who have been through many a battle. “Where we have two seats, we’ll come back with one; where we have three, we’ll come back with two.”

Startling in its honesty an starkness. Another interesting comment, concerning the state of things in Teach Laighean: “When this place gets into a wobble, it hardly ever gets out of it.”

That’s a fascinating thought, and not I would think beyond the bounds of possibility. Indeed if one goes through the constituencies, an exercise which I have done, and makes a crude tally one will discover that if these nameless backbenchers are correct then Fianna Fáil could expect to return a cohort of TDs somewhere in the 40s.

A word of caution. Who knows how this is all being spun. We haven’t had a poll in months, although some party polling is being conducted. There are good reasons why – for example – both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might wish this sort of message to get out at this point. Fine Gael would see it as assisting their project to achieve dominance as the major opposition party, Fianna Fáil could well be happy sowing mischief between the two potential coalition partners.

And this is, obviously, back of an envelope stuff and subject to local and national issues in the run up and on the day of any possible election. But… if we burrow into individual constituencies there seems to be some justification for the numbers, or more usefully, the broad bands within which parties will return numbers of TDs… 30s, 40s and 50s. For example, does it seem likely that in Mayo that Fianna Fáil will retain two seats? Which begs the question will their famously formerly Independent Fianna Fáil member rue the day she returned to the fold? And what then of, say, Clare, where Timmy Dooley and Tony Killeen must be wondering if James Breen, also once of that parish, might be in line to retain the seat he lost as an Independent in 2007. And even the big hitters would make you wonder. How is Dublin Mid West going to pan out, even if John Curran is sitting on a massive pile of first transfers. I’d say he’ll keep his seat, but I wouldn’t think that the Mary Harney seat will transfer to Fianna Fáil. Or Dublin Central? Bertie Ahern is about to pass into parliamentary history. It seems unlikely that Cyprian Brady will be the man, given his first preference vote last time out, to retain the residual aura of the Ahern machine. One FF seat in what was once one of their greatest redoubts.

But given the antipathy to Fianna Fáil it is more than possible that the kicking the Green Party was given at the local elections will be but a precursor of a dismal showing for Fianna Fáil at the next General.

And these figures tally, albeit less optimistically for Fianna Fáil, with an analysis made by Shane Coleman and Conor McMurrow in the Sunday Tribune earlier in the Summer where they predicted Fianna Fáil would only hold 52 seats. Somewhere in the 40s, somewhere in the early 50s? Only FF TDs will have any particular concerns about the divergence between the two projections. But if Fianna Fáil does dip into the 40s then they’re in awful trouble (in truth, if they dip below 65 they’re in desperate trouble).

Now, I have to admit, when I originally read those projections I was a bit dubious. But I’m much less so now. I think the next election will be disastrous for Fianna Fáil, not necessarily Canadian Conservative style disastrous, but pretty bleak all the same. Although, it is true that Coleman and McMurrow were willing to offer a small degree of hope for FF

“However, if it is still in place come Christmas, then there is every reason to believe the coalition will then last until 2012.

That could mean no general election for three years – an eternity in politics and, perhaps more significantly, a long, long time in economics. Certainly, really tough times lie ahead – unemployment is going to continue to rise for some time and our national debt will continue to soar. But in three years’ time, the global economy should have recovered and it is very possible that people here will be able to feel an improvement on the ground. If that is the case, Fianna Fáil probably won’t be at 25% in the opinion polls.”

I think the first part of that is very possible, but I think that it is likely that that will merely delay Fianna Fáil’s appointment with a profoundly ungrateful electorate just waiting for a chance to put the boot in.

But while contemplating the collapse, or near collapse, of Fianna Fáil is highly entertaining as a sort of political blood sport the left should have bigger fish to fry. And in that context it is necessary to try to determine how we could expect matters to pan out for Fine Gael. Because that will give an hint as to the sort of ground left for Labour and beyond it the left.

The Coleman/McMurrow piece suggested that Fine Gael would gain 69 seats with Labour on 30. It also suggested that between SF, the SP and various other left and further left formations there might be 10 or so seats. Beyond that there would also be a number of independents including Noel Grealish, formerly of the PDs amounting to about 7 in total. It is possible that of that group of Independents two will be of the left. I’m very suspicious of those numbers, particularly at the lower end of the scale. Far too much would depend on events on the ground (albeit the election of Maureen O’Sullivan and George Lee suggests that the antagonism to Fianna Fáil is deep-rooted and can result in voting mobilisations that are positive for all others). But, let’s for the sake of this exercise posit that the category of ‘Others’ will be above 10.

However, if Fianna Fáil is beaten down to the 40s then would presumably result in an increase in numbers for Fine Gael pushing them past the psychologically important 70 mark and their best previous result of 70 in the 24th Dáil in 1982. The magic figure is, of course, the mid-80s in order to achieve a majority in the Dáil, a dream beyond the capacity of Fine Gael, even at this juncture. If it is correct that Labour has peaked then there might be another four or five seats going begging. Would they go to Fine Gael? It is impossible to say. But it does seem to me that Fine Gael has, whether through a process of simple default, assumed a commanding position as the alternative pole for those seeking a replacement to Fianna Fáil.

If this were even close to the result and it obviously comes with huge caveats, in relation to Labour that would leave Fine Gael in an excellent position. A Labour Party with a Dáil representation lower than 30 will – from the perspective of FG – be a much more manageable formation than the alternative. And it would also allow for considerably greater stability for a potential coalition than a Fine Gael dependent upon whatever remains of the Green Party and the formerly PD and other Independents (indeed the history of the current coalition may well make future governments considerably more leery about incorporating Independents).

And what of the Labour Party? I think Collins is correct in so far as their vote appears softer than some of the poll results earlier in the year indicated. And that would seem to align with the idea that they peaked early. The Summer hasn’t helped with this process and Gilmore has appeared to drift somewhat out of public view. Fine Gael is making the running in relation to NAMA and other issues. That the public pronouncements they make are arguably contradictory and muddled is of less relevance than that they are afforded a degree of legitimation by the media.

Which leads us inexorably to the question as to what Labour would do if this, or some approximation of same, is the result and the further question which is what should Labour do?

In doing so I am not dismissing the further left, whose possible future under these projections is the work of another day. The reality is that at this moment there is no chance that Fine Gael will deal with Sinn Féin, although I have heard some who might know of such matters argue that if push came to shove the Labour Party might enter coalition with a profoundly weakened Fianna Fáil. In part this would be because Labour could then maximise their influence on the government through Ministers, or perhaps even the legendary rotating Taoiseach. Ironically, though, the numbers could predicate against it. A Labour Party on 30 or less, and a Fianna Fáil on 50 or less would still require at least one additional partner to do business. Sinn Féin? Perhaps. Perhaps not. All other formations appear profoundly suspicious or antipathetic if not outrightly hostile to coalition and therefore are unlikely to be swayed by the blandishments of larger parties, even were such parties willing to try to convince them to participate.

But try as a I might I cannot see any circumstance in which the Labour Party would eschew participation in a Fine Gael led coalition. Having been out of office since 1997 the calls for them to be ‘relevant’ would be, I would hazard, overwhelming. Indeed it is only if the Labour Party were to return a larger cohort of TDs would there be any chance that they might be swayed otherwise or push towards the sort of alliances that would even slightly refashion the Irish political system.

That being the case the influence of the Labour party, such as it is, on shaping even the mildest of centre left policy approaches on the next government appears to be limited. Indeed I would argue that it may be no exaggeration to propose that they will fulfill a function not dissimilar to that of the Green Party in the current administration, crucial to government formation and longevity, but locked due to numbers into a subordinate role.

It’s not a happy thought, even for those who hold only a residual hope that the Labour Party as an entity, however much one acknowledges the sincerity and energy of its membership, will significantly progress the situation for the left. And perhaps the central question, and this is one that must also be addressed to the further left – another days work, is what the function of the Labour Party in the next Dáil, not to mention the broader society, should be?

Okay. Exercise over. Thought experiment concluded. The numbers will, almost certainly, diverge from those proposed by the wise heads quoted above. But that central question remains.

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