How emotion can skew the picture on polls
As the General Election looms ever closer, there is no shortage of experts spouting predictions of the make-up of the next Government. Some are so cock sure of themselves as to call exact outcomes in individual constituencies as if it was a matter of a mathematical equation. As a former candidate over four elections, I question the certainties of pollsters, psephologists and pundits, particularly when it comes to the fate of the smaller party in coalitions.
For example, opinion polls here consistently show steady support for Fine Gael, while also indicating diminished support for coalition partners the Labour Party. This polarisation of voter support in respect of Government parties is misleading in my view. Because on election day, people are asked to vote for a Government, not a party. The question has changed and so will the answer.
Meanwhile, door-to-door canvassers are generally a more reliable source of intelligence about voting preferences. Even then, the picture can be skewed by emotion. On the doorstep, people like to vent. It is a rare opportunity to let fly over some particular grievance.
I recall being savaged at doors by angry nurses, who were on strike at the time. On the other hand, most people are courteous and some are genuinely pleased to meet a face more regularly seen on the TV. Indeed, it is scary thing to be knocking on a door as a candidate, not knowing what lies beyond. Someone compared it to jumping into the Forty Foot on a chilly day. Bracing oneself can be the worst part. Once in and warmed up, the exercise is enjoyable and instructive.
The Labour Party is widely predicted to lose half its seats; the same doom-laden cloud under which my party lived, the Progressive Democrats (PDs) continuously during participation in Government. I recall after the 1997 election, reduced to four TDs, thinking it was game over for the party. But bizarrely, we made up the numbers to remain in Government with Fianna Fáil and some Independents. It wasn't the end of the world. In fact, it was the start of a good Government, despite the loss of colleagues and crushing blow to party morale. At the following election in 2002, we doubled our seats and were back in Government. That time, it was Fine Gael that lost all but two seats in Dublin. Swings and roundabouts.
This time round, according to the experts, even Labour Leader Joan Burton cannot rest on her laurels and some Labour ministers could lose out to strong opposition candidates. This must be galling for the Labour Party, which has at times put the public interest ahead of popularity by tackling public service reform and implementing cuts. But the pessimism is overstated, in my view.
I recall the PDs' percentage of the vote fluctuating from 10pc to 2pc over ten years of Government. Sometimes support for the party was so low as to be negligible, but we had enough to be 'the meat in the sandwich' and influence policy. While strong in Dublin, Galway and Limerick, we had large parts of the country with no representation and therefore performed poorly in national polls. Ultimately, that "smallness" was to be our undoing. We lacked a critical mass of candidates to be sustainable and to withstand the vagaries of electoral swings. Like the Greens, we were swept away in a tide of support for the big traditional parties. Such extinction is unlikely for Labour.
At a time of economic uncertainty and fear, people vote conservatively. In Ireland, that meant the two tribes of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. But with FF in disgrace by 2011, that entire conservative vote went (on loan) to Fine Gael; while those with 'Bertie-style' socialist tendencies shifted to Labour or elsewhere.
So what will the people's verdict be on this Coalition? My hunch is that voters will play it safe and plump for the same again. In fact, a Red C poll conducted last week for Labour showed 71pc of undecided voters believe the country "is on the right track", suggesting they will vote for the current Government. The research also showed healthy transfers between the two Government parties.
The Coalition is not 'loved' as a Government by any means, having presided over a period of hardship for many people of all incomes and none. And chronic failures are there for all to see, the trolley crisis, homelessness, and abysmal mental health services. But there is clear evidence of economic recovery as thousands of new jobs are announced and employment targets are exceeded. With Fianna Fáil still unforgiven and Sinn Féin mistrusted, the current crowd are viewed by most people as the 'best of a bad lot'.
That being the case, it's critical for Fine Gael not to drop the ball with a mishap over the next few weeks. The party has been accident-prone in the past and a small mistake can escalate in a few hours to a full-blown crisis. In that context, it is instructive to note a strong performance by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald while under pressure this week on the Garda surveillance issue. Ms Fitzgerald is an experienced and competent minister who manages to come across as reasonable and courageous, whatever the controversy. She makes up her own mind on issues and is not a prisoner of her department. She is pleasantly devoid of the hubris common to justice ministers.
Experience of adversity and competence in governing in hard times is a major advantage for this Government seeking re-election. Michael Noonan is seen as a permanent fixture, beyond public criticism like a benign keeper of the coffers, while the younger crop of Fine Gael ministers are solid if not box-office performers.
Outside of the Leinster House and media bubble, most citizens have a peripheral interest in politics. Irish voters are well informed but not obsessive. They get on with their lives as best they can, relying on those in power to do their jobs and run the country. These voters may show up as 'undecided' in polls, but they are not apathetic or alienated - far from it. Every five years, they turn up dutifully and deliver a considered verdict about who they want to govern, ignoring the din from loonies and radical socialists.
The recent report by the British Polling Council into how pollsters got it so outrageously wrong about the outcome of the British general election was telling. It seems they oversampled 'politically engaged' people, a greater number of whom were left leaning, and neglected the 'indifferent', or those not keen to engage with pollsters, who as it turned out were Conservatives. The pollsters totally overestimated the support for the left. Our own pollsters may be making the same mistake.