Thursday 21 November 2019

FG/Labour in coalition have been rejected by the people

When the votes are counted, the Labour Party will have to ask some hard questions about where it goes from here, writes Jody Corcoran

Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin
Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The most obvious statement is sometimes the least stated, so here is a statement of the obvious, seldom stated - by any objective analysis, this Government has been rejected by the people.

Yet the pretence continues that the Government believes it will win the next election. That pretence is either a big lie or an act of utter delusion.

At the moment, Fine Gael and Labour are on course to have wiped out all of the gains that both parties made in the seminal 2011 election.

By any yardstick that will represent failure and rejection by the people, a significant proportion of which turned to support both parties almost five years ago.

Six months out from that 2011 election, it was clear that Fianna Fail would be eviscerated - and that is how it turned out - losing a quarter (24.11pc) of the vote it had won in the 2007 election, a loss of 58 seats.

With the same period of time to go to the next election, the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition is on a remarkably similar course, although that fact also is seldom if ever stated.

The opinion polls - and polls here have proven to be consistently accurate - show Fine Gael to have lost around 10pc support since the last election, when it won 36.10pc.

That is, since the last election, Fine Gael is on course to lose all of the additional support it won in 2011, and probably more besides.

In that election, Fine Gael had gained an additional 8.78pc of the vote over and above its share of the vote in the 2007 election, which translated into a 25-seat gain.

Fine Gael is therefore poised to lose those 25 seats, and more, in the next election. This must represent failure for a party, which, it is assumed, will "win" the next election.

A question arises: how many seats does a party need to lose to not "win" an election?

Labour's failure is set to be even more abject: in the last election, Labour won 19.45pc of the vote, or 9.32pc over its share of the vote in 2007, which translated into a 17-seat gain.

According to the opinion polls, Labour's rejection by the people has been even greater relative to the rejection currently being experienced by Fine Gael.

In fact, Labour will lose all of its gains since 2011, when it too capitalised on the electorate's disembowelling of Fianna Fail - and far more besides.

Indeed, the coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, which between them won 55.55pc of the vote in 2011, looks set to win around 30pc of the vote in the next election.

That is, the Government parties are on course to lose around 25pc of their combined support - the same percentage, give or take, that Fianna Fail lost in its wipe-out.

This is occurring at a time of economic growth, increased employment and all of the rest of it, which makes the electorate's rejection of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition all the more damning.

Yet somehow, the perception still exists that this is a successful Government, when, according to the polls, it is far from a success in terms of popular support.

For Fine Gael and Labour, the question is why has this happened?

There is little or no soul-searching in Fine Gael. That party seems content to return to the 27.32pc share of the vote it won in 2007, which translated into 51 seats.

That was a 20-seat advance on the 2002 election, when Michael Noonan was leader and felt compelled to resign on the night of the count, such was the disastrous outcome for Fine Gael.

Should Fine Gael win 27pc of the vote, give or take, in the next election, it will attempt to present that as a success and not just a Fine Gael return to core support.

Labour, meanwhile, is in meltdown. In fact, Labour is now where Sinn Fein was in 2007 when Sinn Fein won 6.94pc of the vote, which translated into just four seats.

Sinn Fein's share of the vote increased to 9.94pc in the 2011 election, a 3pc increase, which provided a gain of 10 seats.

Independent candidates, meanwhile, won 7pc of the vote in 2011, or nine seats, while the United Left Alliance won five seats on 2.68pc of the vote.

Since then, the advance of Independents has been the most notable feature of opinion polls.

That cannot be said to solely represent the advance of the Left - the Independent Alliance and Renua, for example, are more centre or centre-right parties.

But there is little doubt that the methodical advance of Sinn Fein - at a time when police intelligence suggests the Provisional IRA has not "left the stage" - and of the far Left has come at Labour's expense.

The reasons for that have variously been put down to Labour's broken election promises and the effects of several years of austerity, which found a focal point in the establishment of Irish Water.

There is no doubt that the entire debacle that is Irish Water has had a severe impact on popular support for the Coalition, which will exist up to and during the election campaign.

But there is a broader view that decades ago Labour abandoned the working class from which has sprung the popular revolt against water charges and that protesters have been co-joined since then by others with their own views on the failures of the political system.

"We have a month to get our house in order," a Labour TD told me last week, more in hope than expectation. But the truth is that the damage was done a long time ago, when Labour (and FG and FF) abandoned communities like Jobstown in Tallaght to the far Left, and that the party is now engaged in a process of damage limitation bordering on a fight for survival.

After the next election, Labour is set to be the niche party representative of well-heeled suburban academia and little more; maybe the (retired) comfortable end of the public sector as well.

At that point, Labour will have to ask itself some hard questions, such as whether it is in its long-term interests to help make up the numbers, or not, for Fine Gael.

The decision Labour makes will be crucial to the future of a party which has historically associated its cause with the cause of Ireland - and the need to honour that cause still exists, now more than ever.

The swings and roundabouts of election politics are nothing new to Labour. In a way, the Labour movement has been in this position before, but seldom if ever with such forces aligned against it.

In 1992, for example, Labour won 19.3pc of the vote, fell away and came back to such effect in 2011. But those were not its best-ever performances by the party, as is commonly assumed.

The General Election in 1922 was the first ever to be held in the independent Irish State, the first to be held under the PR electoral system and the first to be contested by the parties which, in modified forms, were to dominate subsequent Irish politics. In that election, Labour won 21.3pc of the vote.

At the time, vote shares were distorted by a high number of uncontested seats and, more interestingly, by a pact between pro-treaty and anti-treaty Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

This raises a far more mischievous question: who says history dictates that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail can not do a deal together when it is in the interests of both of them to do so?

Sunday Independent

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