Opinion

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Fine Gael rise in popularity not all down to Leo 'bounce'

Government satisfaction is at a six-year high, but the appointment of a new Taoiseach tells only half the story, writes Paul Moran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Moran

This latest Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown Poll, conducted up until Friday, captured the public mood as the Dail broke up for the summer recess for the first time under the tenure of the new Taoiseach.

Compared to our previous comparable poll in February, it would seem that there are dramatic shifts in opinion; Fine Gael is up five points to 30pc, while Fianna Fail has shed four to 29pc. A net swing of nine points. For some, this will be the Leo 'bounce' factor. This argument, however, may be overly simplistic.

Sinn Fein remains stubbornly rooted at 20pc, while Labour has nudged up one to 7pc. Among other parties/Independents, there has been little movement. Interestingly, Solidarity/PBP, in the spotlight because of the Jobstown acquittal, has not gained any traction - while its electoral base is quite localised, a rating of 1pc suggests that the public sees more noise than substance in its policies.

Turning again to the two main parties, we should take a longer-term view; the February poll came at a time of great uncertainty. Enda Kenny's long goodbye had yet to announce an end date, and the Government was in turmoil over the ongoing allegations about the gardai, and Maurice McCabe. This most recent poll suggests more so an electorate becalmed.

That is not to say that there is undoubtedly good news for the main party in Government - many of our metrics are pointing in the right direction for Fine Gael.

Satisfaction with Government is at a six-year high - two in five of us are happy with its performance. Indeed, that measure of six years ago was when Fine Gael was still in its honeymoon period of office after succeeding the Cowen era (and on the back of the visit of the Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama). A more accurate reflection would be that the previous time that satisfaction reached such levels was pre-recession - 10 years ago.

Again, some may argue that this is the effect of having a new Taoiseach. However, we know that satisfaction with Government correlates with economic performance, and (generally speaking) not personality. It correlates with our Sunday Independent consumer sentiment study published in April, which found that financial optimism for the future was at its highest level for more than a generation.

Those from more affluent professional classes (ABs) are most content (56pc), followed by those living in Dublin (54pc), where the economic resurgence is most apparent. One in two of the electorate is dissatisfied, driven by those not within the orbit of Dublin (61pc of Munster residents and 56pc Conn/Ulster).

What is most interesting about this satisfaction rating is the party support dynamic. As you would expect, FG supporters are happiest with their lot; 77pc are positive. However, Fianna Fail supporters also over-index in terms of their appraisal of the Government. Whether supporters of either party would like to acknowledge it or not, it suggests a coalescing of ideology. Those most unhappy tend to veer to the left.

In isolation, this may not be significant, but other metrics in this poll suggest that both FF and FG supporters are on the same wavelength. As it stands they account for close on 60pc of the intended vote.

When looking at our party toxicity question (that is, who you would not vote for), there is more good news for Fine Gael. One in four would never consider voting for that party; down seven points since February. Again, just 27pc of FF voters would dismiss outright the possibility of voting for FG. Fianna Fail itself is now the least toxic of all parties - just 18pc dismiss it entirely from their radar (and just 14pc of FG supporters). Again, the entente cordiale is striking.

At 34pc, Sinn Fein continues to be the most toxic of parties.

Of course, satisfaction with the party leaders will be keenly watched in this new era. For Leo Varadkar, the opening salvos seem positive - nearly half (49pc) are happy with his performance so far (with 84pc of FG supporters and 56pc of FF supporters expressing this opinion). This compares with 45pc satisfaction for Micheal Martin (rising to 81pc among the party faithful and 57pc among FG supporters).

For Mr Varadkar, satisfaction follows ideological lines - those who gravitate towards the left are much more circumspect in their opinions. With this in mind, we asked if the electorate feel that FG will shift to the right under his tenure; opinions are mixed. Nearly one in four (23pc) believe that it will, but 26pc think FG will be more centred.

Whatever direction that Fine Gael decides to take, there are key issues that will influence the electorate in their voting behaviour. Health and the health services continue to be of paramount importance. The housing/rental/mortgage crisis has entered centre stage (14pc citing this as their primary concern, rising to 20pc among 35-44 year olds - those in the eye of the storm). This issue has doubled in significance since we asked the question last, before the general election last year.

Reflecting our resurgent economy, we have a more nuanced view as to where our priorities should lie; just 9pc feel that unemployment issues are key (down from 13pc), while 15pc (up four) feel that "management of the economy" is most important. It seems we have moved from needing to address the state of the economy, to carefully nurturing what we now have.

These issues will indeed be crucial for Mr Varadkar to address, and he will be quickly judged on how he balances the disparate needs of all. He may well find that his honeymoon period could be dramatically shortened if he fails to do so effectively.

Paul Moran is an Associate Director at Kantar Millward Brown

Sunday Independent

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