Farm Ireland

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Opinion: Voters will punish the party deemed to have caused a surprise election

Tough at the top: Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar at the 2014 MacGill Summer School.
Tough at the top: Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar at the 2014 MacGill Summer School.
Theresa May
John Downing

John Downing

Like farming, politics also has its seasons. So autumn brings us the political conferences where the party loyalists gather and mingle to consider policy and political plots.

If you like your politics - and I do - they have a certain compelling side. Fianna Fáil were at it this past weekend, back at their old haunt in the RDS. Next month will see the Fine Gael faithful make the trip to Cavan, on November 9 and 10, while Sinn Féin will also hold court back at the RDS on the following weekend.

Up to very recent times these events used to command a lot more media attention. There was usually an hour-long, mind-numbing leaders' speech, full of multitudinous aspirations, most of which were happily never again heard of.

But we live in busier and quicker times. So, often these events do not get much airplay beyond the political bubble. That is probably as it should be. But all of that being said, they can throw up matters of longer-term interest. At lunchtime on Saturday, the London-based politics professor, Dr Tim Bale, addressed the Fianna Fáil faithful and had some very interesting things to say.

Prof Bale charted the slow struggle of the British Conservative Party to re-build following the fall of Maggie Thatcher in 1990. Since Fianna Fáil's electoral meltdown in February 2011, he has been advising them to good effect and they had him back this weekend to give an update.

Naturally, he referred to Brexit, reinforcing many of the grim things we already know. "The bad news is that there is no good news."

But he focused on what happened in the UK during the so-called "snap election" of June 8. This proved a calamity for Prime Minister Theresa May as voters utterly rejected her claims that she was calling this election, two years after the last one, to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations.

British voters saw her election gambit "entirely as a self-interested move" by the Conservative Party - and they accordingly punished her. The message was simple for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil: efforts to "catch each other on the hop" by causing an early election would very probably backfire on the party deemed responsible for causing such an election.

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The second pointer to be taken from the UK election was that "campaigns do matter". There was a posh assumption that parties were often just going through the campaign motions with little effect on the election outcome. But all the research now points out that voters are making up their minds later and later, very many deciding in the final week, but a sizeable number leaving their decision until polling day. In Britain last summer, Theresa May had a very bad campaign while Labour's Jeremy Corbyn had a much better than expected campaign.

Another big out-take was that it is wrong to bank too much on the cult of the leader. Bread-and-butter policy issues must be addressed, and voters suspect parties which put too much emphasis on the leader of trying to hide things. The same can be said of negative campaigning - the Tories did too much slagging off of Labour and it backfired.

You don't need to be a politics professor to see his point that general elections are always about the economy. These issues must be addressed in a fairly specific messages. A party which goes "too catch-all" risks being seen with a sort of "Vote for us and get a free kitten." That, of course, means destroyed credibility.

These lessons to be taken offered much food for thought.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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