Thursday 13 December 2018

Leo has a soft landing but is Mary Lou a game-changer?

Voters have become more bored than wary of FF, and are confused about what the party stands for, writes Jody Corcoran

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Click to enlarge
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

On the North Strand, in Dublin's north inner city last Friday morning, a woman gets on the bus. She is, maybe, 50. She stands beside a friend already on board. By the by, she says she does "not know herself these days". Why, her friend wonders. Her husband has found work, she says, erecting scaffolding on Pearse Street.

Another scenario: in Woodies, Coolock, last week, in the space of half an hour, four people buy flashy looking barbecues, at several hundred euro each. And another: at a travel agent's in Dundrum, an employee says people are back taking one, maybe two, sometimes three holidays a year, including weekend breaks abroad.

This then is the whispered background to the political landscape, neatly encapsulated in feel-good headlines: "Irish households are now officially wealthier than during the boom."

There are other headlines, too, of course: rents are up 70pc and are 23pc higher than the Celtic Tiger peak; and the health service, always a mess, now stands exposed as a dangerous, unaccountable mess.

There is no escaping it though, the economy is booming. The crash is still evident, in the health service and property market in particular, and elsewhere, and that will take time, effort and policy to fix.

But when push comes to shove, what will primarily influence how people will vote at the next election - for decent public services or with regard to the money in their pocket?

Today's opinion poll attempts to answer the question, in a way, but as with all such polls, this is a snapshot in time, the time being just over two weeks to last Monday; that is, before the worst of the cervical cancer scandal became known and the surge in rents was laid bare, but also when people were quietly going about their daily lives, not shouting from the rooftops about their better fortune.

So we can read into the charts and figures and divine what they tell us about the mood of the country, and the consequent state of the political landscape.

Alongside that we can apply what experience tells us, and what all together may indicate about an election outcome, the next government, and to whom it will fall to try to unravel the still-evident problems out there.

To do that, it is worth first looking at the abortion referendum findings, too, which show two distinct Irelands emerging, but with urban, liberal Ireland in the ascendancy.

That said, this poll was taken a month to referendum day and, that far out, there will always be a large number of people who have not made up their minds, particularly so in this referendum, of course, on account of the complexities of the issue involved.

The same goes for elections. People will not make up their minds until the final week of a campaign. There are always signs though - movement, momentum or hints of momentum that can be detected.

This poll tells us that the abortion referendum will be close, closer than the Yes side probably expects.

A betting man would say that the proposition will be carried, but a wiser betting man might be inclined to keep his money in his pocket for another fortnight or so.

The headline figure says 57pc v 43pc in favour of repeal, excluding the undecided. But, as we know, in this referendum above all referendums, we can not exclude the undecided which stands at almost one-fifth or 18pc, rising to 21pc among men.

So, really, it is 45pc v 34pc in favour of repeal, with no clear-cut majority either way.

Now let us look further: the poll indicates that those who intend to vote No are somewhat more certain in their view, with 56pc "absolutely certain" and 28pc "pretty certain" to be against repeal.

It is also interesting, though, when we look at the high percentage minded to vote Yes, but uncertain in their view: almost a fifth of Yes supporters (18pc) have doubts, with 16pc having "some reservations" and 2pc "not at all certain".

Also, let us not forget, 4pc are refusing to say how they will vote.

So, if repeal opponents can, say, convince one-fifth of doubtful Yes voters, and a further one-fifth of undecided or undeclared voters, then the referendum result will be close indeed. Three weeks from polling day, that is still do-able.

Of course, the opposite is also the case. Doubtful No voters can still be persuaded to vote Yes, or a relatively small chunk of the undecided, for Yes to win.

So, I still expect the Yes side to win, but would not be totally shocked if No pipped them at the post. That looks unlikely though, at this stage.

All of this is by way of saying that opinion polls, or marginal movements therein, can be revealing.

Take this, for example: Fine Gael is at 34pc, down two points, or a drop within the margin of error since last February. So far, so fine...

There is no need for Leo Varadkar to panic, you might think. In the low-to-mid-30pc range, Fine Gael can comfortably expect to be the largest party after the election.

But what about his momentum, or his 'Big Mo' as the Yanks call it - has it stalled? Well, yes.

Satisfaction with the Taoiseach's performance has decreased, from 58pc to a still-healthy 56pc, but dissatisfaction has increased from 29pc to 34pc, a sizeable jump.

Also, Fine Gael's 'toxicity' level, those who say they would not consider voting for the party, is up five points to 27pc.

Add to that, evidence in this poll that satisfaction with the Government has stabilised, after significantly increasing in every poll since Varadkar was elected Taoiseach.

And what does this tell us? Almost certainly that Leo Varadkar's honeymoon period is at an end, and that he had better watch his step from now on, particularly at the business end of Brexit.

That said, the young Taoiseach has landed softly, in a good place. Indeed, during the summer months, with the Dail in recess, we might see his approval ratings rise again.

Fianna Fail, you might expect, has benefited from his honeymoon end, but no. Fianna Fail is becalmed, too becalmed.

In fact, satisfaction with Micheal Martin is down a bit and dissatisfaction up a little. This is the latest in a recent series of 'not good' polls for Fianna Fail and may foretell a crisis for the party.

The real momentum is for Mary Lou McDonald, whose satisfaction rating (46pc) is up seven points, which sees her leapfrog the Fianna Fail leader, but still behind Varadkar.

On her coat-tails, Sinn Fein (22pc) is up two points and is now breathing down the neck of Fianna Fail (27pc), trapped as it is in no-man's land, neither in government nor opposition, neither in favour of repeal nor against, neither fish nor fowl.

This tells us that the honeymoon buzz has moved on to McDonald, certainly, and that Sinn Fein is benefiting.

But how real is it? Sinn Fein has a history of over-achieving in polls and under-achieving in elections, when its younger supporters consistently fail to turn out.

This poll also shows that a large proportion of middle- class and older voters still have doubts, and the party's toxicity levels, although down a little, is still high, with 34pc of the view that they will not consider voting for the party.

That said, there is definitely something going on around McDonald. Will she be a game-changer? Maybe...

She is untested, though. So it is too early to say. Come back to us when the public really focus, in or around or after the Budget in October, when an election may be in the offing.

Should Sinn Fein win more than 20pc of the vote in that election, however, it will be difficult if not impossible to deny the party the option of exercising its mandate in government.

And what of the future of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail 'confidence and supply' deal, in part contrived to keep down Sinn Fein? As you might expect, almost half (46pc) of Fine Gael supporters want to keep it going; ah, but a considerably lesser one-third (34pc) of Fianna Fail supporters feel the same. Interesting...

Overall, 40pc think there should be an election and 32pc think 'confidence and supply' should be renewed - no great clamour, then, to go to the polls. At a guess, I would say people are too busy, back up on their feet trying to make a few quid.

In the event of an election at year's end, though, or next year, what does all of this tell us as to how people will vote?

Well, no more than they have calmed down a bit about Leo; are excitable about Mary Lou; and, well, may have become more bored than wary of, or maybe more confused than anything else about Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail.

But the real answer is that they haven't thought too much about an election yet, so all we can anecdotally suggest is that they will probably opt for the status quo, Leo Varadkar and the money in their pockets. Look around you. That's what's going on out there.

Or is it that the crash has shifted the national mindset, and that people will demand decent, accountable public services above all else?

Sunday Independent

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