Friday 30 September 2016

Coalition faces a tough choice - trust the polls, or wait till last minute to call election

Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30

Thousands celebrate the Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle
Thousands celebrate the Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle

The author of the song 'Hesitation Blues' did not have a general election in his mind. He very definitely was not thinking about politics.

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And yet those old lyrics suddenly catch the current political mood. Hark at the crucial refrain piece which goes: "Tell me how long do I have to wait?/ Can I get you now?/ Or must I hesitate?"

There is no doubt that the battered morale of the two Government parties was lifted by the solid referendum win.

You could see a certain spring in political steps around Leinster House over the past week.

For Labourites, who had put more heft into the campaign for same-sex marriage, it did them a lot of good to be on the side of a resounding win. Getting about the constituencies, there were even waves and smiles to greet them.

Then on Saturday afternoon the latest Red C opinion poll was published and gave a bounce to both Fine Gael and Labour. The result put Fine Gael on 28pc, the same as its improved showing in the previous Ipsos MRBI poll published a fortnight ago. But Labour were stuck on 7pc in that same poll, published on May 18. Now this Red C poll puts Labour on 10pc, up two points on a poll result a month previously. Is that, as one observer jauntily put it, "a gay bounce?"

There is now an absolute maximum of 10 months to the latest possible date for a general election. Speculation on the actual date is thus a daily staple conversation topic among politicians of all hues.

No surprise then to read in yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' that some senior Fine Gael figures felt it was time to get them voters now - rather than hesitate.

When you add up the Government positives, there is a pretty formidable list.

Unemployment is down below the psychological 10pc mark. A draft public service pay deal is tentatively agreed; it appears rather dear on the rest of us, but it promises public sector peace, which is indispensable to a government seeking re-election.

In fact, the public sector draft deal is on top of a settlement, or capitulation, depending on your viewpoint, with second-level teachers on the Junior Certificate row. At Leinster House, the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry is making progress and a report could yet be delivered in time to remind us again of all of the awful things which happened on Fianna Fáil's government watch.

So, the game plan could go something like this: do the best give-away Budget you can in mid-October. Then go to the country.

Or, put another way, banish those "hesitation blues" with a general election next November, five months ahead of the outer limit.

If all of this seems a little familiar to Enda Kenny, it will be because he was here before. He was at the cabinet table in June 1997, when the Rainbow Coalition went to the polls five months ahead of the final date permitted by law.

Also still in Government from that 1997 government team are Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

History records that the Rainbow Coalition lost - though it is rarely noted that they did not lose by much. The narrow margin of defeat for then-Taoiseach John Bruton gave a certain edge to the arguments, informed by hindsight, that he should have held on until nearer the permitted final date of November 1997.

The arguments for "hesitation" in 1997 were that the economy was suddenly on a big recovery curve; the McCracken Tribunal investigating Dunnes payments to former Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey was gathering pace; and the long-stalled Northern Ireland peace talks were about to benefit from the election of a new British Labour government, in May 1997.

Received wisdom is that the Labour Party were very keen for an election at that point. That, naturally enough, is disputed. But it is clear that a very positive opinion poll in April 1997 for the government parties did play a big role in the calculation.

At all events, if you want to play this parlour game of guessing the next election date, keep one thing in mind: it is the Taoiseach's call. We will expect that he will consult widely enough with people whose judgment he rates.

He will be obliged to consult with his Government partners in Labour. But that does not mean that he has to do what Labour tells him.

Another part of the calculation will be looking at the "other crowd" to see how they are fixed.

Fianna Fáil clearly have their problems and are stuck on or below 20pc. If they were the Government's only challenge, an early election would be the answer.

But Sinn Féin are going to be a handful.

They are back a bit from some of their more recent false highs - but they are showing above 20pc. That's a doubling of their vote last time and there are indicators they are also becoming more "transfer-friendly".

Those "Independents and Others" are also back from their loftier highs of some time ago. But, with a fifth to a quarter of the vote, they will be a force. There will also be more local calculations of potential damage here.

Clearly, these calculations will be done. But when all is said and done, fixing the date of the next general election turns on a simple final calculation: Is the promise of lavish 'goodies' more alluring than the reality?

Let's use a simpler analogy. Is the promise of a big pot of jam, next November, a better bet than delivery of the scraping of jam next February or March?

Pondering that question takes some time and many of the variables will appear as broad as they are long. In the end, it comes down to following a gut instinct.

There really are few easy remedies for those "hesitation blues".

Irish Independent

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