Thursday 22 August 2019

Let the political snakes and ladders begin

Snakes and ladders cartoon
Snakes and ladders cartoon

Mandy Johnston

You and I may be thinking of how many sleeps until Christmas, but spare a thought for the party candidate who knows he/she has just 13 constituency clinics until the General Election, which is expected to be officially called by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February next year.

With less than 100 days until the expected kick-off, we begin a political game of snakes and ladders, as candidates creep and crawl for voters, promising impossible things, offering friendship where there is none, and lying like it is going out of fashion.

The general election in 2011 saw the third-largest turnover of parliamentary representation in any western democracy since World War II. The forthcoming election will not see anything so dramatic but turnover will be high.

Seasoned psephologists acknowledge that predicting constituency outcomes beyond the first few seats is futile; never mind trying to forecast the national picture post-election. In politics voters are like drones in the hive. They may only have one function but once in the life-cycle they are essential for political survival.

Polling day is a single event within a cycle of activities that connect one election day to the next.

In the meantime, there are other considerations as relationships with key stakeholders in the electoral cycle change radically in the final weeks before any official plebiscite.

The first relationship that will change significantly is the Government's relationship with Leinster House. From the Government's perspective, the main aim will be to stay out of Dáil Éireann and stay out of Dublin.

With less and less business going on inside the chamber of Leinster House nowadays, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is an irrelevant factor when it comes to campaigning. It is not. Dáil Éireann's days as a coliseum for outstanding oration or engaging political discourse may be long lost but there is still no other mechanism to ensure Government accountability.

The fact that Dáil business is played out under the watchful gaze of members of the fourth estate ensures that there is no place to hide when accountability is challenged.

Minimising the number of Dáil sitting days keeps Government representatives away from the goldfish bowl of Leinster House and far from the clutches of the pesky press. Less present equals less accountable.

With the Dáil set to rise for Christmas on the December 17 and return on January 13, this leaves our Taoiseach with a maximum of 23 short Dáil appearances for standard set-pieces.

Crucially, staying out of Leinster House also allows ministers heralding good news to take to the hills and gives a much-needed boost for flagging campaigners who have been battered at the doorsteps in recent months.

Armed with a bit of good news from the Budget and with a housing package more compact than a modular home, Fine Gael and Labour ministers will attempt to go forth and multiply their support base.

Freedom is not without consequence. With ministers let loose from the closely managed confines of their departmental mandarins and back in the hands of freewheeling fly-by-night political apparatchiks, the lines between public policy and party politics can quickly blur.

Another significant relationship change is with civil servants. Those who work with ministers must maintain strict political impartiality, not least in the period before an election.

Government incumbents should steel themselves for a steady withdrawal of many services in the weeks ahead as the permanent government retreats to the dress circle to watch the political pantomime roll out on stage.

When it comes to general elections, there are really only two things that any Taoiseach decides. The first is the timing, and the second is the length of an election campaign. Having abandoned the idea of using the power of surprise by not going to the electorate in November, the timing is now more a fait accompli than a deliberate choice.

The length of the campaign remains a key consideration for the Taoiseach (pictured) because once the election is declared this Government will experience the final and perhaps most crucial relationship change. Controlling the news agenda is much easier for any Government in the pre-election no man's land period.

As soon as the election is called, however, all of the rules with the media are transformed. The clocks start ticking figuratively and literally. For the first time in five years, this Government will have to face a rigorous balance of news coverage as broadcasters in particular feel the full rigour of stringent guidelines. Allowing a lengthy campaign affords opposition parties and Independent candidates more access to the airwaves at a critical time when voters are making up their minds.

At present, both Government parties are furiously composing buckets of policies which will fill up that news agenda during the election campaign. With very little Government cross-party co-operation, how to channel public opinion to party support and, ultimately, the formation of a stable Government is still a lottery of sorts at present.

Final validation of the election result is in the hands of the political parties and candidates. If the final mandate reflects real or perceived electoral confusion, the legitimacy and lifespan of the resulting Government will be undermined.

For now, that is of little consequence. Everyone just wants to be elected.

As the weeks pass, the pace will become more frenetic as professional ambition collides with political survival. Some will slither up the ladder; some will thrive on venom like a snake.

Whatever the outcome, the general rules remain the same, for every ladder climbed there is a snake waiting just around the corner.

Irish Independent

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