My analysis piece entitled “Back from the Brink” from the April 2013 (Árd Fheis) edition of Fianna Fáil’s Cuisle magazine
Back in April 2011 the possibility of Fianna Fáil seeing its poll ratings even just break through the 20% barrier seemed like a pipe dream. But more than that, it was one that you dared not talk about in public in case people might question 1: Your political judgement or 2: Your grip on reality.
Yet, barely two years on, our party’s support heading into the mid 20s and we have confounded the pundits with two better than anticipated by-election performances in Dublin West and Meath East.
Back in 2011 things looked a lot darker. There had been a number of occasions between late 2008 and early 2011, as support plummeted, where we thought: it cannot fall any further. Yet it did.
Two years on from what I described in my Herald column as our electoral “punishment beating” our main achievement is not the increase in the polls, but rather the halt in the party’s decline achieved in the months following the February 2011 defeat.
That was the critical point. It was when the party’s future was most at risk. Remember those political pundits who advised that the only future lay in lurching to the right or trying to outflank the Shinners on euro-scepticism?
That was when we faced the key test for a venerable and established political party: its ability to adapt and respond effectively to change. The alternative was stark: descend into factionalism and fade slowly into oblivion.
By the time of last year’s Árd Fheis the party had determined that its future lay in change: real change. The decision to invite Prof Tim Bale to address the Árd Fheis was both timely and inspired. His presentation, based on his research into the Tories 13 years in the wilderness, listed the 12 key lessons points a party in our position needs to learn. The first two are:
1: Fully understand the scale of the defeat and
2: Not to underestimate your opponents.
Yet they are two lessons large established parties find it hardest to grasp. Having represented the political centre of gravity for so long it is hard to grasp that it has moved away and that you need to regain its trust.
This was not just true of the Tories, but of other big political parties who have lost and recovered: from the British Labour Party to the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The temptation is to believe that your rejection is just a temporary phenomenon: that your former voters have just been misled by siren voices from the opposition and will return to the fold when the weaknesses and failings of the other crowd are exposed.
This was the mistake the Tories made about New Labour under Tony Blair and, conversely the mistake that Old Labour made about Thatcher. Both seriously underestimated their opposition and considerably overestimated their apparent entitlement to govern.
But there is another point on Prof Bale’s list. It is number 12: Political parties with respected traditions rarely disappear
While the SPD still languishes behind its rival CDU some nine years after Gerhard Schröder lost the Chancellorship to Merkel, it is still a major force in German politics. While Schröder’s resignation and the formation of the left wing Die Linke hurt Germany’s oldest political party, it focussed on the future; reformed and changed.
The same can be said for the Swedish Social Democrats – once Fianna Fáil’s main challenger for the title of Europe’s more successful political party. While its support has been falling steadily since the early 1990s, it still remains a major force in Swedish politics, though in opposition since 2006.
While these parties suffered successive defeats, they were not on the scale of Feb 2011. To find an example of a party that came back from an electoral mauling of similar magnitude you need to look to Japan’s LDP. Sometimes hailed as the world’s most successful democratic party, the LDP held power in Japan almost continuously from 1955 to September 2009.
The seeds of its 2009 defeat (where it went from 296 seats to 119) were sown in the mid 90s where there were a number of major political reforms.
While the LDP continued to win elections, other parties were adapting better. It could still boast a popular leader in Junichiro Koizumi but, behind the scenes, the LDP was losing its advantage. It went from winning the 2005 election with one of the largest majorities ever to losing 60% of its seats in 2009.
The loss provided an initial shock to the system with some MPs jumping ship, but the LDP is a big and long established beast. It soon adapted to the 1994 reforms and worked at providing a very effective opposition. After just three years it completely reversed the 2009 defeat winning 294 seats at the December 2012 election.
Clearly there were other factors at play, but it does show what a political party that is deeply rooted in its communities and has a wide and diverse membership can achieve when it faces up to realities.