Sunday 26 January 2020

Civil war parties shed voters in tough times but fail to woo them back again

Over time voters have punished governments more for economic failings, but show no signs of crediting them when things go well

'The pattern over time points to voters becoming increasingly likely to punish parties that preside over bad economic times' Stock photo: PA News
'The pattern over time points to voters becoming increasingly likely to punish parties that preside over bad economic times' Stock photo: PA News
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Possibly the best-know quote in recent political history is: "It's the economy, stupid." It was coined almost a quarter of century ago by an adviser to Bill Clinton during his first presidential campaign in 1992. The advice to Clinton was to hammer relentlessly on economic issues (the US unemployment rate had been rising since the summer of 1990), and by doing so he would unseat incumbent George Bush Snr.

There is a long tradition, going all the way back to Karl Marx, if not before, which holds that economic factors determine political outcomes. That tradition now has a new variant.

Across the rich world, there has been an upsurge recently in discussion of the downsides of economic globalisation. In developed countries, a growing number of analysts and commentators are attributing political changes to economic factors - specifically a rise in the numbers of people who lose out because of the increase in cross-border economic activity.

These downsides, according to what has become conventional wisdom, explain the rise of Donald Trump, the UK's Brexit vote and increased support for an array of extremist and populist movements across Europe.

There is little doubt that economic sentiment affects people's political views and moods. But determining the extent of the impact is not straightforward. In an accompanying column in the business section of this newspaper, I bring together a range of indicators from across the rich world in an effort to see how many people are being left behind by globalisation or other economic changes.

In summary, when you look at employment trends - the share of workforces on low pay, the proportion who are doing part-time work because they can't find full-time jobs, and other indicators - there is surprisingly little evidence to support the claim that an ever-larger number of people are being left behind. That is true in Ireland and most other rich countries, with the partial exception of the US.

For instance, and for all the talk of jobs being lost to low-wage economies and technological change, every single high-income country - 23 economies from New Zealand to Ireland - has more jobs today than 20 years ago.

Nor is there much hard evidence of increased insecurity for those who work. Since the mid-1990s, in the OECD, the breakdown of workers by the amount of time they have spent in their current job is unchanged (in other words, people don't appear to be spending less time in each job, despite much talk of the decline of the job for life and greater employment precariousness).

Another important metric is the share of the workforce that is working part time because a full-time job isn't to be found. Across the same group of countries, the share of workers in that position has risen, but from 2pc in 1985 to 3.7pc in 2015 - which is hardly enough to explain much larger shifts in voting patterns.

As there's more in the accompanying article on the bigger picture, let's consider the Irish situation more closely here.

If there is less hostility in Ireland to globalisation, it is because it is hard to find any country in the world that has done better out of that process.

Ireland's economy treaded water for about 70 years after independence. It was only when a wave of multinationals hugely ramped up their investment in Ireland in the mid-1990s that the economy finally made real progress in catching up with its peers in north-west Europe.

While it can be claimed in other developed countries that globalisation has led to job losses, exactly the opposite has happened here. The number of jobs in IDA-supported foreign companies stood at a record high of 187,000 last year, up by more than 100,000 on 1990.

But if anti-globalisation sentiment is not common in Ireland, even among the anti-business hard left, what is the longer-term link between how the economy is doing and political choices?

The 1950s was a time of falling employment, rising immigration, and general misery. Not only that, the long and deep recession Ireland suffered in that decade was taking place at a time when the rest of the western world was recovering from war and entering the first era of mass prosperity.

But Irish voters don't appear to have blamed mainstream politics for being left behind as our peers pulled away.

Indeed, the two big civil war parties that had dominated politics since independence actually increased their share of the vote in the five elections held between 1948 and 1961, growing their combined first-preference vote from 62pc to 76pc.

Things were different 30 years later when the Irish economy went through another decade of high unemployment and tens of thousands of young people left to seek their fortunes abroad. In the election of 1992, when the unemployment rate stood at 15pc, the civil war parties got 64pc of the vote. That was down from the first election of the previous decade, held in 1981, when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael together secured 82pc of first-preference votes.

The most recent bout of extended recession led to an even bigger collapse in the mainstream, and from a lower starting point. At this year's election, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael got just one in two first preferences - an all-time low. Just before the crash in 2007, they got seven in 10.

The pattern over time points to voters becoming increasingly likely to punish parties that preside over bad economic times.

If voters are increasingly blaming the parties of government for when things go wrong, they haven't given them much credit when times are good.

During the Celtic tiger, when Ireland experienced the most rapid period of economic expansion any already developed country has ever experienced, Fianna Fail was the main force in government. Despite presiding over a jobs bonanza, massive public spending increases and big tax cuts, it added a mere two points to its tally between the 1997 and 2007 elections.

The pattern since the recovery began has been starker still. Although the economy turned around in 2012, satisfaction with the previous government was decoupled entirely from consumer confidence indicators and all the hard data on the performance of the economy.

Nor have things changed much under the "new politics". As this newspaper's opinion poll last weekend showed, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were within the margin of error of their respective performances at the general election.

All of this points to a growing asymmetry in politics, with voters hammering the parties of government when things go wrong, but giving them no credit when they go right. That does not augur well for the political mainstream.

Sunday Independent

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