Tag Archives: elections

@campaignforleo poll nos – not so much a Leo bounce as just an Enda recoil

16 Jul

This is my Broadsheet.ie column from last week, published before today’s Sunday Times/B&A poll showing FG on 29% and FF on 30%. This joint level of support of 59% is a positive, particularly for FF and suggests it has scope to get its average showing back into the low 30s. 

The original article is online here: www.broadsheet.ie/a-bounce-or-a-recoil

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sbp.redc_-1024x502

From the Sunday Business Post/RedC

Well, that didn’t seem to last too long.

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/RedC poll showed Fine Gael’s lead over Fianna Fáil closing by 5pts: from 8% in late May to down to just 3% now) This suggests an abrupt end to the Varadkar honeymoon.

I stress the word “suggest”. While the RedC poll puts Fine Gael on 27% and Fianna Fáil on 24%, another poll, taken exactly two weeks earlier by the Irish Daily Mail/Ireland Thinks put Fine Gael on 31% and Fianna Fáil on 26%. While it is possible that Leo’s less than adroit handling of events over the last two weeks may have shaved 4pts off his halo, it would be folly to try to conclude that from the results of two separate polls conducted by two different companies and taken at two different time periods.

What you can do, though, is track and compare the results from one individual polling company over a period of time. Fortunately, Red C does that for you via its handy online live-polling-tracker. Here you can find the results from the 10 polls conducted by Red C over the past year.

They show that Fianna Fáil has been ahead of Fine Gael in 7 out of the 10 polls – good news for the Soldiers of Destiny, you would think. But that joy is somewhat diminished when you see that two of the three where they are behind are the most recent ones: see shaded cells in table below (data from Red C here):

Red trend

Table 1. Red C polls July 16 – July 17

Ireland Thinks’ Dr Kevin Cunningham has highlighted the trend here and tracked a gradual Fine Gael recovery from soon after it became clear that Enda Kenny was set to depart.

What this suggests to me is that there is not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil. While the May Red C poll showed Fine Gael opening up a dramatic gap on its rival, the July one shows it closing back gain. So much for all the Fine Gael TDs who confidently hoped that electing Leo Varadkar as leader would have them 10pts clear of Fianna Fáil.

What the Red C polls show is that practically nothing has changed in terms of party support since the last general election. This is hardly surprising. What many pundits and commentators forget is that the vast bulk of voters are not avidly following the ins and outs and ups and downs of politics. Let me correct that slightly, many voters do follow what is happening day to day, but they do not base their voting intentions on process, but rather on outputs. That means that they do not give much consideration as to who they will vote for until they see that an election in imminent.

The fact that nothing much has changed in terms of the polls is kind of good news in the quasi zero-sum game of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael has played its ace card. It has dumped the pilot and put its smartest newbie in charge and the net impact is: meh! It has recovered the ground lost over the 14 months after the February 2016 election, but effectively it is back at that result – a result that was a big contributory factor in Fine Gael dumping Enda. Where else is there now for Fine Gael to go?

It could be argued that Fianna Fáil has been threading water awaiting this changeover. Despite the mythology I mentioned last week, Fianna Fáil must know that some of the gains made were due to Fine Gael own goals. Fianna Fáil cannot depend on Fine Gael shooting itself in the foot the next time – though Fine Gael always retains that capacity – but it can now plan a strategy knowing that the Fine Gael leadership handover has happened at a time that best suited Fianna Fáil.

No doubt the new Taoiseach will use the Summer to boost his profile and standing, but what works for Trudeau in Canada or Macron in France does not necessarily work here. As I opined on Twitter this week, it often seems to me that Varadkar has a good understanding of politics in general, just not of Irish politics. Gesture politics and soaring rhetoric do not play as well here as in other countries. Perhaps it is to do with scale and proximity. As (I think) the folk singer Frank Harte told Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show many years ago, it is impossible to become a big star in Ireland as there will always be someone to pipe up: sure, I knew him when he had nothing.

Leo may succeed in raising his personal popularity ratings between now and September, but that does not necessarily translate into gains for Fine Gael – indeed recent political history suggests that the popularity of a party leader rarely bleeds across to help their party. Micheál Martin was adjudged to have had a good election in Feb 2016, but even his winning performances in the leaders debates barely moved the dial for his party during the campaign.

The danger for Fianna Fáil is not in the future of Fine Gael, but rather in the dangers of the aforementioned FF/FG zero sum game. As Table 1 above shows the combined of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support in the Red C polls over the past year has averaged at 51%. Compare this with the figures in elections from before 2009 in table 2.

GE trendTable 2. Combined FF + FG first pref % at general elections

Whereas Fine Gael is now back at the levels of support it had for most of its modern history, Fianna Fáil is at about 60% of the level of support it enjoyed in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.

While this 60% is a lot better than what it was getting in 2011, the party should be aiming get back to about 80% of its previous levels of support, especially at this point in the electoral cycle. To do that it needs to see the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil poll numbers increase back to around 60% combined support, which means that it must start eating back into the support it has lost to independents at one end of the range and to Sinn Féin at the other.

This is partly done by incremental and sustainable growth, but it needs something more. It needs a big political idea that makes its message, its identity and its purpose clearer. Makes it stand apart from Fine Gael. Finding that message is no simple task, but it may have been made easier by the Brexit turbulence of the past year. Brexit is set to change a lot of how we do business across this island, so why not our politics? What I suggest is… oh, I see I am out of space. I shall return to this issue soon.

ENDS.

Who would want to be a TD?

16 Jul

This column is from two weeks back (July 3rd, 2017) and is both a guarded defence of the political party system and a warning of the dangers of the constant desire of the hard left fringe parties to take politics out on to the street.  

It is said that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reform. Origianl column online here: www.broadsheet.ie/who-would-want-to-be-a-td/

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Who in their right mind would want to become a T.D.?

The pay is good, the perks are decent and the scope for promotion (career and ‘self’) is none too bad either, but can these incentives really outweigh the forfeiture of a private life, never mind the ongoing press, public and social media opprobrium whenever you express an opinion?

Shouldn’t politics be a vocation, not a career path?

The problem with that view is not just that it is naïve, it is that it simply won’t work. Try it and we end up with a Dáil full of only those who can only afford to be there by virtue of their profession, their families’ money or simple “pull” – by the way not all of them would be on the right, a fair few would also come from the comfortable left, but that’s just an aside.

So, recognising that we are in the real world, perhaps we should be looking more at how to make entry into politics less unattractive and encourage more people who would not just see it as a long-term career option, but rather as something to contribute to after they have done and achieved other things.

Billy Connolly used to say that “The desire to be a politician should be enough to ban you from ever becoming one”. He is right, but only in one narrow sense. Wanting power for the sake of having it should be disqualification, but wanting it so you can change things, whether that be how many street lights there are in your community cycle, how waste is managed or how the cost of housing is reduced – that should be encouraged.

One of the problems is that many of political parties still include obstacles and tests that deter all but the most ambitious and politically astute. There is value in these skills, but national politics needs others too: people with wider skill sets and experiences.

Politics is not well served when it full of neophytes who have spent plenty of time as parliamentary researchers and ministerial assistants but have no genuine experience of the real world.

This applies to both left and right. Politics needs more people who have built things from houses to computers to companies and fewer people who have made placards and organised protest marches.

This is one of the reasons we have political parties. The most crucial role of any party, after policy development, is candidate selection. Political parties are there to identify, encourage, resource and support new entrants – people who may not in other circumstances have considered or pursued politics. They are there to protect them and back when they come under attack and support their work by making policy expertise available.

It can and does work. After the 2011 election massacre, Fianna Fáil was left with a lot of vacancies for prospective TDs as it had a lot of constituencies with no sitting TDs and no seat blockers. This was a major plus, it had the capacity to rebuild and renew with a massive intake of new talent. But it also had a big problem. On the negative side, it had a poll rating that would not encourage many to see it as offering a pathway to the Dáil.

Squaring this circle was no easy task. It had both to identify potential future TDs and to reassure them that it was a sufficiently viable vehicle to help them make it to the Dáil and contribute positively.

Much of that work happened locally. In many cases the local organisations and activists were ahead of their national counterparts. By the time of the 2014 local elections the party, nationally and locally was starting to synchronise both tasks: it had sufficiently recovered in the national polls to offer a credible vehicle and also had a slate of people with a variety of backgrounds to fast track into the Dáil.

Looking back, it now looks far more organised and structured that it probably was at the time. Building a mythology around what was done and how it was achieved risks missing the real and valuable lessons of what really happened. It also risks allowing a re-emergence of all the obstacles and hurdles of the past.

Though much of Fianna Fáil managed over the past five years was much by local action as by national design, it still offers a template for how other parties can and should encourage more new entrants.

But there is one big proviso, they must also realise that the work does not end when you bring in a few new TDs. If anything, that is when it really starts. TDs are not shrinking violets, but neither can they be allowed become punching bags for any group, whether in or outside the Dáil, who want to take politics out on to the street and then abrogate all responsibility for the consequences.

Every TD has an equal right to be heard inside and outside the Dáil. Being a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin back bencher does not lessen or reduce their mandate and should not reduce their speaking rights. Political parties are not an impediment to political progress, they are the bedrock of it.

Everyone has a right to disagree and to do so robustly and loudly, but the “What the Parliament does, the street can undo” mantra of Solidarity-PBP cannot be allowed to stand. It is a pernicious attempt to discourage wider political engagement and involvement in the guise of opening it up to those approved by Solidarity-PBP.

It is joked that France has the only “tricameral system” in the world – the National Assembly, the Senate and the Street – but history and experience shows that the Street has always been the biggest hindrance to reforms.

It is yet another reason why political parties now must ensure that many people who should be considering entering politics are given the opportunities, supports and protections to do so.

ENDS.

The perks of abstinence…?

16 Jul

This Broadsheet column first appeared online on June 12th 2017. In it, I explore the ramifications of the 2017 Westminster election result on politics in Northern Ireland, and suggest – borrowing heavily from an Irish Times article by Denis Bradley – that politics on the nationalist/republican side may be set for a major change over the coming year… www.broadsheet.ie/the-perks-of-abstinence/

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BBC NI

 

The results page from the BBC NI website – www.bbc.com/results/northern_ireland

 

While the outcome of the Westminster election was far from conclusive in England and Wales, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Only for the resurgence of the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson, Theresa May would be moving furniture rather than clinging to office by her fingertips. While the same Scottish result has, sadly, delayed the prospect of an Indy2 referendum, as the SNP Westminster representation collapsed from 56 seats to just 35 thanks to a 13% drop in support.

While in Northern Ireland the two parties that were at the heart of the post Good Friday Agreement Executive the: the SDLP and the UUP have been wiped out in terms of Westminster representation with the spoils being shared out between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Westminster line-up going into last Thursdays election was DUP 8, SF 4, SDLP 3, UUP 1 and Ind 1. The line-up coming out of it looks far starker: DUP 10, Sinn Féin 7 and Ind Unionist 1.

In crude political terms the balance has not shifted, however. There were 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones in the last House of Commons. This time around there will be: 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones, only that none of the 7 will attend.

Much has been made of Sinn Féin’s abstentionism over the past few days with most parties in the South using it as a stick to beat them with. I think the parties here have got it wrong on this one.

I would have happily voted for any of the SDLP candidates and I am deeply saddened not to see Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie or Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the House of Commons ensuring that the voice of nationalist and republican Ireland is heard. That said, the reality is that nationalist and republican voters still opted for candidates they knew would not take their seats.

Why voters in the North decided to vote for candidates who are happy to take the wage and the perks without doing the job is the issue that our political leaders should be addressing. The issue was excellently summed up by Denis Bradley in his analysis piece in last Saturday’s Irish Times:

“Since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism, across the whole island, has allowed itself to be reduced to a critiquing and an opposing of Sinn Féin instead of better understanding and explaining to itself and to others the desirability and the possibility of Irish unity.”   

Bradley then went further and made the case for not just slagging off Sinn Féin hollow and ultimately directionless narrative saying:

“There will always remain Irish nationalists who are unconvinced that Sinn Fein are the best proponents and providers of Irish unity but they continue to await a message and a messenger that is better.”

I believe this group is in the majority, North and South. As I have said here very many times, Brexit has completely changed the nature and scope of the debate in the North. One of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement is consent. Consent means, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the majority of the people there.

There was a vote on Brexit in the North and 56% of people there, across communities, said no to Brexit. Yet it was still pushed through Westminster – despite the impassioned pleas of people like Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell – and will proceed, we presume, in some shape or other. The EU citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland is not only being ignored, it is being annulled by the government at Westminster – small wonder that nationalists and republicans are angry.

Yes, it would be far better for this island North and South if Sinn Féin took their seats in this finely balanced parliament and used their numbers to raise the many legitimate and real concerns of Irish people on a hard Brexit and a hard border, but that is the type of analysis and criticism you apply to a political party, not Sinn Féin.

There are so many other areas on which to challenge Sinn Féin, top of that list is the perpetual sloganizing and game-playing that it engages in which helps it squeeze out an extra percentage point or two here and there but which also pushes the prospect of reunification further over the horizon. As Cllr Mannix Flynn said in his podcast with the Irish Independent: “The Sinn Féin promise of liberation is nuts.”

Over the past few days we have seen successive SF talking heads on TV Radio and Social Media telling us what a brilliant election they have just had and how their mandate is even further strengthened.

In the most simplistic terms, they are right. Sinn Féin did have a good Westminster election, but the shift in votes needed under the archaic first-past-the-post system to deliver that result was not huge. They took two seats off the SDLP and took one off the UUP, but when you look at the movement of voters, it was not a seismic change.

While SF saw its vote share since the most recent assembly election increase by 1.5% and the SDLP saw its vote decrease by a mere 0.2%, the biggest swing was to the DUP which saw its vote surge by a stunning 7.9% to 36%.

That DUP swing was decisive, not just in terms of the North, but also in terms of its clout in Westminster. So, the DUP now has the ear, if not the more tender regions, of a weakened UK Prime Minister, while Sinn Féin has 7 MPs with no clout, no Executive, no Assembly and an NI MEP who will be redundant in less than two years.

The other thing that Sinn Féin may have achieved is to have opened up a political space that it cannot occupy, but which could be filled and expanded by a new, or even an old, pro-European, business friendly, republican political party. Things in the North may be about to get a whole lot more interesting.

ENDS

 

 

Enda Kenny: we’ll miss him (eventually)

16 Jul

This column originally appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 8th 2017 and suggests that Fine Gael will come to regret dumping Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader as speedily as they have…  www.broadsheet.ie/well-miss-him-eventually/

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“But as I leave you I want you to know – just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”

With these words, Richard Nixon departed the political scene, well almost. It was November 7th, 1962. He was concluding what he assumed would be his last ever political press conference after losing the race to become Governor of California. Two years earlier he had narrowly lost the Presidency to John F Kennedy.

While Enda Kenny’s departure, when it comes – possibly over the next week or two – will not be as bitter and waspish as Tricky Dicky’s, there may just be the slightest hint of the same sentiment: just think what we will potentially be missing.

Love him or loathe him, during his time as Taoiseach Enda has been anything but colourless or bland. For all his faults and failings, he showed quickly that he realised that one of the main roles of any Taoiseach is re-assuring the public that there is someone with a plan in charge.

He also grasped that this role as the nation’s re-assurer-in-chief requires you to get out and about and meet people as much as possible. In some ways, Enda has spent the past six years doing a passable Bertie Ahern impression.

Nonetheless, it is where we saw Enda at his best. When you meet him in person, either in a one to one chat or as part of an audience, you realise that Enda genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh. He possesses an ebullient personality, unlike either of his two possible successors, and so he comes across as warm and engaging when encountered personally.

This natural ability and skill was also a potential liability. His desire to have something to say to everyone and to do it spontaneously could lead to problems – as our greatest ever Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, famously observed – the danger with such off-the-cuff utterances is “not the little too little, it’s the little too much”.

Hence Enda’s occasional problems with the actualité. We saw it again last week in Canada when he mis-remembered discussions about human rights in Saudi Arabia and ended up recounting what he now wished he had said, rather than what he had actually said when sitting with the Princes.

One way his team of advisers had come up with to try to curb Enda’s effusive tendencies was to try to keep him to a script. It worked, but only to a certain extent. If they truly wanted him to him under control then all they had to do was to turn on a camera on.

Nothing was more guaranteed to make him appear wooden and staid than a TV camera.

Whereas many senior politicians only truly come to life when the lights switch on and the cameras start rolling, Enda was the opposite. He shifted down the gears. Gone was the bonhomie and the spontaneity and in its place a stiffness of both language and style.

It partly explains why he did not like formal TV debates. It was not his strong suit. But this was not just because of the cameras, it was more than that. Enda is not a details man. Nor is he adept at recalling long tracts of script or prepared lines.

This was clear in his head to head party leaders debate with Bertie Ahern in the May 2007 election. During the pre-debate spin Fine Gael had so reduced the expectations for their man that all he had to do was show up and not set the desk on fire for them to claim a draw.

On the night, many pundits were in awe of Enda as he seemed to hold his own for about the first twenty minutes of the encounter. I recall a senior party colleague calling me about fifteen minutes into the exchange concerned that Enda was doing so well, but their worry was short lived. By the twenty-minute mark Enda was starting to flag, he was running out of rehearsed material. Meanwhile Bertie, who absorbs and retains facts and figures, was just getting into his stride and used the remaining sixty minutes to leave Enda behind.

Another four years in opposition, including a failed heave against him, and a further sex years as Taoiseach has improved Enda’s speech giving ability considerably. He delivered one of his best ever speeches in Canada last week. It was considered and reflective and included a section on the concept of “othering” that I mentioned here in a recent article saying:

“It is happening to the degree that the old battles of right and left might well be over, to be replaced by something that seeks, not to unite us, but to divide us, not only among ourselves, but from what they identify and objectify as the Other. They see the people not for who they are as individuals, but as what they are as an ethnic or faith or economic group.”

It was a well written speech, delivered extremely well. At several junctures, he seemed not to be reading it from a script, but rather delivering it extemporaneously. What just about stopped it from being a perfect speech, was the inclusion of the oft made, but inaccurate, claim that his government achieved the whole recovery by itself – conveniently omitting the reality that two thirds of the correctives had been made by the time he arrived in office, but old habits die hard, I suppose.

In a few week’s (or months) time I will miss having Enda to kick around. I may have a few others to miss too from around the Cabinet table. Instead I will have to focus on the possible successors: Simon, the Enda 2.0 or Leo, the anti-Enda.
Remarkably, both come to the threshold of high office with considerably more ministerial experience than Enda did when he won the leadership. But while both have many years more time spent around the Cabinet table, they come without Enda’s experience of political hard knocks. Their political paths have been charmed and uneventful, well they have certainly been devoid of any great track record or achievement.

Both will doubtless enjoy a political honeymoon and may even feel tempted to capitalise on it with a snap election – whether they will have that opportunity may well be determined by just how down and dirty the race to succeed Enda gets and how much damage will have to be repaired before facing out to meet the voters.

Ends.

.@RealDonaldTrump is Riding A Zeitgeist Didn’t Create But Others Have Missed

20 Jun

donald-trump CNNHere is my Broadsheet column from June 7th 2016. Published online here:  http://www.broadsheet.ie/riding-a-zeitgeist 

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“Donald Trump looks as if he was playing a President in a porn movie.”  This was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s scathing put down of the Donald on BBC radio four’s News Quiz last Friday.

Maybe it is something to do with the Donald’s addiction to calling everything ‘huge’ (or as he says it: huuuuuge ) and lauding his own achievements with outlandish superlatives but Boyle’s taunt perfectly captures Trump’s OTT and hammy public appearances.

Trump’s emergence as a real contender for the White House has surprised most pundits including – if one of his former publicists is to be believed – himself.

How could this gauche, egotistical, property dealing demagogue tear up the US presidential campaign playbook and beat a string of long established Republican hopefuls?

Hard though we may find it to comprehend from this side of the Atlantic; but part of the Trump phenomenon is that he has teed-up this US presidential election to be a fight between the Washington insider: Hillary Clinton and the outsider: Trump.

Though we may find it difficult to conjure up the image of Trump as an outsider, but in the contest of Clinton Vs Trump, that is what he is.

The term “outsider” is a relative one, not an absolute. It is nothing to do with his history, background or experience, it is about the attitude and outlook he conveys.

Trump does not embody the outsider spirt, but he speaks to it – bluntly – to rally many millions of ordinary middle Americans who, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are now outsiders.

Since the 1970s the American middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50%, while the American dream has become an increasingly distant prospect for the majority.

Many voters believe that America has lost its way and believe Washington is to blame. So, Trump paints the former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and member of the newest US political dynasty as a member of the Washington elite and a part of their problem.

It is hardly a new tactic. First you paint your opponent, particularly if [s]he is an incumbent, as out of touch and elitist and then contrast yourselves with [s]he while reciting your voters complaints back at them.

But what Trump has done is a few steps beyond that. He is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

Many of his potential voters are not blind to the fact that the few solutions he offers are unworkable or that he has no grasp of foreign policy. They almost embrace these failings.

They are using Trump as much as he is using them.

He is the battering ram with which they can break what they perceive as a broken and corrupt political system. It is why (and how) you can have the seeming incongruity of some Sanders supporters telling pollsters that they are willing to back Trump now that Hillary has beaten Sanders.

Though the analysis and solutions on offer from Senator Sanders differ huuugely from those hinted at by Trump, the core message is the same – America cannot tolerate more of the same.

Things have to change.

The insider versus the outsider analysis also applies in Ireland, particularly an Ireland still coming to terms with the economic upheavals of the last decade.

It explains, in part, the last election results and the massive losses suffered by Labour and Fine Gael.

The Irish Labour Party’s problem is that it has too many insiders and is now led by the arch insider. Though its one “token” ministerial outsider, Alan Kelly tried hard to portray himself as an outsider, but as I mentioned in a Broadsheet piece a few weeks ago, his fast-tracked “rise without trace” to the top makes him an insider.

Meanwhile, Labour’s former BFF, Fine Gael, is also replete with insiders, both generational and aspirational – by aspirational, I mean those whose career paths has followed the line: college – YFG – FG research office – TD’s parliamentary assistant – Ministerial Sp/Ad – TD – minister, without any stop offs in the real world.

With his capacity for kicking against the traces, Leo Varadkar is possibly the closest thing that FG has had to an outsider since John Deasy.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sinn Féin and the various alphabet left alliances are, on the surface at least, full of political outsiders. Though, in the case of SF, it is hard to portray yourself as a complete outsider when your leader predates the electrification of the Howth/Bray rail-line and shares Trump’s penchant for the outrageous tweets.

Traditionally, in Irish Politics, the Independent TDs have been the outsiders. In particular, people like Neil T. Blaney or Jim Kemmy, who broke away from their parties or Tony Gregory who described party politics as strangling.

Which of today’s much larger crop of Independents from the Healy-Raes to the McGraths to Ross, Halligan and Zappone will still be regarded as outsiders in two or three years time will be interesting to see.

Which brings us to Fianna Fáil: Ireland’s outsider insiders.

For most of its history, there has been something of the outsider edge to Fianna Fáil, indeed the party has been at its most successful when led by outsiders, such as Ahern and Lemass.

Even Haughey, for his love of horses, fine dining and hand tailoring had a bit of the outsider/arrivisté about him – especially when contrasted with Garret Fitzgerald’s professorial, relic of aul’ deceny.

As I said earlier, in the context of Trump’s positioning of himself, being the outsider is a relative position, not an absolute one. It is how Michéal Martin’s Fianna Fáil has repositioned itself on the political spectrum.

Compared to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Joan Burton’s Labour, Martin is – despite his long experience around the cabinet table – more of an outsider.

Not only has he has learned the lessons of the crash, he demonstrated over the course of the last election and in the weeks since that he has grasped that we need to change the way we do politics and that what kind of worked in the 90s will not work today.

ENDS

Why @FineGael’s #GE16 pre-campaign campaign doesn’t augur well for real thing

15 Jan

This blog first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website earlier today.

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Fianna Fáil’s poster attacking Fine Gael’s broken promises

 

Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.

Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.

While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.

One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?

It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.

Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional. He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.

While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.

In this context Fine Gael’s attempts to transpose the most recent Tory election campaign strategy to Ireland seriously risking backfiring on them and only highlighting the weaknesses they hoped to obscure.

It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and basic adaptions.

Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:

While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.

Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s)

What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.

The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.

That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons. While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.

The other attraction was the Tories successful cannibalisation of their Lib Dems coalition partners. Cameron’s gains came mostly from Lib Dem losses (The Tories took 27 of the 49 Lib Dem seats lost as opposed to 12 lost to Labour and 10 to the SNP) – an option that Fine Gael is eyeing up here, using Labour losses to shore up their own numbers. Fine Gael are ready to fight this campaign to the last Labour TD.

Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.

While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.

Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making. Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.

Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.

And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.

Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon, it cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.

Will the “Don’t knows” and “Won’t Votes” be the real victors in #ep2014?

16 May

Here is a piece I wrote for the BEERG weekly newsletter just over two weeks ago. Sorry for the delay in posting this on here.  

BEERG Newsletter Issue #15, May 2nd 2014

BEERG Newsletter Issue #15, May 2nd 2014

BEERG’s Derek Mooney writes: With just three weeks to go to voting for the European Parliament elections across Europe it seems that the “don’t knows” may be the winners.

While campaigning is stepping up across Europe and despite a major push from the EU to drive up voter turnout, most polling forecasts suggest that turnout in the 2014 EU parliament elections will drop below the 46% turnout achieved in 2009, with young voters particularly disinterested in electing MEPs.

Open Europe has produced a detailed briefing paper http://goo.gl/7LndzP in which it suggests that a surge in support across the EU for populist anti-EU, anti-austerity, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment parties, could see them win up to 31% of the vote in May.

Couple this strong showing from these parties with another low turnout and, Open Europe estimates, that 74.4% of all voters across Europe will have voted against the EU, for radical change, or not bothered to vote at all. This means that only 25.6% of all eligible voters will have actually come out and voted in favour of parties that broadly support the status quo or favour or more integration.

While these status quo/centrist parties, mainly the EPP, S&D and ALDE will see their aggregate share of the vote decrease, it does not necessarily mean that they will lose their grip on Parliament. While these “fringe” parties will do well in what is widely considered a “second order” election – i.e. not that important to voters’ day to day concerns and a means of registering a protest – these parties are not a coherent group. They span the political spectrum from far left to far right and differ as much from each other as they do from the parties of the centre. The latest forecast suggests that the far right’s Le Pen and Wilders will have enough MEPs from enough member states to form a group: with approximately 38 MEPs from 7 member states.

The net impact of these divergent political trends, Open Europe suggests, is that we paradoxically end up with a more integrationist EU Parliament. It argues that moderate parties (i.e. ones that believe the EU is in need of fundamental reform) will lose out to anti EU parties and this dynamic will reinforce what it terms “the corporatist tendency” of the two main groups (the centre Right EPP and centre left S&D) to freeze out the anti-EU MEPs by binding the Parliament and Commission closer together in pushing an integrationist, Brussels-focused agenda.

The most recent PollWatch2014 prediction of the outcome of the 2014 European Parliament elections suggests that centre-right EPP group and the centre-left S&D group are neck and neck. While previous polls (such as the one I posted here recently) had indicated a slight S&D majority in the new parliament PollWatch now predicts the EPP to pull ahead – with the EPP now forecast to win 222 seats, and the S&D Group 209. Past PollWatch predictions were in the region of 98% correct

It also estimates, based on recent polling data across the EU, that the number of MEPs who could be identified as supporting free market policies is also expected to fall from 242 to 206. Amongst other this this would be bad news for David Cameron, as the incoming Parliament will effectively have a veto over some of many of the EU reforms he seeks.

Cameron’s best hope for his reforms, lies, it seems in the EU Council, but only if he can get other leaders on board and secure agreement in nominating a pro-competitiveness Commission in the autumn.

Meanwhile the candidates for the Commission Presidency had the first of their two live TV debates on EuroNews last Monday. On the podium were (pictured from left to right) the ex-Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (for the Liberals/ALDE): the outgoing European Parliament chief Martin Schulz (from the centre-left S&D), the Greens Ska Keller MEP and the former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker (of the centre-right EPP),

A snap online poll conducted by Europe Decides judged Verhofstadt the debate winner with 55% and placed Juncker, the current front runner for the post, last with a paltry 9%. Most commentators felt the debate was short of any firm or details proposals.

Juncker said that he wanted “a serious Europe. A Europe that doesn’t dream, but gets things done”. During the course of the debate, the former chairman of the Eurogroup that oversaw the tough bailout programmes for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, called for a legal minimum wage across the EU.

Schulz’s promised “to give back justice and fairness” and to create “a Europe of citizens not of banks and speculators” pledging to publish the Commission’s negotiating mandate on the ongoing trade talks with United States.

Verhofstadt said that the EU needed “less internal market regulation, but more common policies” arguing that “the crisis and unemployment” had turned young people against the EU.

At one point Verhofstadt said his model for Commission president was Jacques Delors, causing Martin Schulz to point out that Delors was a Socialist.

The issue of how the next Commission President would be selected also came up. As the nominees of the two largest groups, Juncker and Schulz are keen to avoid any last minute negotiations that might lead to another name entering at the last minute as a compromise.

Schulz said that stitching-up the Commission presidency via a back-room deal would reduce the elections to “a little game” while Verhofstadt said that not choosing one of the formal candidates (i.e. ones already nominated) would be “unthinkable”.

On 27 May, after the election results are known, the EU Parliament President and the group leaders in the parliament will meet together to discuss the results. Their discussions will feed into deliberations by EU government leaders who will meet later that day to decide who to nominate for Commission President.

My #af14 analysis: @fiannafailparty’s future depends on delivering a coherent alternative

21 Mar

This is an article I have written for the March 2014 Árd Fheis issue of Fianna Fáil’s members’ magazine Cuisle

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BjNAsq0IcAAMTFkA few months before the 2011 election, Michael Gallagher (the TCD Professor of Politics, not the Donegal postman and amateur weather forecaster) posted a blog where he asking how long Fianna Fáil could expect to spend in opposition. In it he wrote:

“Fianna Fáil is not a party accustomed to spending time there. Its longest spell on the opposition benches is still the nearly six years between its foundation in May 1926 and its entry into government in March 1932. Since then, the party has never spent more than one consecutive Dáil term in opposition and the longest spell it has been out of power remains the 4 years and 4 months of the Cosgrave coalition in the mid-1970s.”

Underpinning Gallagher’s 2010 comments is the idea that Fianna Fáil has never been that good at opposition. It is a fair point.

Not only have we not spent much time in opposition, as Gallagher points out, it is almost 30 years since we last spent a full Dáil term there.

We thought our world had ended in Nov 1982 when we ended up a mere 5 seats ahead of Fine Gael, though it is worth recalling that its vote then, 39.2%, is still the biggest percentage vote Fine Gael has ever won.

Not only was Fine Gael on 70 seats, it was ensconced in Government with its most popular leader to date. Faced with those realities we could not be blithely sure that we would spend just one term in opposition. The prospect of two successive terms was a stark possibility.

That is why we should look to that period for lessons and insight.

We quickly grasped that we needed to perform strongly in opposition – we needed to hold the Government to account. To that end the party established a series of policy committees, manned by party members with demonstrable abilities or expertise in specific areas.

These committees worked with the spokespeople but were not run by them. Neither were they mere talking shops, members were assigned very specific tasks, there were no passengers in this process.

While these committees did not “make policy”, that remained the prerogative of the parliamentary party, their work and inputs helped underpin the policy platform that emerged in the run up to the 1987 election.

Back in the 1980s the party looked to the membership to take up the slack on the policy side – and it is what we must do again today.

While the party’s membership, its structures, its needs and demands are as great as they ever where, the truth is that we do not have the resources we had.

Actually, that is the point: even the pre-2011 manpower levels in both party HQ and Leinster House would not be sufficient to meet today’s demands. Not only have the staff numbers been halved, the Programme Managers and Ministerial Advisers, of whom I was one, that once supplemented those teams are also gone.

These reductions have hit us particularly hard on the policy side. We are now making ever more demands on fewer people, people who have no sense memory of how a party operates in opposition

Yet, conversely, there appears to be some unexpressed reluctance to properly harness the real expertise we possess within the party.

This is not a demand to allow individual members to start writing the next manifesto – far from it. Neither is it a call for everyone to email in their two-line pet idea: we need considered analysis, not random suggestions.

Rather, is it is a plea for us to recognise that we need, in this area, to take a leaf out of our 1982-87 playbook and structure expert membership inputs.

Our party’s research people have come up with some important and innovative proposals, not least our Family Home Protection and Debt Resolution Bills. They have done some serious work: but you would be hard pushed to know that from the press coverage.

In the absence of any over arching narrative or analysis our individual statements can come across as micro policy responses rather than as co-ordinated parts of a coherent alternative.

Fine Gael could get away with that flannel during its time in opposition, but Fianna Fáil does not have the luxury they had: a Government unable to communicate with its own supporters.

To borrow a phrase from the 1980’s: the next phase of our recovery will be dependent on policies and substance. While the headline numbers in recent published polls have brought us little comfort, the high level of voter dissatisfaction with the current Government demonstrates that there is demand for a realistic viable alternative.

That alternative must be based on sound analysis and presented by a purposeful opposition that utilizes all the tools, skills and talents available to it.

An analysis of @REDCMD @pppolitics poll & why the @fiannafailparty leadership is not an issue

8 Aug
RedC Polling

RedC Polling

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%

Independents         17%

Sinn Féin                    13%

Labour                          9%

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%

Independents        21%

Sinn Féin                  15%

Labour                      11%

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.

Why waste time speculating about possible @FiannaFailparty and @FineGaeltoday link-ups?

24 Apr

This piece is also on www.TNT24.ie 

Surely I cannot be alone in realising that there is less chance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael linking up than there is of Luis Suarez having all his teeth pulled and turning vegetarian.

Yet, within hours of each new opinion poll you will see lots of speculation in print, on air, online and/or on all three that the next government will consist of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in some combination or other.

Such speculation seems to be based just on adding together the numbers that bring you to 50% and ignores the glaring Catch 22 that renders the chances of any such FG/FF or FF/FG alliance impossible: neither party would ever agree to go into a partnership government where it was not the biggest partner.

And as, by definition, a partnership government of just two groups cannot have two biggest partners, neither party would agree to be the junior partner in such a relationship. To do so would fly in the face of the fundamental rule of Irish governmental politics: junior coalition partners come off worst.

The strategists in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know this. Whatever their weaknesses and deficiencies in policy formulation, these are still wily and experienced political operatives, they understand political realities. More critically they understand the laws of self preservation. They know that going into government as the junior partner while leaving Labour and Sinn Féin as the official opposition would be tantamount to writing their own party’s obituary.

Those who argue, on the basis of current opinion polls, that the Fine Gael / Fianna Fáil option may be the only viable one after the next election, do it on the basis that politics is a “numbers game”.

Well, to some degree it is, but numbers do not dictate everything. True, without the numbers you have no role and no say, but the converse is not true. Having the numbers does not mean that you must necessarily do A or B. Having the numbers does not restrict your options, quiet the opposite. Rather than being compelled to pursue some particular course, you have the opportunity to exercise judgement and think strategically.

This is not to discount the temptation and lure of ministerial office, especially to those who may not plan to face the electorate again. Saying no to power is no easy task, but the decision is made somewhat less troublesome if you know that saying yes to office today as a junior partner means that you are almost certainly ensuring that that option will be denied to you and your colleagues for many years thereafter.

Though majorly damaged after electoral pounding it took in the February 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil is still hard wired for power – perhaps even more so that Fine Gael – so saying no to office would be difficult for some within the upper echelons of the organisation. Perhaps this is why the party leadership has recruited the membership of the party to ensure that any post election decision would be made by the broader party.

The situation is just as true for Fine Gael, though for other reasons. Having spent so long as the second party of Irish politics, it is now relishing its time in the top spot. It will be loathe to surrender that place – least of all to Fianna Fáil.

If the next election were to put Fianna Fáil ahead of Fine Gael, no matter by how small a margin, Fine Gael would do nothing to help Fianna Fáil back into power. Fine Gael would seek alliances with Labour, Sinn Féin, Independents, Socialists, Wallacites; McGrath-ites (of the Mattie or Fintan variety) Greens, People Before Profit, Profit Before People, Cart Before the Horse or whoever to keep Fianna Fáil out.

I know I risk appearing more than a little cynical in not mentioning policies and principles and just discussing the possible make up of a future government in terms of survival strategies but, I believe the chances of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government are so remote and unrealistic that it is cynical not to dismiss it and to allow any more time and energy be wasted on discussing an option (and the associated policies) that does not exist.