Roger Jupp: It's all to play for as voters seek an end to their agony
AS the general election campaign kicks off in earnest, we find the Irish people hurt and afraid -- and prepared to take their feelings out on the perceived culprits.
In the latest Millward Brown Lansdowne opinion poll (conducted January 29-31), we have ample evidence of the public's mood.
As many as 85pc of those aged 18-64 say they or a member of their household have been affected since the 2007 General Election by losing their job or having their working hours or pay either cut or frozen. This hurt is real, without any doubt.
To this hurt can be added fear about their savings. Nearly one in two say they do not agree that their savings are secure in Irish banks.
Intriguingly, Sinn Fein voters are the most uneasy about their savings being secure, while those from the highest social classes are most comfortable (48pc agree).
At root, people have been shaken by the depth and intensity of the fall from grace of the previous standard-bearers of the boom.
Reassurance is in short supply and would be very welcome from canvassers.
As a country, we have been carefully prepared for our fate. Two out of three believe public spending has to be reduced, compared to just 7pc who opt for raising taxes.
A wise 18pc spontaneously mentioned the need to cut spending and raise taxes. We know what has to be done, we are just waiting for it to happen. It is perfectly understandable that reduced public spending is favoured as we are unhappy about new or higher taxes.
Only 19pc would favour the introduction of a residential property tax. Opposition is strongest among Sinn Fein supporters, raising the question of whether this is a party of protest.
The conundrum for the incoming Government will be to identify achievable tax increases, without alienating an already hurt electorate.
So where do policies fit into the campaign?
Most people (45pc) claim that they will choose who to vote for based on policies. Choosing a candidate to look after the constituency comes second (30pc). Choosing the next set of ministers is much lower in importance, but still more important than choosing a Taoiseach.
So, with an electorate hungry for policies, how are the main parties currently viewed? Our four policy areas (the banking crisis, unemployment, the health service and the deficit in public finances) reveal some interesting opinions.
Firstly, and shatteringly for the party in relaunch mode, Fianna Fail never achieves double figures for its policies in any of these four areas. The Government is evidently seen as bereft of direction on all of these topics.
FINE Gael performs best on policies for tackling the deficit, the health service and the banking crisis -- scoring much in line with its first-preference vote in this poll.
Labour records a notable success in being seen as having the best policies for dealing with unemployment (29pc versus 24pc for Fine Gael). This may be due to the announcements about enterprise and employment by Eamon Gilmore just around the time of the poll. These two front-running parties stand well clear of the chasing pack on all issues.
Sinn Fein scores similarly on all issues, while the Greens find it hard to register any score. Worryingly, around one in five voters claim that none of the parties has the best policies on any of the four topics, pointing to a distinctly sceptical public mood.
The end is nigh for the Greens, it appears, with a 1pc first-preference score.
The public wants to have a full five-leader televised debate -- nearly seven in 10 go for this option.
So what does the electorate expect to emerge as the new Government?
From a wide range of permutations, a Fine Gael/ Labour coalition, led by Fine Gael, comes top with 22pc of voters. A further 12pc opt for Labour to lead this coalition and 9pc choose to add the Greens and/or Independents.
About one in 10 foresee each of a Fine Gael majority, a Labour majority or, more controversially, a coalition of Labour, Sinn Fein and others.
This alliance of the Left is much favoured by Sinn Fein supporters and presumably by those of the United Left Alliance. Labour's attitude is more circumspect at this point.
The starting gun for the campaign has barely sounded but already some hurdles can be noted in the distance, after the results are known. Nearly twice as many people think Michael Noonan, rather than Joan Burton, will be Minister for Finance in the new Government.
The public can be seen to be looking for reassurance, comfort and a plan for their hurt and fear to be allayed. As such, it is all to play for.
Roger Jupp is chairman of Millward Brown Lansdowne