Tuesday 12 November 2019

A hubristic and negative campaign from Fine Gael simply won't wash with voters

For starters, while a majority of the electorate retain serious reservations about Fianna Fáil, they don't personally dislike Micheál Martin
For starters, while a majority of the electorate retain serious reservations about Fianna Fáil, they don't personally dislike Micheál Martin

Shane Coleman

It seems Micheál Martin was right when he said the Government's re-election campaign would be the most negative ever. Only a week after his prediction, the Sunday Independent reported that Fine Gael was planning a full-scale, personalised attack on the Fianna Fáil leader.

Citing a confidential FG briefing document, it said the plan was to "relentlessly remind" voters that Martin was a member of cabinet when the Troika came to town and that he and his party had no credibility when it came to the economy they had wrecked.

Fine Gael members apparently will be told to describe Martin as a "shiver looking for a spine" - a reference to Harold Wilson's put-down of Ted Heath five decades ago.

If the Government follows through on this plan, it deserves to lose the election.

Not because it's a petty and nasty strategy - which it is - but because it's a stupid one.

It is completely legitimate for the Coalition to stand on its record: the fastest growing economy in the OECD, falling unemployment, the restoration of order to the public finances and the exit of the bailout. It's not a bad calling card.

It's also smart politics to dust down the age-old 'don't let the other crowd mess it up' line. However, it's playing with fire to go beyond that.

For starters, while a majority of the electorate retain serious reservations about Fianna Fáil, they don't personally dislike Micheál Martin.

Voters, particularly women, see him as decent and pleasant.

And while it's true that vilification and character assassination has become the norm in online political debate, most Irish people still have a distaste for personalised abuse and denigration, particularly when it's someone they don't dislike. It's more likely to induce sympathy than sneers for the target.

They may also argue that if Martin is a shiver looking for a spine, then why is Enda Kenny refusing (as seems likely) to directly debate with that shiver?

Relentlessly attacking Fianna Fáil could also backfire horribly for Fine Gael if, after the General Election, the numbers dictate that the old enemy is required to form a government.

The word is that attitudes within Fine Gael towards a coalition with FF have softened considerably, now that's it's clear FG will, by some distance, be the senior partner.

But if Fine Gael's message is that FF cannot be trusted in government, then there will be an immediate credibility issue for Kenny & Co. if they then put them there.

There was once a belief that you can say one thing in a campaign and do completely the opposite once elected.

No longer.

The electorate's lingering anger at Labour's 'Every Little Hurts' campaign in 2011 is evidence of that.

Voters will make some allowance for 'in the heat of the campaign' attacks, but as Dick Spring found out after first hammering FF and then coalescing with the party, there is a limit.

There's also the reality that Fine Gael and Labour have been dissing Martin and Fianna Fáil for the past five years.

The message has become tired and jaded. For some time, Enda Kenny's 'you landed us in this mess in the first place' mantra has been greeted by eye-rolling and exasperation from journalists and the public.

It's seen as a cop-out.

Fine Gael and Labour have been in power for long enough at this point that blaming others just isn't going to wash.

Voters want to hear about the future, not the past.

They are not stupid. They don't need reminding of what happened. They know Fianna Fáil messed up by failing to keep a lid on an overheating economy.

Many of them also probably suspect it wouldn't have been hugely different regardless of who was in power.

And they also know that Fine Gael and Labour, for better or worse depending on your perspective, have largely stuck to the austerity plan introduced by Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan.

That begs the question: If Fianna Fáil has no credibility on the economy, why did you stick so closely to their programme?

There are smart people in Fine Gael and in Labour, surely they see the dangers here?

Unless enough of them actually believe their own 'we saved the country' hype?

One of the dismissive lines from a senior Government source in the Sunday Independent piece was quite telling in that regard.

Fianna Fáil, he scoffed, hadn't said how they would add a single job to the economy.

That implies that the source believes it's the Government that has added the tens of thousands of jobs created in the economy in the past two years.

It's all down to them.

There is a level of hubris in some (not all) quarters of Government that manifests itself at times in Dáil debates as distaste towards both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

They almost resent being held to account by lesser mortals.

Voters are very quick at picking up on, and taking a dim view of, such conceit.

The Coalition should be careful and stay calm.

The Election is still there to be won, but not by telling the electorate "the world will collapse", to use Micheál Martin's term, without them.

That won't wash.

The message that the country has been, and will be, better off with them in power just might.

As a famous Fitzgerald - Ella, not Garret - might put it: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' at 10am on Newstalk.com

Irish Independent

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