There’s been so much news in the past week or two that it’s difficult to remember that the Sunday Business Post ran a poll the results of which were published on the 22nd of November. And it’s a fascinating poll in its own way because it points to a serious disconnect now between the government and the voters.
The headline results are hardly startling given previous trends.
Fine Gael has extended its lead over Fianna Fáil to 13 points, while there has been a small gain for the Green Party. The state of the parties is: Fianna Fáil, 23 per cent (down 2); Fine Gael, 36 per cent (up 1); Labour, 17 per cent (down 2); Sinn Féin, 10 per cent (up 1); Greens, 5 per cent (up 2); and independents, 9 per cent (no change).
One could wonder at how and why Fianna Fáil and the Green party have seen variations in their share of the potential vote. But these are marginal results. This remains a desperately unpopular government, and for those optimistic souls who believe that time will heal all wounds I’d point them at the raw data. Fianna Fáil has now endured its worst polling results ever across a prolonged period. Sure, they’ll gain some support back as an election draws nearer. But short of a remarkable revival it seems unlikely that they will enjoy the figures they regularly saw under Bertie Ahern for quite some time. I was initially dubious about how much damage had been inflicted on Fianna Fáil, but the consistency of these figures and the fact they continue to decline reinforces a conclusion that this is an historic rupture in the Irish polity.
Even the fact that Green Party is now apparently on 8 per cent in Dublin is insufficient to ensure the re-election of most of its sitting TDs. That the GP is about to gain a Senator is perhaps a fillip for them, but given that that is not through an election beyond the Oireachtas (although neither were the current Senate incumbents for that party) it’s hard to believe that that will have any electoral impact – other than potentially for whoever gets the position and even then probably so marginally that it won’t make any difference. It would seem that the GP might save some of its seats, something that is crucial to it’s future longevity and perhaps something that marks a turn-around from the low point of the local elections. But holding all of them, or even gaining new ones, now seems to be a challenge beyond their ability.
That high Independent vote is worth noting. I’ll bet there’s a tranche of FF support hiding out there. Not a huge amount, but sufficient to add a couple or more percentage points to FF. In fact we now have sufficient evidence across a raft of polls to indicate that a chunk of Fianna Fáil support has gone to both Labour and the Independent camps. In May 2009 when the FF vote fell to 21 per cent, it’s lowest point to date, Labour was on 18 per cent and the Independents on 13 per cent. As Fianna Fáil’s vote rose towards the mid 20s the Independent percentages fell. And it’s worth remembering that in 2007 the Independent vote in all its smorgasbord variety was 6 per cent. But this is good news for Independent candidates of whatever stripe, because that may well presage increased transfers now that that psychological bridge has been crossed, even if some FF voters return home.
Sinn Féin as ever seem to move between 8 and 10 per cent. Healthy enough and consistent enough that they should anticipate at least an extra seat or two come the next election. I’m always struck by how they’ve managed to carve out an electoral niche which in percentage terms is well ahead of the Workers’ Party at their height, and only slightly behind Labour at their nadir. But the nature of that percentage is such that it appears too widely spread around the country to deliver seats in double figures like the Labour Party. This is the problem the Green Party faces too but in a much more accentuated form given their smaller support base.
For Labour the situation is a little more mixed. 17 per cent is a good result, and would see them returning a considerable number of TDs. But it could be better – and it is notable that it is quite some ways below the heights reached in Irish Times polls previously. I’ve felt that their focus, which prior to the Summer was remarkably strong, appears to have dissipated somewhat. Again, if they were to get 17 per cent or even slightly more Gilmore would potentially be looking at a result as good as 1992. But it seems unlikely that he would see the returns exceed that.
Which leads us to Fine Gael. They are now at 36 per cent. Even if there is quite a stretch to go before hitting the heady heights achieved in the early 1980s under FitzGerald that is quite an achievement. How solid it is is another matter. I’m dubious, although I hear from reliable sources that Fine Gael is delighted with this situation and Labour somewhat more glum. Coexistence in that future coalition should provide no end of challenges. But there’s no evading the central point that across this year we’ve seen consistently good polling data back from them.
If these figures are representative of the conditions a year or two down the line then it seems likely that Fine Gael will be returned as the largest single party. Fianna Fáil will lose badly and Labour will do relatively well in historic terms. Sinn Féin should provide greater numbers than in 2007 and the Green Party may limp home with two or perhaps three TDs. Beyond that if the Independent/Others vote holds up we should see a number of left wing candidates returned.
There are other more specific findings:
The poll finds that two thirds of voters blame the government for the recession, and fewer than one in five voters has confidence in the government to lead the country out of recession.
I’m a little taken aback that one third don’t blame the government, although I guess the question could be amended to read ‘exacerbating the recession’. That one in five figure is telling. Is that Fianna Fáil voters, is this the legendary core? Has it taken one global recession and the collapse of financial and other institutions to finally reveal those who will not resile from their political home – note that the figures on this issue in October 2008 were 20 per cent, so not much change since then, but remarkably the figures from the previous month of that year were 39 per cent. That is when it all went south.
Not that the figures provide much solace for the Opposition, albeit this is an unvariegated terms for the sake of this poll. Confidence in their abilities hovers at about 25 per cent. Hardly a ringing endorsement, and perhaps indicative of the problems facing an opposition divided between two larger formations and on smaller one. Richard Colwell of RedC is even more optimistic, or perhaps less darkly pessimistic, about the Government’s future in light of this. He argues that:
The danger for the opposition is what will happen if the economy begins to improve in 2010, and how this may affect the current government’s popularity. Even now 38 per cent do not direct blame the government for the crisis. Given this lack of credibility on the economy among the opposition how quickly might voters be persuaded that Fianna Fáil is again a safer option?
That such a statement is possible is indicative of how simply surviving has been no small achievement. But even if one agrees, as I do entirely, with Pat Leahy’s analysis in the Sunday Business Post that the chances of this government surviving past the Budget are now incomparably higher than they were three months ago I’m dubious that survival alone means anything. Well, obviously for those surviving it has its perks, but in terms of repositioning the government to achieve a ‘political recovery’ some time in the next two and a half years appears unreasonably optimistic. Again, think about that extra Senator for the Green Party. Nice to have, but essentially meaningless at this point in the electoral cycle.
Because there is that Budget. And Leahy notes that we are looking at ‘a historically unpopular government which the electorate holds responsible for the worst recession in living memory will introduce a set of budgetary measures to which the public is firmly opposed’.
How opposed? Firmly… for the public remains stubbornly attached to ‘higher taxes for middle/high income earners (over 100k household income)’. Only 5 per cent would avoid them, 47 per cent believe they’re the first measure that should be taken with 29 per cent believing that they’re a part of the mix but not necessarily first priority. Next up? Public sector pay cuts. 11 per cent don’t want to see them at all, 29 per cent believe they should be first up with 27 per cent seeing them as a part of the mix. Cuts in unemployment benefit are much less popular as a measure with only 9 per cent arguing they should be first priority, 21 per cent seeing them as a potential measure and a significant 25 per cent arguing that they should be avoided. Higher taxes for all aren’t popular, at al. Only 6 per cent want to see them, 21 per cent are agin and so on. And cuts in health and education spending are hugely unpopular with 44 per cent against them and only 20 per cent expressing approval of immediate or possible cuts in those areas. Cuts in child benefits and pensions are even more unpopular with 48 per cent against them.
This data is genuinely fascinating. Even now, a year into the recession, a near blanket uniformity in the media as to the ‘necessary’ policies and in particular an increasing and often hysterical concentration on the public sector and its workers and still the electorate points to increased taxation for higher earners as the way that they believe is most suitable for the budget. It’s quite a remarkable statistic given all else and perhaps slightly heartening as an indication that the public hasn’t turned its face to all progressive measures.
By contrast Pat Leahy argues that:
The government has repeatedly set its face against higher taxes, not for ideological reasons but because it is afraid that higher tax rates would quickly mean lower tax receipts. Statistics from the Revenue, showing how the income tax take is dangerously dependent on relatively few higher earners, are trotted out by ministers with great frequency. But the public isn’t buying this economic argument, or it doesn’t care.
Well, some of us would argue that such a position was intrinsically ideological in nature. And Colwell suggests that the figures demonstrate an ‘inherent desire for fairness is evident in those actions that voters would rather not implement at all’.
I’ve felt recently that we’re living through a reactionary moment, which is both ironic in that some have long argued that it would be times like this which would offer up revolutionary moments and perhaps depressingly inevitable in a polity like this where the left remains almost entirely marginalised. That we must depend on a rather nebulous ‘inherent desire for fairness’ to stay or diminish the actions of a government in terms of economic policies that the left finds reprehensible tells its own story. But… if that, as with the union actions in recent weeks, sets down markers as to what is acceptable by the Irish electorate and Irish workers then small victories, or lesser defeats, may be salvaged from the wreckage. It’s not much to hope for, but at this point, trapped in an electoral cycle too far from an election and in a society which is ill equipped to explore progressive alternatives, it may be the best we can do.
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