Okay, let’s keep in mind my caution about the current polls… but the most recent one this weekend from the Sunday Business Post was – despite showing no variation from the previous one, bar a 1% increase for Sinn Féin and a 1% decrease for the Independents, pretty telling in its own way.
Firstly the fact that the rise for Fianna Fáil that took place last month from the previous one, 23% to 27%, has halted at 27% again, indicates that there are limits, at least at this point, to how well that party can do. Remember, the 23% figure came in the aftermath of the Budget, and prior to that in September and October the party was sitting on 24% and 25% respectively. It appears that FF has found a ‘band’ of support within which it varies. That may change.
But the trend is constant. And particularly at a time when the situation more broadly with hammer blows to both them, Fine Gael and the Green Party followed in rapid succession. The Business Post argues that this is a good result for FF, and perhaps superficially it seems so. They managed to weather the O’Dea storm and remain where they were. Becalmed. But. But, every month that passes with Labour on its highest percentage support in years, and Fine Gael outstripping them, is a month where their authority diminishes. It feeds into a narrative that they are merely standing around waiting to be replaced. And that narrative is now strongly embedded and not merely in the media discourse.
The other obvious issue is that the focus shifted from the economy, optics improving slightly, back onto personality/integrity issues. Now the focus shifts back over the next few months as the reality as distinct from the perception of NAMA comes to the fore. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t see that helping them. Not one bit. Same, by the way goes for the Green Party.
Let’s take Fine Gael. Their support over the five polls from September has varied only by two points… 35% in both September and October, 36% in November and now 34% in both January and February. They too seem to have reached a plateau. 34% would provide a good result, particularly with a profoundly weakened Fianna Fáil. But let’s not ignore the noises off about Enda Kenny’s leadership. According to this poll two in five voters see themselves ‘more likely to vote FG’ if there is another leader in situ. According to the SBP 50% of FF voters think this way.
To be honest I’m dubious. A night of the long knives would be as likely to suppress the FG vote, particularly dependent on circumstance. Now. If Enda Kenny awoke tomorrow and said ‘I’m outta here…’ – unlikely, but not impossible, I think that could be sold. But… an internecine decapitation resulting in a shark toothed grinning successor? I think that might play very badly. I suspect that for all his negative qualities (and more on them in terms of interviews soon), there’s a swathe of the electorate who breathes a sigh of relief at the fact he’s not a showman. That’s only my suspicion and it may prove to be very wrong. But… given that FG even with FitzGerald, a vastly more charismatic figure in his own way, managed at best to get 39.2% of the vote at its best (1982) one shouldn’t dismiss the achievements of Kenny.
And I think one could put it a different way. Voters are aware of Kenny’s personality, and yet they vote for FG in spite of that. The idea that it is possible to detach more of them from FF seems unlikely. I’ve always thought that the FF core vote probably hovers in or around 25% or so. The polling data to date seems to support that contention. It may be simply impossible to prise away any more percentages from that figure. Short of utter catastrophe why would they go? That’s a point with some significance for Labour too which I’ll return to later in this piece.
Labour, on 18% in September, 19% in October and 17% in the three subsequent polls appears to offer an even greater degree of settling. 17% is not bad. Not bad at all. They may well have hit a brick wall, but it could be worse for a party that at the 2007 Election was on 10%. If they can sustain that… well… 28 seats… perhaps more.
And for Sinn Féin, it’s business as usual as they shift between 7% and 10%, currently up one to 9%. On these figures they should retain sufficient of their vote come an election to bring back at least as many, if not more, TDs than they currently have. Is that the dawn of a golden age? No, but it’s a far cry from the situation some would argue they are in. And if there’s any credibility in the shift in poll numbers, and this within the margin, so perhaps not, then there may be support for them, even a percentage or two in the Independents figure. Of course the rub is how this pans out on the ground. Would Crowe have a chance on these figures? And what of O Snodaigh? Doherty, too, might be wondering… although my sense is that the byelection would be a bridge too far for him and it may be more likely that at a General Election he would come through.
The Green Party fares a little better with the signs of their imminent demise strangely absent on a persistent 5% since November. I’ve argued consistently that I expect at least one, and perhaps two to make it back at the next election. I’d think that Sargent, always their best bet, would now be more rather than less likely. Gogarty and White would be in with a shot.
Which leaves us with truly interesting feature number one, the slow decline of the Independent vote. From a high of 11% in September it moved to 9% and is now on 8%. Now, that has to come with a health warning. All the smaller parties and that poll data is within the margin of error. But, again we see a trend and the trend is downwards.
This is problematic for the left. Up until now many of us have supported the idea that both People Before Profit and the Socialist Party and Seamus Healy, not to mention others, perhaps less clearly defined as left, are going to take seats – in numbers too if the figures come right on the day. Now I would wonder. A softening independent vote may indicate not merely that voters are shifting towards the bigger battalions but also that support is pooling around various candidates. The problem is that at this distance the detail is impossible to make out. Worth noting though.
Amanda made a very interesting point which hadn’t struck me previously in discussion.
And that is that for all of the apparent gains for Labour they come, almost exclusively or so it would appear, on the back of a shift from Fianna Fáil to Labour. The first tranche came in October 2008 with a good five or six percentage points. The second arrived in February 2009 with eight per cent or so. Of that latter group a good six per cent or so went back to Fianna Fáil – perhaps in a fit of buyers remorse – (indicated by a simultaneous jump in FF support in March) and then two or so percent went back to Labour. Where they have stayed ever since, varying between 17 and 19%. Look at the broader trend as exemplified by a handy graphic – see below.
Now, some of us have hypothesised – including Amanda – that this is based on FF-leaning public sector workers who’ve had enough and aren’t going to take any more (at least in the political sphere – not so sure about union activity… the appetite is not exactly great for action, and by the by the full transcript of last weeks Seanad debate has some intriguing comments by various parties on the unions and social partnership). That first group would have been those who resiled in the face of the Budget held in 2008, that second group those who were influenced by the initial pension levy making their disaffection known. It’s interesting that the last Budget did not increase the Labour vote – perhaps an indication that those that had been gained were those that were likely to be gained. On the other hand the proof of the latest poll would appear to suggest that they’re staying.
But there’s another issue which puts a spin on the issues Labour must face as it attempts to hold together an unwieldy coalition between those parts of its base, new and old who tilt towards FF or FG. The question is whether the anger of those formerly FF-voting workers is such that they will accept seeing their new found political home move to government, or more precisely move to a position where they can enter government, with Fine Gael. Between September 2008 and November 2009 we saw some slippage back to FF, considerable at first, then much more gradual. As the situation calms, and given that short of calamity there will be no further direct attacks on public sector workers wages until the next Budget, I think the chances of Fianna Fáil pulling back more voters is high.
So, what is Labour going to do? Presumably play it very safe and give as few hostages to fortune on the nature of the post-2011/2012 electoral terrain as is humanly possible. Which is possibly why the pronouncements of Eamon Gilmore have been somewhat muted recently.
But it’s a tricky one. Those votes could potentially push Labour to something close to the 1992 result, but those voters want different things. Some want to give FF the lash. Others want an FF redux. Still others may want an LP/FG coalition. Determining which is the strongest strand may well shape the nature of the pre-election campaign. Then… then there’s the transfers. Consider that PD transfers were of great assistance to FF across the years (and to some extent vice versa). That newfound 5% or so… who will they transfer to? An FF they have walked from or FG that historically they would have (one presumes) at least some antagonism to. Remember, there are small parties that have existed in this state on less than 5%.
And while on the numbers alone, an FF-Labour coalition would make the most sense following the next election (at least if we’re talking about the maximisation of individual party political influence in a coalition), the cultural problems of that, in the sense that the LP culture is profoundly antagonistic to such a deal – and perhaps given their cohabitation with the PDs there is an equal but inverse dynamic on the FF side – are significant.
And yet Labour cannot afford to alienate those who, while angry with Fianna Fáil, may well be open to its blandishments over the next twenty four months. Or will they be?
The results of the second last SBP poll, held in January, saw Fianna Fáil is at 27%, Fine Gael at 34%, Labour holding steady at 17% and Sinn Féin falling to 8% while the Green Party remained at 5%.
The movement for Fianna Fáil was from SF and Fine Gael, not from Labour, with the percentiles shifting to FF being drawn equally from those two parties – now of course none of this precise and hence a caveat applies. But more broadly it looks as if, most of those who jumped ship from FF to Labour in the period from October 2008 have stayed put, somewhere between 5 and 7% of the electorate. The Budget clearly hasn’t tempted them back. And with as bad (or if we are to credit David McWilliams, and sotto voce Cliff Taylor, worse) to come in the next year or two it seems unlikely that they’ll move anytime soon.
So, more cuts in the next Budget, or the drip drip of the McCarthy Report implementation and it’s just possible an opposite dynamic may come into play where FF simply has to bid farewell to those voters who detached from it in late 2008 and early 2009 in the medium to long term (and perhaps see those who went and returned, depart again, now that their bond with FF is that little bit looser) and where Labour can – as it were – take them for granted. That’s a real problem for Fianna Fáil, because even should it manage to prise voters back from Fine Gael – and how many of the current 34% will go, even if it were 5% that would still leave FF at just about 32% – that would still mean a much weaker FF returned to the next Dáil. And almost definitely a Fine Gael, Labour and A.N. Other coalition in place.
Ironically though that might be a better option for Labour with an FG returned in numbers low enough to be a pliant coalition partner.
It’s still a remarkable situation. And perhaps the most remarkable aspect is the movement at the Labour Party level rather than between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. If there is a fundamental shift in the party politics of this state – that is if FF regains some of its lost support back from FG – it may be, just may be, that we are seeing it occur in terms of Labour Party support. It’s small scale stuff, but again… four or five per cent has kept more than one small party afloat over the years.
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