Coalition is busy stoking fear - but this election will be all about trust
Campaign is set to be nasty and brutish, but parties have to rise above negativity
Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30
When the General Election is called - and speculation around that has become boring - the campaign itself, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbs, will be nasty, brutish and short.
Hobbs was the founder of Western political philosophy. He believed that society was founded on fear. For him, fear was good because it was the glue that bound people together.
The politics of fear has been used by governments since to control, not bind. The War on Terror, for example, has left much of western society in fear for 15 years. As Richard Nixon said, people react to fear, not love.
"They don't teach that in Sunday school," he said "but it's true." And he's right.
Last weekend, Micheal Martin said Enda Kenny would have you believe "the world will fall apart" if Fine Gael do not get your vote: "Basically, Fine Gael is saying that you have no choice - the Irish people should just stay quiet and do what they're told. Enda Kenny says you have no choice and that failing to vote for him is a vote to destroy your country."
In general elections, political parties make decisions, draw up policies, and publish manifestos after they have polled extensively on the opinions of people.
Last week, we published details of a Labour Party opinion poll, taken among a representative sample of 3,021 people in May, July and September. As such, it is probably the most extensive data available on the opinion of people.
What is striking, more than the answers given, are the questions asked. Labour (and Fine Gael) want to test the extent and nature of fear coming up to the election, with the intention of playing on those fears during the campaign. The words 'fear' or 'fearful' appears 13 times in the poll, the word 'risk' five times, set within a testing of the mood for stability or change, all of it in the context of economic recovery.
Whatever the motivation, the findings are still interesting, and will undoubtedly dictate the tone of what will be a nasty, brutish campaign, particularly in the final week or two if it is not going well for the Coalition parties.
Towards the end of the Labour poll, a question - presented as a statement - is asked: "I would be fearful for Ireland if they were in power after the next election" to ascertain which party voters are most fearful of in power.
So here is an insight for Sinn Fein: more than half of the electorate (53pc) is fearful of that party in government; and - wait for it - almost one-in-five of Sinn Fein supporters (18pc) are fearful of the party in power. People are least fearful of Independents (13pc), followed by Labour (22pc) and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (29pc each) and none of these (6pc).
Sinn Fein may exhibit faux annoyance at such a play on the emotions of people, but that party knows all about the politics of fear; or, to put it another way - and as Al Gore has said - "terrorism is the ultimate misuse of fear for political ends".
But how do you explain the finding that almost one in five Sinn Fein voters would be fearful of Sinn Fein in government?
The Sinn Fein vote is soft. A few months ago, I said (and was dismissed by someone who should know better) that Sinn Fein was in crisis - but that they did not realise it yet.
Sinn Fein is in crisis. When the campaign proper gets underway, and fear is let loose, further support will peel away.
Now let's turn to the issue of "risk". In this Labour poll, risk is defined as: "They undermine the stability and order in society". Here again, Sinn Fein is seen as a risk: Labour (20pc); Independents (21pc); Fianna Fail (27pc), Fine Gael (28pc) and Sinn Fein (47pc).
There is little point in playing on fear and risk without a context: so, here is the context within which the Coalition intends to contest the election. The Labour poll statement/question is: "They are a good choice for building greater economic prosperity for the people of Ireland" and the result - Fine Gael (41pc), Fianna Fail (25pc), Labour (22pc), and Sinn Fein (18pc) Independents (18pc), none of these (6pc). Within that, a more interesting finding is that 31pc of Fianna Fail supporters opted for Fine Gael and 21pc of Fine Gael voters opted for Fianna Fail.
But that's where the love-in between these two parties ends. The Sunday Independent this weekend also publishes a Fine Gael budget/election strategy document which refers to Fianna Fail as "our greatest enemy", and outlines how Fianna Fail is to be attacked: "Fianna Fail wrecked this country and we're not going to let them or the electorate forget that."
And it gets more personal. According to the Fine Gael document: "Micheal Martin reminds us of Harold Wilson's observation of Ted Heath - "he is like a shiver looking for a spine". And on and on it goes…
The Fine Gael document also states that Fianna Fail wants to discuss anything other than the economy "but we're determined to call them out". So for Fine Gael, then, the election will be all about the economy and nothing else. Full stop.
From Labour, to be relevant, we will also hear a lot about 'fear' and 'risk' and 'economic stability' in the run-up to what will be a nasty, brutish few weeks, but perhaps not a lot about who is 'out of touch' with the needs of Irish people.
Here, we again refer to the Labour poll: Fine Gael (51pc); Fianna Fail (46pc); Labour (44pc) were found to be most "out of touch", dropping to Sinn Fein (37pc) and falling back sharpish to Independents (20pc).
In fact, it is the Independents, more than Sinn Fein that Labour has to worry about. Independents have taken 40pc of the Labour lapsed vote; Sinn Fein has taken 14pc and Fianna Fail 7pc. Within that 61pc there is 18pc who claim they will vote for a non-government party, but are concerned a change might "stall" recovery.
That's the support Labour is now after - what it calls the "grumpy middle" that the party suspect will be turned by an emotion as strong as fear.
However, the Labour poll has also found a strong desire, not just for economic prudence and stability, but also for a change of government to deliver a fairer society. That desire is particularly evident among supporters of Fianna Fail (74pc); Sinn Fein (71pc); Independents (81pc) and Undecided (65pc), but not so strong among supporters of Labour (39pc) and Fine Gael (21pc).
In that regard, it is not evident whether supporters of the Coalition parties, which introduced four regressive budgets in a row, after all, are motivated by opposition to a change of government or to a fairer society, but it is clear from the poll that voters want to see a change in how the country is run.
So, let us return to that speech at the commemoration for Sean Lemass by the Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin - the "shiver looking for a spine to run up", apparently - to help us further define the parameters within which his election will be contested.
Here is what he also said of the Coalition parties last weekend: "They keep shaking their heads and wondering why the recovery is still leaving them deeply unpopular and facing defeat. The answer is simple - it's not their recovery, it's the Irish people's recovery."
To my mind that does not answer the question either. The answer lies in a paradox, which is that the culture of fear always emerges at a time when we feel more secure than before.
At such a time, we allow ourselves to be exposed to fear to transcend boredom, like now, in this phoney 'will he/won't he' call an election, and when - that is, at the moment we have boredom and fear building up under each other.
So the fear that will permeate this election is not a genuine but a manufactured fear, a tool of control, which will make the campaign Machiavellian when it pretends to be liberal and democratic.
Fear not, an antidote to fear is hope - but hope without action is useless. The answer, then, is what is called "humanistic optimism", which focuses on competency as opposed to flaw; strength and potential instead of past traumas and failures.
In the final analysis this election will not, should not be about fear but its direct opposite, in fact, which is trust, the cement of civil society.
Here is a question to answer before you vote: why do the Coalition parties want to win this election on the emotion of fear, not trust; and a more difficult question to answer before you cast your vote follows - who do you trust?