News Fionnan Sheahan

Thursday 21 August 2014

Fionnan Sheehan: The task of building a real political force

Setting up a brand new party would be no easy challenge, writes Fionnan Sheahan, Group Political Editor

Fionnan Sheahan Group Political Editor

Published 12/01/2014 | 02:30

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SPECIAL PROJECT: There is room for Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance non-party to reinvent itself as the watchdog of the democratic revolution. Photo: David Conachy
SPECIAL PROJECT: There is room for Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance non-party to reinvent itself as the watchdog of the democratic revolution. Photo: David Conachy

'Nothing but a group of disillusioned Fine Gael TDs that basically support the economic policies of the Government but reject their social policies." It's hard to disagree with independent TD Finian McGrath's assessment of the Reform Alliance.

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Nonetheless, the potential emergence of a new political party on the horizon has created a frisson of excitement.

The fallout from the economic crisis hasn't really ended the traditional alignment of political parties that dates back to the Civil War. It has merely rearranged their order.

But it would be folly to suggest that breaking into this group with a new party is an easy prospect. Anybody considering that route would be well-advised to tread carefully, as there are numerous challenges.

MARKET

The PDs was predominantly made up of disgruntled Fianna Failers who took Fine Gael votes. The Reform Alliance is made up of disgruntled Fine Gaelers looking to take the vote that has left Fianna Fail.

Based on the latest opinion polls, the vast bulk of the voters who deserted Fianna Fail as a result of the party's role in the collapse of the Celtic Tiger are still looking for a new home.

Fianna Fail spectacularly dropped from 41pc to 17pc of support in the 2011 General Election. The latest opinion poll last week shows the party only back up to 22pc.

Fine Gael and the Labour Party have currently lost the support gained in the last general election from Fianna Fail's decline, and dropped back to their pre-crisis levels.

A way of looking at it is that a whopping one-in-five voters in the electorate, who abandoned Fianna Fail and went to the coalition parties, are now drifting.

Factoring the normal shifts in sentiment into the equation, the level of floating voters is staggering.

The volatility provides a massive market of voters -- but not necessarily suited to the current make-up of the Reform Alliance.

PERSONALITY

To distance itself from Mr McGrath's assessment, the Reform Alliance desperately needs to divert its bloodlines away from the pure blue of Fine Gael.

Not that it can be assumed the current membership will join a new party if it is formed.

Lucinda Creighton is quite clearly the driving force and de facto leader behind the movement. Denis Naughten has clearly and repeatedly said he will not be joining any new party and will run as an independent. Billy Timmins is in two minds about being a member of a new party.

Terence Flanagan is regarded as the most likely to return to Fine Gael, but is playing a clever game in fending off the advances of the small fish in his party and waiting for the big game to come calling.

Peter Mathews is too unpredictable to know what he will do.

Fidelma Healy Eames and Paul Bradford have nothing to lose and the Reform Alliance, at the very least, provides the opportunity for mischief in the Seanad.

The potential recruits from outside the initial group are tantalisingly -- but not necessarily -- attainable.

Stephen Donnelly's signature would be a coup and his talents could do with the discipline of being a member of a political party where he would actually have to state clearly what he stands for.

Shane Ross is an arch self-publicist and joining a party wouldn't necessarily be in his best interests politically, especially as he already gets plenty of profile chasing down the street after every passing car with fumes of financial irregularity, barking at the tyres.

Roisin Shortall's well-established, left-wing credentials would make joining a grouping that originated from a conservative, pro-life position quite a leap of faith.

Her resignation from Labour on a point of principle and stance against the same old politics results in obvious parallels with the Reform Alliance's raison d'etre.

Her close association with fellow Labour Party dissidents Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty makes a substantial package.

It makes sense for that trio to work closely together and seek to link up with other like-minded individuals, but hitching on to the dissident Fine Gael bandwagon wouldn't be the obvious solution.

Drawing these various strands together to make the Reform Alliance a genuine multi-partisan party is a big ask.

POLICY

It's the economy, stupid. The Seanad referendum was defeated but its reform is hardly high up on the list for many struggling families. Promising a move away from old-style politics is terribly laudable, but where's the beef?

Come the next general election, the economy will still be the number one item on the agenda, with the Government's performance being measured against the length of the dole queues and the money in people's pockets. The opposition will be pressed on what it can offer to do better.

Apart from supporting the Coalition's policies, the Reform Alliance has yet to set out anything new on the economic front. The members who left Fine Gael over the abortion legislation will feel there is a base of conservative support as a result.

But highlighting this position will serve to alienate as many liberal voters, who will rightly feel their perspective is not represented in the fledgling new party. The prominent attacks by the Reform Alliance on how Labour's social agenda is directing Fine Gael policy serve a purpose from a partisan perspective.

However, it does reinforce the view that the group is founded on conservative principles and does nothing to create a sense that the Reform Alliance is a broad church.

The 'Monster Rally' later this month will concentrate on harvesting ideas to formulate policies on the economy, health and political reform, which the group desperately needs.

ORGANISATION

Enda Kenny's helpful warnings about the difficulties in setting up a party with proper structures are not to be dismissed.

Some of the Reform Alliance's membership see the group as means to co-ordinate efforts in the Dail to propose policies and raise their own status. Nothing more.

Forming a party is another matter entirely. Building even a limited organisation is a big undertaking. At the very least, a party needs to decide on how to select candidates and having a co-ordinated message.

Money is a big problem.

The members can whinge all they like about the rules around taxpayer support for the political system meaning Fine Gael still receives funding for TDs who have left the party. Beyond the point-scoring, the legislation isn't going to change and any new party made up of these TDs will still be starved of funding up to the next general election.

The new laws around fundraising, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012, make it even more tricky, with reductions in the maximum amount that can be accepted, changes to the disclosure levels and prohibitive restrictions on corporate donations. The solution is a well-organised party that can get small amounts of money from large numbers of people.

Kenny came up with this fundraising model for Fine Gael long before Barack Obama apparently invented it. Fine Gael's national draw has brought in an average of €1m a year for the past 12 years, providing a substantial war chest for campaigns.

The party banked almost €800,000 from the raffle this year, despite cutting the ticket prices from €80 to €60, by selling 13,000 tickets.

Fianna Fail has sought to replicate this formula, with less success, but still brought in €650,000 from its draw last year. A new party would need money to be competitive.

New candidates themselves need money to build local voter awareness, as Creighton herself will know from her breakthrough in the 2007 General Election.

She had the help of both young and veteran Fine Gael activists in organising her fundraising efforts, such as a night in the Shelbourne Park greyhound track in February 2007, which helped to pay for her constituency operation in Dublin South-East and her campaign in the general election that year.

Creighton's national profile means she doesn't need this much effort now, but a new party and new candidates would need comparable funding to get voters' attentions.

Unless the new party is able to replicate that Shelbourne Park-style effort, they'll literally be left in the traps.

Irish Independent

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