What exactly is this “New Politics” we have been reading and hearing about so much lately?
It was the question that should have occurred to me as soon as the Public Relations Institute asked me to participate in a panel discussion they held last Thursday as part of a half day seminar entitled: Public Affairs in the era of ‘New Politics’.
But it didn’t. Like many others, I have been throwing about the phrase “new politics” in the two and a half weeks since the Dáil elected a Taoiseach as if everyone understands what it means.
“There’s no Labour problem that Ken (Livingstone) can’t make worse.”
This was Alan Johnson’s response to the former London Mayor’s latest unwelcome intervention in a UK Labour row.
Substitute the name “Alan Kelly” for “Ken Livingstone” and Johnson’s axiom could just be as applicable here.
Perhaps it’s his pugnacious ‘I tell it like it is’ style, but Alan Kelly has come to be personally identified with two of the last government’s biggest political failures: Irish Water to the housing crisis, not to mention his “power is a drug… it suits me” interview or his penchant for adding to his own party’s travails.
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.
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.
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.
While there are worse jobs in the world: the worst job in politics is certainly leader of the opposition.
If he didn’t already know this, it is certain that Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheal Martin will know this in just over a week.
The 2014 European and Local Election campaigns for which he and his HQ team have prepared and planned for over 18 months are proving themselves to be a source of unalloyed joy. It is hard to believe that these are the campaigns they wanted.
The latest round of opinion poll findings only confirm this. They suggest that
His Dublin Euro candidate will fail to take the seat
His Midlands North West duo may struggle to win a seat
While his Ireland South candidates have the best part of two quotas between but are so imbalanced as to render a second seat impossible.
If the ballots cast on Friday confirm these poll findings, then it will be hard to make any of this sound like an achievement.
Where votes were tied (for an elimination) the one to be eliminated was picked by reference to their first count vote, where they were tied on first count is was by random selection
Interestingly both Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney received zero votes on the first count – which prompts me to shortly run a poll: Who is the best Minister in Cabinet (I may run that poll on a slightly different basis and seek the top three rather than just the one best)
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.
“You are playing senior hurling now lads – but you are playing with lads with All Ireland medals”.
This, according to Eamon Ryan, is how the late Séamus Brennan greeted the Green Party team as it arrived in Government buildings for the 2007 talks on forming a government with Fianna Fáil.
It is a phrase that every Labour Party TD calling for a renegotiation of the Programme for Government (PfG) should print out and place at the top of their PC screen.
God be with the days when Labour recruited its Dáil candidates from the old ITGWU or FWUI. Those guys knew the first principles of negotiating; they particularly knew that you did not go into negotiations unless you had 1. A strong hand and 2. A fair idea of the outcome. Yet some in Labour are advocating that they enter talks with neither.
They want to enter a renegotiation of the government’s fundamental policy programme at precisely the moment when their party has hardly ever been weaker. Do they seriously expect that their senior partners in Fine Gael will take pity on them and offer them major policy concessions just because they are having a bad hair day?
Do they really underestimate their government partners that much?
Politics is a tough world guys. Wake up.
You do not get your way in politics just because you mean well, you get your way and get policies implemented by getting a mandate and pursuing your goals assiduously.
You certainly do not enter talks with partners from whom you wish to extract concessions with the message: we are in a weakened state and desperately need to give the impression that we can beat you into submission, so please, please, please let us.
It is the equivalent in nature of a lone deer asking a lion to not to devour them as they have a leg injury and cannot run properly today. Indeed it goes further and suggests that the lion should agree to allow the injured deer to bitch slap them around for a while so that any other deer who may be watching from a distance will think more highly of them.
There is no compulsion on Fine Gael to enter meaning renegotiation talks with Labour. They know Labour cannot cut and run now and risk facing the electorate, so they know it is strapped into this arrangement until the bitter end. The very most Labour could hope to get is a sham negotiation where we see TV clips of the pairs of Ministers from each side entering Government buildings for late night talks and the last minute “leak” from a source “close to the Labour leadership” saying the talks are at a crucial point right now and may go well into the night. The optics will look good, they may even fool a few activists, but most others (including the public) will see it as just a gesture. If the guys want to go down this road there is doubtless a battered old playbook for such an exercise laying around Government building somewhere.
The current cohort of Fine Gael TDs is possibly the most right of centre since the late 1950s. They are already getting flack from supporters and voters for the appearance that Labour is dictating too much of the government’s agenda, particularly on social issues, so they are neither motivated nor minded to give any more policy ground to them on the back of what was a bad day for Labour and, conversely, a good day for Fine Gael.
The idea of renegotiating the PfG is at best: naïve, and at worst: dumb.
That so many TDs would advocate it after only two years in office suggests that we are probably beyond the mid point of the life of this government and that the chances of there being a general election in early 2015 just got stronger.
Not surprisingly, most of the commentary on the Meath East by-election result has focussed on the electoral drubbing meted out to the Irish Labour Party, but as Fergus Finlay pointed out in the Irish Examiner, Labour has been here before. Back in 1983, at the Dublin Central By-Election occasioned by the death of George Colley, Labour’s then candidate Jimmy Somers was beaten not only by the Workers’ Party (ironic) but by Sinn Fein in an area where Labour had until recently held a seat.
This nice analysis piece penned by the late Mary Raftery for MaGill at the time is worth reading and contains some phrases we have seen used a few times over the past week, including: “The by-election result was one of the most disastrous in Labour’s history” and “…a humiliation from which it will be difficult to recover.”
While Labour’s poor showing and Fianna Fáil’s continuing electoral recovery are the two main national lessons to be taken from the Ashbourne count centre, I want to briefly reflect on another less obvious one.
On almost precisely the same day as Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee entered full time national politics on this island, another politician was leaving it on the neighbouring island: David Miliband.
So what could these two events have in common? Well, not a lot really – but it did occur to me that Miliband, aged 48, was quitting politics at an age when politicians used to once enter politics.
In that regard Ms McEntee and Mr Miliband do have something in common, two things actually. First they both entered their respective parliaments at a relatively young age – Ms McEntee at 26 and Mr Miliband, slightly later, at 36 and second, neither had much real world experience outside of politics before entering parliament.
Essentially both were products of the political system, albeit at differing levels and grades. After completing her masters in 2010 Ms McEntee worked as a parliamentary assistant in her late father’s constituency office, while David progressed from Oxford and M.I.T to becoming Tony Blair’s head of policy via a stint at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Neither had, to use the American phrase, “ever made a payroll”. While in America that is taken to mean running a business and being responsible for paying and employing people, in this context we can use it to mean experience of the real world, getting a job, getting promoted, running a household, paying a mortgage, providing childcare and then education for your kids.
Not that experiencing some or all of these necessarily qualify you to become a full time public representative, but wouldn’t some understanding of these help? Not that I am disregarding the pressures and difficulties faced by students these days. Frankly, as bad as the 70s and 80s were, I daily thank heavens that I am not a student in today’s environment.
Neither is this a plea for the Oireachtas to be full of 50 and 60-somethings or an attack on anyone under 25 running for the Dáil.
Rather I am just sounding a small note of caution against what I perceive as an emerging phenomenon here of people going almost straight from college into full time politics. Over the past two decades the number of jobs and opportunities in full time politics have increased. Since the early 90s the world of politics has become more professionalised with TDs and Senators now being able to employ parliamentary researchers and assistants paid for from the public purse. Not that I am one to complain having been a beneficiary of this development.
But with the creation of these additional opportunities it now seems the most successful path into the Dáil runs as follows:
University → elected as party officer – Job in Leinster House → Special Adviser → TD.
We risk having cohort of potential TDs (and Senators, if it survives) who have almost all followed the same real-life free path. Look at the UK and see how many of the men and women on the Tory and Labour benches fall into this category. While they may represent different political parties and support competing policies they essentially come from the same political background – all university educated, essentially middle class and all from within the political process.
Already we see the parties here looking out for new, young, vibrant candidates – and that’s a good thing. But what we also see is these candidates being identified earlier and earlier and based on criteria that are hard to understand.
Perhaps it is their newness and inexperience that is the attraction: a fresh clean slate for the party leadership to control and etch its views, coupled with a personal history that is free of controversy because its brevity presented damn all opportunity for it.
Turning back to Meath East, maybe it was just campaign hyperbole, or his penchant for the grandiloquent, that prompted Enda Kenny to describe Helen McEntee as “one of the most brilliant young candidates I have seen in any election” during an exchange in the Dáil on the day before polling. But what was there in her achievements or utterances that justified this high praise?
Is she a smart, confident and well educated woman, yes, without a doubt… but one of the most brilliant… in any election? Did we see anything in either the Vincent Brown or Primetime debates to support this claim?
Yes, there is a place in full time politics for young people and yes they deserve a major say in how their future is shaped, but we need to ensure that the search for the ideally packaged and presented candidate is not done at the cost of selecting those with more experience of life.
Who would want to be the leader of the Labour party today? No doubt Éamon Gilmore still does, though perhaps with a little less relish than he exuded last Monday when he was sitting cheerfully behind me on the early morning flight to Brussels.
While the dip in Labour’s fortunes revealed in the previous day’s RedC poll may not have demonstrably dampened his ardour, last night’s dramatic resignation by Roisín Shortall will.
Eighteen months in office and he is looking like the Mr Worthing character in the “Importance of Being Earnest:”: losing one Junior Minister, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
But isn’t this what happens to the smaller party in Government? When they get into battles with the larger party, don’t they usually come out the worst?
A quick glance at the history of coalitions and it would appear otherwise.
The electoral reality is that going into office costs the smaller party seats at the next election. It takes the bigger risk and, in return, gets a say in policy above its Dáil strength.
That’s the deal. Both partners they know they need the other. It is not for eternity, maybe not even for the full five years of the term, but each knows that without the other neither would in power. unless one sees an alternative, in which case the balance is disturbed.
I served in two Fianna Fáil led coalitions featuring feisty junior partners: the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. While there were the occasional stand-offs, indeed one partly led to my departure, these were the exception to the rule.
Coalition work and last where there is a well negotiated and defined programme for government around which they can agree.
Naturally, where there are two distinct parties with their own hinterlands and approaches, there will be tensions. In my experience these were confined to issues not specifically covered in the Programme for Government or those thrown up by unexpected events.
The other main source of disruptions were the interventions from senior figures, just outside of government, in the smaller party who saw themselves as the conscience of their party, Dan Boyle was particular master of this dark art. While the major partner was usually the main target of these outbursts they were just as often designed to embarrass, irk and provoke their own ministers.
While deeply frustrating, these things came with the territory. The larger party in a coalition knows it needs the smaller one to stay in office. While it can never allow itself to be seen as a pushover, it also knew that the smaller party could not stay long in office if their members felt there were being used as a mudguard.
This is what makes Roisin Shortall’s resignation so significant. Unlike most ministerial resignations this was about policy. Yes, there are personality and political dimensions too, but essentially this is about adherence to the programme for government.
Her departure is reminiscent of the late Frank Cluskey’s 1983 resignation from Cabinet not only because it too was about policy, but also thanks to the increasing number of comparisons been drawn between both administrations’ handling of the economic problems facing them.
But, as with most parallels, it is not a perfect one. While his departure was a protest against Fine Gael’s stance on Dublin Gas, Shortall’s resignation is just as much about her own parties role in government as it is about Minister Reilly’s capacity to run a department.
When Frank Cluskey quit he made it clear that he did not expect other labour ministers to follow him out and bring down that government. There was no hint that he had lost any confidence in his colleagues. The feeling was mutual. At the meeting following his resignation he reportedly received a lengthy standing ovation from his parliamentary colleagues. Can Deputy Shortall expect to be cheered to the rafters by messers Quinn, Howlin, Gilmore and Rabbitte when they next week? I doubt it.
What is it about the position of chairman of the smaller party in government that makes them think they are the deputy leader of the opposition?
Labour’s parliamentary party chairman, Colm Keaveney is not a wet day in the job and already he is showing signs of the delusion.
He disowns government actions and policies like a member of the opposition while enjoying the privileges perks and access that being in office bring.
I call it “Dan Boyle Syndrome”. While the avuncular Cork man was not the first to exhibit the symptom, the condition reached such a virulent pitch during his time as the Green party chairman that he came to define the condition.
The most noted previous sufferer of the condition, one Michael McDowell, did occasionally present with chronic symptoms, including a slight political tourettes, but seemed to affect a recovery.
It is like a form of “Stockholm Syndrome”. In that; the subject comes to identify and sympathise with their captor, In “Dan Boyle Syndrome” the person loses any sympathy or attachment to their partners and projects themselves into the role of in-house opposition.
Deputy Keaveney’s angry reaction to the
latest round of health cuts, suggesting that it could precipitate an early election may have uttered with the intention of convincing the public that he was still on their side, but it only served to suggest that he still does not understand how government works.
Rather than convincing his voters that he is still on their side, they want him to convince his senior colleagues in government to start taking measures
The public is not impressed by politicians repeating their own concerns back to them. They want their representatives to reflect their views to those in authority, not reflect them back to those who hold them like a possessed hall of mirrors.
The public get the difference between government and opposition. They understand the fundamental truth of Mario Cuomo’s famous maxim: “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.
Doubtless Deputy Keaveney is getting a lot of hassle and criticism from people he meets on the street. As a first time Deputy; sitting on the government backbenches; he may gaze longingly at the Fianna Fáil benches wishing he were there opposing and criticising the tough and unpopular choices that government brings, but he would do well to remember the words of Mary Harney: “Even the worst day in government was better than the best day in opposition”.
Though it may not seem like it to Deputy Keaveney now, Harney’s counsel is right, but only if you believe politics is about changing things and improving society.
Having worked in government and opposition, I know and understand the strains and pressures of both. I am not totally unsympathetic to Deputy Keaveny’s plight, but being sympathetic is not the same as supportive.
If he seriously believes that he will firewall himself and his party colleagues from the approaching barrage of criticism and unpopularity, then he is in for a bad surprise.
Just google “Dan Boyle” and “election results” and he will see how his tactics failed. While other Greens, like Trevor Sargent and Eamon Ryan saw their vote collapse by between 40% and 50% last year, Boyle’s already low vote (he had lost his Dáil seat in 2007) dropped by almost 70%.
If Deputy Keaveney truly finds it impossible to reconcile the platform he was elected upon with the policies his party is pursuing in office then he can follow the example of his three former colleagues: Willie Penrose, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty and resign the Labour whip in the Dáil.
They were not the only three Oireachtas members elected on a labour ticket missing from the five star Carton House think in. as reported here last Wednesday, three Labour senators also stayed away.
A sign to Deputy Keaveney, perhaps, that if he still around next year he may be chairing an even smaller gathering.