Tuesday 12 December 2017

A grim October looms if Coalition fails to mop this bloody nose

The Government's sledgehammer-to-nut policy was never going to win the undecideds, writes Paul Moran

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny make a jobs announcement at the Global Economic Forum meeting in Dublin Castle.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny make a jobs announcement at the Global Economic Forum meeting in Dublin Castle.

Paul Moran

WELL that was a surprise. Or was it? We have continually seen in all of our tracking polls that the largest constituency of voters are the "undecideds". So have they been waiting in the long grass all along?

In our last poll, conducted in late September, we found that 42pc of the electorate were uncommitted in terms of the Seanad vote. As mentioned at the time, the question was whether they would vote at all or whether they would simply opt for the status quo in the event of a lack of any compelling argument to change. It seems that for many of them, the comfort of the Known has won out against the uncertainty of the Unknown.

In a way it is ironic that there is much comment about the low turnout (estimated to be in the mid-30s at time of writing), yet just one per cent have a vote in the Seanad. This referendum was, for some, an opportunity to voice their concerns at the apparent steamrolling of government policy.

This referendum has been a failure in communications. We have tracked opinions towards the Seanad since before the general election, and up until the announcement of the referendum, the majority were in favour of abolition. As soon as the announcement was made, opinion shifted.

The majority of representatives in the Dail have supported this amendment. So what does this say about our faith in our current representatives? Not a lot really.

How many politicians knocked on your door? This campaign was the archetypal top-down communications approach. The proposal came from a centralised government (and Sinn Fein among others) and the assumption was that the electorate would follow.

Under normal times, this is arguably not an unreasonable assumption. But these are not normal times. Events have conspired to create a situation whereby the government parties in particular have been given a bloody nose.

However, there are unforeseen events, and events that you can control. It would seem that this administration has suffered mainly because of the latter.

The campaign overall was lacklustre, with most of the energy being shown by the No side. Whilst earlier in the campaign, this wasn't as relevant, as polling day came closer, and the public's attention began to focus, their enthusiasm became more compelling – at odds with a government campaign that was strangely muted from the outset. Indeed the battle really only began in the past 10 days, and in that period, the Government was found to be badly wanting.

We have seen from our previous exit polls in general elections that there is a significant proportion of voters who do not make up their mind until very close to the end.

Indeed, in 2011, even though the FF/Green administration was always in line for a stinging rebuke from the outset, 20pc of voters made their mind up in the 24 hours prior to voting, and a further fifth within the previous week.

There was undoubtedly a drift over the past few days. The optics of the Taoiseach not engaging in a debate was duly noted by the electorate.

The damage done by not appearing was, in retrospect, more detrimental than any harm that could have been done by "losing" a debate.

In a climate of cynicism, it reinforced for many the detachment between politics and the public. It arguably galvanised some of the undecideds.

The simplistic anti-politician argument by Fine Gael (vote for "fewer politicians") also backfired. It's not that we are necessarily anti-politics – we are just opposed to the politicians we have (of all hues) – again as evidenced by the proportions of undecideds.

This referendum engaged only a subset of the population, and that subset had their own reasons and convictions for voting as they did.

There was a vast swathe, however, that were not engaged with the argument, and when given the opportunity to vote, either they did not do so, or simply reverted to keeping the status quo.

However, this is not to say that the status quo has the ringing endorsement of the electorate. Far from it. We have seen from our tracking polls that a significant proportion want the Seanad to be reformed (29pc in late September) – just five per cent want the Upper House to remain as is.

The issue for the Government, and Fine Gael in particular, was that their approach did not countenance such a suggestion.

For them it was taking a sledgehammer to a nut. And the many undecideds baulked at that notion. They were not to be coerced by such a one-dimensional argument.

The Government will need to regroup quickly after this campaign.

With another austere budget to come in less than two weeks' time, this indeed could become a grim October for them, and a defining moment in the tenure of this administration.

One lesson they will have learned however is – never take the electorate for granted.

Paul Moran is an Associate Director at Millward Brown

Sunday Independent

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