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James MacCarthy-Morrogh: Day of local politics is over -- we want national reform

THERE is much talk of political reform in the air. The electoral system, the Oireachtas, what we expect from our TDs -- and it seems this is not just opportunism on behalf of parties looking to "blame the system" for our current woes.

A major shift has occurred in why people vote compared to the last general election.

Now, 50pc of people are going to vote based on a party's policies. In 2007 (according to our exit poll for RTE) only half that number cast their vote based on policies.

Back then, almost four in 10 voters (38pc) voted for candidates to "look after the constituency" -- now that number has contracted to 25pc.

This appetite for national policy, and move away from local concerns, has accelerated over the course of this campaign, with a 10pc swing in favour of national policies compared to when the same question was asked two weeks ago.

Supporters of all parties are adopting this policy-first focus, although Fianna Fail supporters have not adopted it with quite the same enthusiasm as those of other parties.

The only people bucking this trend are those voting for Independents. For them, looking after the needs of the constituency remains notably more important -- and why wouldn't they feel that way?

After all, the example set by Mssrs Lowry and Healy-Rae is ample incentive of the rewards to be gained by local pork-barrel politics.

In tandem with this trend, is a marked reduction in the "presidential" element of the campaign. In 2007, 22pc of people said choice of Taoiseach was the main reason for their vote, now it is the motivation of fewer than 10pc of voters.

This is good news for Enda Kenny, whose personal satisfaction ratings have been consistently poor.

The trend away from localism is further reflected in the issues that people will vote on. Half of the electorate say they will vote on national issues, twice the number motivated by local concerns.

National issues are particularly potent for the more affluent, as well as for people living in Dublin. Predictably, rural areas tend more strongly towards localism.

Overall, at what will surely be a landmark election in the country's history, the electorate's gaze seems firmly shifted away from the local and the parish pump (for many, the cause of so many of our problems), to the national and the detail of policy.

The people, it seems, are ahead of the politicians in the implementation of political reform.

With this focus on policy in mind, who do people trust to manage the country's finances?

On this Fine Gael is really putting clear blue water between itself and the chasing pack. At 36pc, almost twice as many people opt for Fine Gael as Labour on this measure.

Fianna Fail's economic competence reputation, which served them so well in 2002 and 2007, is destroyed -- only one in 10 voters now trust them to manage the nation's purse strings.

But Fine Gael cannot be overly satisfied with this result -- one in five people now say they trust none of the parties with the finances.

This amount of disillusionment will be tough to sway given the mess that has to be put right.

So how confident are people that they understand the policies that are being espoused and that are so important to reversing our fortunes?

Seven in 10 people say they are well informed about the policies of their first-preference party; men, the elderly and the most affluent are the best informed of all.

In contrast, women and younger voters are significantly less well informed -- which says little for a system that seeks to encourage further political participation by both of these groups.

Intriguingly, those who say they are going to vote for Independents are the least informed of all -- with 37pc of Independent voters claiming to be uninformed.

This is surely ironic and suggests that much of the Independents' attraction stems from personality, not politics -- so no change in the political system there then.

The level of public debate is also alluded to by the fact that almost six in 10 people claim familiarity with the policies of parties other than their first choice. This is certainly a sign of political maturity in the electorate and a decisive shift away from the tribal politics of elections past.

More than four in 10 people believe they are better informed than in previous elections. However, a third of the electorate feels less informed, so there is certainly no room for complacency in terms of getting the message across on policy issues.

We've come a long way since 2007 -- mostly backwards. But it seems like people really are looking for political solutions to our problems.

The personality politics of the Bertie Ahern era are of little interest to most, whilst the power of the parish pump is waning.

People want solutions and they want policies -- thereby driving political reform ahead of any changes in our institutions or voting system.

Right now, it seems, Fine Gael's five-point plan is tapping into this trend best.

James MacCarthy-Morrogh is account director with Millward Brown Lansdowne

Irish Independent