Thursday 20 June 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Sinn Fein support goes into freefall as young white van man gets back to work'

FG was also hit despite presiding over a return to full employment and it's due to the economy, writes Jody Corcoran

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is struggling to maintain electoral support. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is struggling to maintain electoral support. Photo: PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Much has been said and written since the Presidential, European and local elections to explain the dramatic decline in Sinn Fein support - almost all of it valid in its own right, but which has been too diffuse or not specific enough to account for such a fall.

On these pages before we have referred to what the marketing industry call the 'Diffusion of Innovation Theory', which is one of the oldest social science theories around. It originated to explain how, over time, an idea or product - in this case a political party - gains momentum and diffuses (or spreads) through a specific population or social system.

Much of the analysis since these elections, in my view, actually explains why Sinn Fein had failed to become mainstream, or according to the marketing theory developed by EM Rogers in 1962, had failed to move from the early adopters to early majority phase.

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In other words, the reasons given, from the collapse of Stormont and disengagement at the cutting edge of the Brexit debate, to shadowy control behind the scenes in Belfast, to legacy sex abuse issues, to a uniform negative focus in day-to-day politics, while all valid, more explain why Sinn Fein has failed to move beyond around 13pc of the vote and not why in the local elections - the most relevant - it fell back to 9.5pc of the vote at precisely the time it should be making a decisive breakthrough.

In my view, the reason Sinn Fein's vote so declined is far more obvious to explain, and, perversely, also accounts for a fall in support for Fine Gael. It has to do with the economy. So, bear with me.

To continue the marketing analogy, let me tell you an anecdote by way of explanation. One summer, back in the early 1990s, a friend worked with a business on the Dublin/Wicklow border. It was a successful business, but the owner wanted it to grow more, so he brought in a marketing expert from the US. This expert explained a simple lesson: know your market.

When he looked at the business, he found that the lion's share of customers came from Northern Ireland. I should say at this stage, the fact that these customers came from Northern Ireland has nothing to do with Sinn Fein, or politics in the North, but has everything to do with Ireland's one-and-only artificial dry ski slope in Kilternan. Northerners were coming down for a dry run before heading off on their skiing holidays abroad. So my friend's boss discovered his market, advertised in the North and business boomed.

Following the election of Mary Lou McDonald as leader, and Michelle O'Neill in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has sought to present a very different image from that of a party controlled by Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness, the intention, presumably, to progress the party from early adopter to early majority phase, that is, to take the party on to the next level. The strategy has spectacularly failed, mostly because, in attempting to reach out of a more middle-class mainstream, Sinn Fein has neglected its early adopter core support.

These supporters, mostly young men, are referred to by opinion pollsters, and others, as Grade D or E, semi-skilled or unskilled manual workers, casual and lowest grade workers, or the unemployed who survive on State benefits. In short, these young men are not as taken with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill as they were in thrall to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. But it's more complicated than that, too.

Let us turn here to what Leo Varadkar last Wednesday referred to as "the other big story of the day", the publication by the Central Statistics Office of the monthly unemployment figures up to the end of May, which showed, as Varadkar pointed out, that unemployment is at a 14-year low. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate now stands at 4.4pc, or 108,200 people. This is a truly astonishing figure, a tribute undoubtedly to the facilitation of the economy by Fine Gael in Government. We are now virtually at full employment.

A breakdown of the figures shows that, in the age group 15-24, traditionally from where Sinn Fein draws its strongest support, unemployment has fallen among young men from 18pc in May 2017 to 11.6pc now, and has also fallen in immediately older age groups. There has been a similar though not quite as dramatic fall in unemployment among women.

In more relevant terms, what were once, or had become traditional Sinn Fein voters are now the young men you see driving around in white vans, or more typically, are the assistants, or trainees in the passenger seat on their way to fix your plumbing or electrical problem; this young trainee, and his trainee hairdresser girlfriend, perhaps aspiring to own their own white van one day parked outside their own home down the road from their mother.

In the round, this is a good news event, as old as the day is long and upon which all good societies are built. Not for Sinn Fein, though. Not really. Or not in terms of electoral support anyway. And not for Fine Gael either, as it happens, because those in this cohort who turned out to vote in the local elections mostly plumped for Fianna Fail. This is a problem for Solidarity/People Before Profit too, who in the recent past might have drawn from these voters, but which saw its combined share of the vote fall from 2.9pc to 1.9pc from the last to these local elections.

All of this might seem terribly unfair on Fine Gael in particular, and in many ways it is, because it has been Fine Gael which has presided over the return to almost full employment during the course of what is referred to as the Lost Decade after the economic and banking crash.

Of course, all is still far from well within society, not least, for the cohort we are talking about here, young working-class men (and women) for whom the dream of owning their own home outside of which is parked that white van, is still far out of reach. Therein lays a blame which has been attached to Fine Gael, but let's face it, these people were never inclined to vote for Fine Gael anyway.

A major reason for the decline in support for Fine Gael in the local elections, which won 25.2pc of the vote, that is, back towards a level (22.5pc) it achieved in a ruinous general election in 2002, can also be divined in the round in those CSO statistics. Indeed, it is inherent in them and it speaks: we are not feeling the effects of the new boom.

Economists will tell you that upward pressure of pay will only occur when the economy reaches full employment. Within certain sectors of the economy, mostly in IT and other ''new'' forms of employment, we have already reached that level, but in general people in employment are still earning the same as they did last year, the year before and several years before that again, while paying out more in taxes and other costs, on childcare for example and rent and other big-spend necessities.

As the CSO figures indicate, we may well be approaching a stage when the burden begins to lift - there are multiple other factors to militate against that also in play: Brexit, trade wars, the next recession - but for the vast majority of people, that stage has not yet been reached. And that's the problem for Leo, but also the dilemma for Micheal Martin. When to pull the plug? If he lets this Government continue much longer, then Fine Gael may well reap the dividend it feels it deserves for stewardship of the economy over the last 10 years, and Sinn Fein and Solidarity/People before Profit may well get its act together in those working-class areas, which will, of course, suffer the most when a downturn comes again.

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