Today’s RedC poll for Paddy Power brings very little good news unless you are an independent or a don’t know. The unadjusted core figures rank the parties in descending order as:
Fine Gael 23%
Fianna Fáil 18%
Don’t Knows 18%
Sinn Féin 13%
After adjusting the figures by excluding 50% of the don’t know and adjusting the other 50% back to how they voted in 2011 the ranking positions stay the same. Only the relative gaps between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and between Fianna Fáil and the Independents widen.
Fine Gael 29%
Fianna Fáil 22%
Sinn Féin 15%
Sinn Fein’s lead over Labour remains at a steady 4%. While this may, at first glance, suggest some good news for Sinn Féin, the party has been in this territory before only for its good polling numbers to fail to translate into votes.
Back in December 2010, on the eve of a general election, three polls showed the party in the mid teens. A Red C Poll for The Sun on 03/12/2010 gave the party 16%. The MRBI/Irish Times poll on Dec 16th put it on 15% while a third, the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll of December 18th put its support at 14%. On polling day, two months later, the voters gave it 9.9%.
This is not to discount its advance since. Sinn Féin has been consistently polling in the mid teens since September 2011. That said, though an Irish Times poll in early October 2011 put party support at a hefty 18% its Presidential candidate and possibly most charismatic figure, Martin McGuinness still could not get the party’s actual vote past the 13.7% mark in the ballot boxes a few weeks later.
Despite its considerable and well resourcing organisation it seems to still have a problem translating favourable poll numbers into actual votes.
Though of cold comfort to Fianna Fáil it does not, at least, have this particular problem. The MRBI/Irish Times and Red C/Sunday Business Post polls conducted on the eve of the 2009 Local elections put Fianna Fáil’s support at 20% and 21% respectively. On polling day, the party managed to scrape its way up to 25.4%.
Fianna Fáil problems are more significant. While it has won back some of its lost “soft” support and pulled itself up from the 2011 hammering it has yet to say or do anything substantive to win back many of those who had voted for it in 2002 and 2007 but rejected it in 2011. There is nothing to suggest it is doing any better with potential first time voters either.
Despite the speculation of last weekend, Fianna Fáil’s problem is not its leader. The notion that Fianna Fáil picking a new leader whose only virtue is that they were not a member of the previous government is almost laughable. Surely no one in the party or the commentariat is delusional enough to think that the electorate is so naïve that it will flock to Fianna Fáil’s cause just because it has a leadership team devoid of anyone who served under Ahern or Cowen?
Despite its apology and acknowledgement of past mistakes, Fianna Fáil has yet to present a researched and substantive alternative policy programme. It has come up with some good micro-policies, not least its family home protection and debt resolution Bills, but many have been light on substance and appear to have been produced as well intentioned responses to specific representative groups, e.g. the Mobile Phone Radiation Warning Bill
Try finding the party’s April 2013 Policy Guide on its website. It is there, but you have to know what you are looking for to find it. Click on the “issues” button on the homepage and you get the Spring 2012 version, to locate the latest version you need to do a search for it by name.
The April 19th 2013 document shows the party has been doing some serious work on policy, but you would be hard pushed to know it from the statements coming from its spokespeople. These still read as knee jerk responses to government statements rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative. Fine Gael may have gotten away with tactic this during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unwilling and unable to communicate with its own supporters.
Perhaps the criticisms of a small and possibly over stretched clique around the leadership have some basis in reality, but as someone who has spent a long time around the party, on both the inside and outside tracks, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
Michéal Martin has shown a remarkable capacity for getting out and about and engaging with members and voters alike, it is curious, therefore, to read of him being less engaged and accessible to members of his own very diminished parliamentary party.
Might I suggest that the fault lies on both sides. Yes, he should be having regular one to one meetings with his 33 parliamentary colleagues – God knows there are not that many of them to make such regular meetings impractical – but they too should be engaging with him.
The traditional deference to the leader needs to change. Gone are the days when you had to wait ages to have an audience with the great leader as he busied himself with the great affairs of state in the Taoiseach’s office. Parliamentary party members have the opportunity for unique access, let them use it. A minority can only exercise sole access when allowed by the majority indifference or reticence.
Despite the job losses and the massive reduction in resources, there still appears to be a sense that the party structures are operating and running as if the party is still as big as it once was. Worse still many of those working those structures have no sense memory of how the party should operate in opposition.
A small number of paid officials are being expected to do the party’s policy research and formulation with minimal input from a vast array of experts across the volunteer membership. Too much power and control is being retained around the centre and around Leinster House: not by the leadership and his supposed clique, but also by members of the parliamentary party who are criticising him for just that.
I am old enough to remember what was put in place between 1982 and 1987, the last time the party was truly in opposition. Back then a series of policy committees were established by the leadership and mandated, working with the various spokespeople, to produce credible and researched policies for submission to the party for adoption.
These committees worked with the TDs and Senators but were not run by them. Outside experts were brought in to assist and work with them.
To borrow a phrase from Fianna Fáil’s past – the phase of its recovery will be dependent on policies and substance – not personality. The party already has the potential to bring itself back into the upper 20s in terms of actual voter support – the question now for the leadership and the party as a whole is if it has the energy, expertise and inclination to innovate the policy approaches that could bring support up into the 30% plus range.
That is the challenge ahead.