Our latest Millward Brown poll, conducted in the early part of this month, paints a picture of a troubled electorate, at pains to reconcile its day-to-day reality with what is being espoused by politicians of many hues. In addition, there is a certain sense of weariness among the population as to what should be done, and what will be done.
As we have seen in our previous polls, the largest constituency within the electorate is those who are undecided. Whilst some genuinely are undecided at this juncture in the Dail's lifetime, for others the menu of choices on offer simply doesn't suit their palate. However, for advocates of a new political party, there is no guarantee of there being easy pickings in terms of attracting disaffected voters. Many are beyond being disaffected – they feel disenfranchised.
Looking at the headline results it is, to a certain extent, as you were. Fianna Fail remains just ahead of Fine Gael. The problem with Fianna Fail is that its support tends to fluctuate somewhat. Whilst there are plenty of floating voters out there, Fianna Fail cannot bank on them being in any way loyal. In addition, the spotlight is firmly on the government parties, and as such the main opposition has had an easy run of it of late. In the run-up to any national election, the Government will be quick (and quite entitled) to remind us of the genesis of our current misfortunes.
Fine Gael has remained remarkably steady and will be naturally buoyed by the retention of its seat in Meath East. This of course is the second by-election success for government parties during the life of this Dail. Government successes in by-elections were unheard of for close on 30 years – to do so twice, whilst in the midst of such an austere economic programme, seems remarkable. It points more to the calibre of the opposition as opposed to this administration necessarily garnering additional plaudits.
Labour, and Eamon Gilmore in particular, will be pleased that the ship has steadied somewhat (if attracting 12 per cent of the vote can be considered steady). For him, it is vital that more panic does not set in within the ranks. Having lost seven of his parliamentary party so far, with others feeling jittery, another decline in the support of the party could have been the catalyst for a putsch. The effectiveness of such a challenge would be questionable, but in some ways that would be irrelevant – the symbolism alone would mean his tenure as a leader would be holed below the waterline.
However, one swallow doesn't make a summer, and many within the party are very nervous as the potential for further erosion of its credibility awaits in the wings: the property tax, ongoing rebellion by the unions to Croke Park II, and an October Budget for a start. Even the debacle of the water charges timetable seems to have bounced more awkwardly for them compared with Fine Gael.
Sinn Fein, buoyed by consistently strong performances in the polls, may well feel a little deflated by these results. It has slipped four points, with its leader also stumbling somewhat in terms of his satisfaction. It may well be that negativity towards current policies for the sake of protest has run its course – anger has been an understandable emotion for us all for what has happened, but it is not necessarily going to change anything by itself. Constructive, not destructive, opposition is now what is needed.
Looking at how the electorate has evaluated the performance of both the Government and individual party leaders, it is striking that there has been an increase in negativity towards all; reinforcing this sense of lassitude that we have with both the current situation and those entrusted to represent us.
Just 17 per cent are satisfied with how the Government is running the country, with Fine Gael supporters remaining "happiest" – six in 10 of them are satisfied with the performance, versus just one in three Labour supporters.
Overall, three-quarters of us are disgruntled with the Government's performance. Such negativity in an administration has only been surpassed during one period – the dying days of the Cowen government, when dissatisfaction was at an almost incomprehensible 95 per cent (before we stopped asking the question). Hardly a yardstick to be measured against.
Even during the Gubu days of the Eighties, support held up more firmly. At this stage the public has been trampled on by six years of pain, and every time we hear of a cause for optimism, something invariably appears to trip us up again. Many have become punch-drunk on a barrage of bad news.
In terms of regional variances, the commuter belts and the border/midlands/west, Leinster (excluding Dublin) and Connacht/Ulster are most despondent. One in four (26 per cent) of Dubliners are happy with this administration thus far – ironic really, seeing as the latest salvo in taxation, the property tax, will disproportionately affect citizens of the capital.
However, one wonders if this confidence is just the by-product of political loyalty (47 per cent of Dubliners would give their vote to a Fine Gael or Labour combination, versus the national average of 36 per cent), or rather an acknowledgment that if and when things do get better, they will be better positioned to benefit.
It would suggest that to some extent there is, or will be, a two-tier society – those who will be the first to see the much-vaunted "green shoots", and those who will be left in the slipstream.
The weariness we generally have with the body politic again manifests itself through our satisfaction with its leaders. Nearly a third (32 per cent) of us have faith in none of them. All are down, particularly the two opposition leaders: Micheal Martin drops eight points to 28 per cent with Gerry Adams down five to 23 per cent.
Interestingly, Enda Kenny remains the second most popular leader (25 per cent), compared with Gilmore who languishes at 16 per cent.
Aside from the political findings, there is also a lack of faith in the latest developments regarding the mortgage crisis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of us believe the banks, now under pressure from the Government to remedy the situation, will not act fairly in terms of dealing with distressed homeowners.
Yet illustrating the emotive intricacy of these impending proposals, we are more nuanced when asked if banks should write off debts to these homeowners. Less than half (49 per cent) believe they should.
It would seem that, similar to our outlook towards politicians, we can see what is wrong, but are unsure how to remedy it.
Paul Moran is an associate director with Millward Brown