Monday 24 October 2016

FG clear favourite to win election, but wavering voters still have their doubts

There is a mood of unease in the main coalition party caused by a challenging response on the doorsteps

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

CONFIDENCE KNOCKED: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny at the party’s Ard Fheis in Citywest Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
CONFIDENCE KNOCKED: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny at the party’s Ard Fheis in Citywest Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Like Fianna Fail last weekend, Fine Gael has had a good Ard Fheis and is in prime position to win more seats than any other party in the election and lead the next government.

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So why is there still an air of anxiety within the party?

It may be down to general nervousness before any election, but it seems to be more guttural than that: indications that Fine Gael looks set to lose anything up to 20 seats is probably also contributing to the relative unease.

Such a seat loss will raise the question ­- how many seats do you need to lose to not win an election? There seems little prospect that Fine Gael will not win this time, however - when the seats are counted they expect to have more than anybody else.

The anxious mood might have more to do with the slim re-election prospects of the Coalition and that, consequently, Enda Kenny is facing into drawn-out negotiations to form the next government, the long-term future of which will also be uncertain.

Still, as Mary Harney would say, the worst day in government is better than the best in opposition, so the air of anxiety can not entirely be put down to that either.

More likely, then, that the detectable unease in Fine Gael can be put down to a combination of factors, among which is confirmation on the doorstep that the party is not as loved as they would like to be, and that the mood, while not hostile, is not as warm as they would prefer it to be.

There is a view that the national mood will change during the campaign itself, but I'm not so sure.

There is nothing like an election to knock the hubristic corners off of all parties and politicians, including, though not exclusively, in Fine Gael.

All politicians will say that they are getting a good reception on the doorstep, and by and large they almost certainly are; although, really, the reception is more one of challenge than good - an encounter from which a politician will move on not entirely certain that there is a Number 1 in the bag.

The number of undecided voters is still large, relatively speaking, and certainly significant enough to swing this election against Fine Gael. That is unlikely to happen, but neither will it be a landslide, as Fine Gael would like voters to believe, unless those undecided voters eventually plump in overwhelming numbers for Kenny.

The current global economic jitters may actually force the undecided voters into Fine Gael's corner, but as Micheal Martin has said, this will be no "coronation".

The Fianna Fail election narrative, set out by Martin last week, has suddenly awoken everybody to the realisation that the election is on for real, nowhere more so than in Fine Gael, which looked like cruising to victory before Christmas, with talk of an overall majority, but is now hovering again around the 30pc mark in opinion polls, where it has been stuck throughout the best year of economic recovery so far.

What the opinion polls show is that one-third of the electorate is happy with the job Fine Gael has done, satisfied with the pace and current lopsided nature of the recovery, and reasonably content with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. This one-third comprises lifelong Fine Gael supporters, and those who have had a relatively comfortable recession.

The corollary is that two-thirds think the opposite of Fine Gael and that the Coalition remains unpopular, despite the economic recovery - a phenomenon which has left the experts scratching their heads in confusion. In the past, economic well-being and government popularity have routinely shared an upward trajectory. It should not be like this.

The opinion polls are telling us that Fine Gael is down just over six points on its best-ever election result, and up around three points on its average result in each such election since 1987.

So, for all of its deliverance and stewardship of the economy, Fine Gael is, so far, not performing that much better than it ever did in a general election, in what is, admittedly, a more fractured field.

Maybe it is this realisation that is making Fine Gael slightly nervous, or not as comfortable as it should be going into the election.

There are many within the party who would happily take 30pc of votes and leave everybody else to scrap it out for the support of a full two-thirds of voters who intend to vote for any politician or party other than Fine Gael.

There are many others in Fine Gael, however, who are more ambitious, and must be wondering what it is the party should positively do to win the support of a more broad range of voters, and are equally wondering why the party has so far failed to do just that.

Blame Facebook, if you like, but it seems to me that the facilitation of peer-to-peer communication within active communities is feeding the undecided and posing a challenge not just to Fine Gael but to all of the established parties.

That said, a large proportion of those in Fine Gael still believe the mantra "stability" will eventually swing a significant proportion of the undecided voters behind the party, and that Fine Gael and Labour, with a few Independents or even the Greens - or both - will form the next government.

These people may be right, but even if they are, such a late movement of voters will have a certain begrudging quality to it.

A win is a win, of course, but in Fine Gael they would prefer to see their poll movement going upwards, as it was before Christmas, not down or hovering as it is now. So that is what is really informing the party's anxiety.

The thinking minority in Fine Gael also know that Micheal Martin's criticism, that the party is "too right wing", has struck a chord; that the party (with Labour) has introduced five regressive budgets in a row, that social services, such as health and housing are in flitters, and that all of these issues are, shall we say, an Achilles heel.

That more social democratic wing of Fine Gael is, truth be told, not entirely satisfied with the performance of the party in government to date, and is anxious to get another term to try to do something about that - something better than the shiver down the spine sent by rats jumping on the beds of homeless children in hostels.

For now though, it seems it will be sufficient to play on the still-live fears of voters, and to warn that the country will go to hell in a handcart unless victory is theirs.

Curiously, the uncertain state of the global economy will actually be to Fine Gael's advantage, such is the level of voter apprehension as still exists; but the party's election promises announced, or leaked, will eventually come back to haunt them if or when they do win.

That was why Fine Gael responded with such force to Micheal Martin's assertion last weekend that Fianna Fail will have its election promises analysed and costed by an independent body and published with its election manifesto.

The jittery nature of global events is a timely reminder to those undecided, possibly minded though not yet convinced to vote Fine Gael, that stability is more than just an election slogan.

All things considered then, Fine Gael has had a good Ard Fheis, and is poised to have a good, if not spectacular, election campaign, so they really should relax a little. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Sunday Independent

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