Thursday 21 November 2019

Enda's second term at risk from a Labour meltdown

With a handful of coalition-friendly Independent TDs, Enda Kenny could achieve his elusive back-to-back terms
With a handful of coalition-friendly Independent TDs, Enda Kenny could achieve his elusive back-to-back terms
John Downing

John Downing

There is a growing bullishness in Fine Gael that it can successfully stem its election losses next time. If that is so - and it's a big if - the doubtful looks will be focused upon Labour.

The Labour stalwarts love to recall those premature obituaries of their party. They concede that the party has often been down - but it has never been counted out.

All of this is true. National opinion polls do not show the persistence of "local Labour brand names" - people who are dug in at constituency level and can get elected despite their party's most adverse circumstances.

But a number of factors may combine this time to make things significantly different for the Labour Party. And this is why the party is fighting for its very existence right now.

For weeks now, Fine Gael people at Leinster House have been increasingly optimistic. They return to the Dáil this week after the Easter break with the hopes that the gaffe-free period since new year can be extended. The economy continues to be on the up. The party may be about to catch the benefits of an upward economic cycle coinciding with the impending election.

True, Fine Gael still has a long way to go to regain anything like the 36pc it achieved last time in the February 2011 General Election. But various opinion polls say the party is not only recovering - but, crucially, it is also gaining in strength in Dublin.

With taxpayers' money to spend, an expected hardening of voter attitudes as election time draws nearer, and a paucity of other options for middle income voters, things could really be about to look up for Enda Kenny & Co. There would still be losses, but not necessarily a fatal level of losses. The hope at Fine Gael HQ is that it could have 60-plus TDs, and be in good shape to pull together the magic 79-plus grouping required to govern in a 158-member Dáil.

The passage of time has banished the memory of just how close the last Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Bruton, was to achieving re-election in June 1997. Many people have forgotten how precarious Bertie Ahern's first of three governments appeared when he started at Government Buildings on June 26, 1997.

Mr Bruton's Fine Gael gained nine seats in that election, going from 45 to 54 TDs, and Proinsias De Rossa's Democratic Left held its own on four seats. The big numbers problem for the Rainbow Coalition was the huge losses for Dick Spring's Labour.

When compared with the "Spring Tide" of November 1992, it was a huge comedown. The party went from 19pc of the vote to 10pc, and from 33 TDs to 17. The calamity came after Labour had blithely ignored its castigation of Albert Reynolds to form a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in January 1992 - and then abandoned that to form the three-party Rainbow Coalition in December 1994, without an election.

Since the combined Rainbow were on 75 seats and just two behind Fianna Fáil's 77, it is reasonable to speculate on what could have emerged if Labour had sustained smaller losses. One can safely conclude that, in 1997 the voters' revenge on Labour ended the Rainbow.

There are many fascinating talking points about that Rainbow's end. We could talk about the election timing, Fianna Fáil's ruthless tactics, the magic vote share by that party and much more. But, alluring though all these talking points are, they must all await another day.

Students of election figures will be struck again by the 19pc Labour got both in the "Spring Tide" and the "Gilmore Gale" of February 2011. The transfers were obviously better for Mr Gilmore, as he delivered a record 37 TDs last time.

The persistent question is just how far can Labour fall in the next election. And if Fine Gael's recovery continues, this will become a key issue for it. The 'Sunday Independent' poll last week put Labour on 8pc.

In February 1982, they got just over 8pc and returned 15 TDs. Such an outcome next time would more than halve the parliamentary party and cause huge lamentations across the organisation. It could produce a major internal earthquake impacting on the party's future direction. It could make the outcome of coalition talks between the parties less certain.

But ultimately, it could also push Fine Gael and Labour close to that magic 79-plus. With a handful of coalition-friendly Independent TDs, Enda Kenny could achieve his elusive back-to-back terms. That scenario has a number of shortcomings, however. First is that the 8.12pc and 15 TDs in February 1982 was achieved in a 166-member Dáil. The reduction to a 158-member Dáil could reduce Labour's seat take even further.

There is also the question of what transfers Labour can hope to get. It would clearly hope to benefit from a healthy showing by Fine Gael in the form of reasonably generous transfers from the party it went the distance with - and, arguably, Labour took the bigger share of government blows.

But there are growing suggestions that Labour cannot expect to get much from the usual source of alternative and left-wing votes. For many years Labour has done very nicely on transfers from so-called "hard left" candidates, from Sinn Féin and other parties which attracted what is loosely called the "alternative vote".

These votes essentially came back to Labour as the least unpalatable political option. Sinn Féin now hopes to block this space as part of its growing political presence. It is also hard to see anti-water-charge supporters voting Labour next time. A Millward Brown poll in the 'Sunday Independent' yesterday found one in three voters would not consider voting for Labour next time, further raising transfer questions. Many Labour people themselves concede that this is among the many difficulties they must face.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss