Tuesday 23 January 2018

Fine Gael fails the toxic test as Sinn Fein comes through middle

The link between toxicity and transfers can make for a happy or miserable political marriage in 2016, writes John Drennan

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Party toxicity poll
John Drennan

John Drennan

Transfers in PR are the equivalent of the bonus number in the lottery, where they give you another way of being a winner.

While transfers are what give the candidate just outside the frame after the first count hope, like many other things in Irish politics, the role played by transfers can be exaggerated.

In election 2011, for example, just 11 of the seats were decided by transfer patterns.

Yet transfers are not without influence. One of the more intriguing features of PR is the role transfers can play where parties win or lose far more seats than their first-preference vote merits.

Of course if you are to secure those bonus seats the first priority is that you must not be politically toxic to the extent that vast swathes of the electorate are determined to specifically vote against you.

Nothing epitomised the intimate link between toxicity, transfers and seats more than election 2011.

Fine Gael, with 36pc in first preferences and 29pc of transfers won 16 seats more than it should have courtesy of its low level of transfer toxicity.

Though the party secured a significantly lower percentage of transfers than first preferences - a fact influenced by the numbers of Fine Gael candidates elected without the need for transfers - it still won the battle for second and lower preferences by a substantial margin.

It might not quite be a case of love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage, but toxicity, transfers and seat bonuses have a similar style relationship.

However, rather like shares, you can lose as well as win when it comes to the transfer market.

For example, still toxic Sinn Fein, with 9.94pc in first preferences and a lowly 6.95pc in lower order preferences, won three fewer seats than its first preferences merited.

The utter toxicity of Fianna Fail meant that it secured 10 seats fewer than, on pure mathematics, its first preference vote merited.

Political toxicity does, therefore, count - and it generally counts the most when you are desperately chasing votes and seats where small margins will decide the fate of political parties.

In 2011, the 113 seats they won meant that Fine Gael and Labour were not excessively worried by the toxicity issue.

Sinn Fein was still too small for it to matter excessively and Fianna Fail did not know what political planet it was on.

Given that 10 seats will decide in the case of the (maybe) 2016 election whether we get a Coalition Troika of Fine Gael Labour and Independents, or if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will do the foul deed, the great issue of transfers and toxicity will be uniquely important when it comes to the definitely maybe 2016 election.

They are, given the uniquely fractured nature of the current state of the parties, also likely to decide whether Labour comes back as viable Coalition partners or a PD -sized party.

Fine Gael's seat bonus in 2011 means 25 ministers and TDs will be up into the late hours praying transfers will save their skins.

Sinn Fein, though, courtesy of the critical mass it gained in the 2014 council elections will in 2016 be hunting down a seat bonus of its own.

Fianna Fail, in contrast, still doesn't know what planet it is on except that it is very hostile and not conducive to long-term sustainability.

This means it will come as a relief - and a surprise one suspects for many in Fianna Fail - that it is seen in the Sunday Independent/ Millward Brown poll to be the least toxic party of all.

Intriguingly given some of the political footsie that has been played recently, Fine Gael supporters are their warmest admirers.

Sinn Fein, by contrast, who in their usual pleasant way wants to abolish Fianna Fail are the coldest.

The one downside for Fianna Fail is that its low toxicity levels may actually be yet another symptom of the alarming new condition where the voters are utterly indifferent to its fate.

Fine Gael, given its ambitions to be a catch-all party will be perturbed by its status as the most toxic party of all.

Ultimately, given the amount of seats its retains by the weight of a feather it is not exactly a luxury the party can afford.

Though relations are reasonable with Labour voters, where just 28pc see Fine Gael as being toxic, a staggering 77pc of Sinn Fein voters see Fine Gael as being political pariahs.

It is a result which indicates the Fine Gael tactic of turning the next election into a 1930s-style elemental battle between the Blue-shirts and, in this case, the Green-shirts, is working.

However, it is starkly clear that any stranded Fine Gael candidates on the first count will not be rescued. The raw consequences of this is that Fine Gael may actually under-perform in the maybe 2016 election when it comes to that coveted seat bonus.

By contrast, the news for Labour is almost universally positive.Its status as being grouped in the middle when it comes to the toxic test suggests that it is no longer the tethered scapegoat when it comes to austerity and all its evil consequences.

It too experiences extremes, with a lowly figure of 12pc of FG voters seeing Labour as toxic while, in an indication of the elemental battle they face, 60pc of Sinn Fein supporters will not vote Labour at any cost.

The Sunday Independent/Millward Brown toxicity test suggests that if Labour needs Fine Gael transfers to survive they will be available to such an extent Burton could be the leader whose party secures that achingly desired seat bonus.

In an indication of that unfairness we so love about PR 'toxic FG' may need 30pc to break the 50-seat barrier whilst a humble 10pc may be the tipping point that will see Labour win 20 seats.

Of course, the most significant result of all is the decline in the Sinn Fein toxicity gold standard. Contrary to expectations, Sinn Fein is merely in the middle of the pack with Labour.

Supporters of the old big three of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour are hostile but, significantly, 59pc of Labour supporters and 50pc of Fianna Fail voters do not find Sinn Fein toxic.

One of the more intriguing, or sinister alignments is the absence of toxicity for Sinn Fein amongst the Independents, where, at a mere 35pc, Sinn Fein is by some distance, the least toxic party.

Sinn Fein will be happy with its asymptomatic status when it comes to Independents given that there is likely to be a mighty scattering of Independent transfers to reap.

But the party will target - and already is targeting- the first preferences of Independents who could yet find that those who associate with Sinn Fein are palling around with the equivalent of the Venus Fly Trap.

Another noteworthy feature in our Millward Brown poll is the absence of toxicity when it comes to the smaller parties of both the left and the designated right.

The lacuna may be due to the minimalist scale of support for a set of parties who are not perceived to be a threat to the big three establishment parties.

But it also suggests that, unlike the establishment, the electorate are not instinctively hostile to Renua and the socialist alternatives of People before Profit and our other Socialist brethren.

Water charges, it suggests, is still a political issue.

In our still febrile political landscape today's toxicity ratings will be of real interest to our parties in one other key manner.

In a scenario where a large floating vote has still not come to a final decision today's toxicity provides us with real indications as to where that vote is headed.

In a uniquely fractured political landscape the message being sent to Sinn Fein is far warmer than the chilly billet doux the voters have sent to Fine Gael.

Sunday Independent

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