Sunday, 21 December 2014

What Today's Opinion Polls Portend

This weekend, political anoraks like your humble narrator have been treated to not one or two  but three opinion polls, giving us an interesting snapshot of the public's current mood - the IMS Millward Brown published by the Sunday Independent, the Behaviour and Attitudes poll published by the Sunday Times and the Red C poll published by the Sunday Business Post. One shows Sinn Fein in the lead - Red C. The others show Fine Gael a whisker ahead. All show Fine Gael and Sinn Fein in the low-to-mid twenties. All show Fianna Fail in the high teens. All show independents doing well. This appears to be the new holding pattern.

Gerry Adams and his token Trinity graduate sidekick Mary Lou McDonald will be outwardly delighted. Privately, I suspect they will be worried. Firstly, the party remains transfer repellant and the electorate has a tendency of uniting around their strongest opponents - remember the Dublin South West by-election? Secondly, the polls have a consistent habit of overestimating their support levels. Many of their voters are skittish and have a tendency to flip to Fianna Fail the moment they're in a polling booth. One suspects that many others are well capable of forgetting what day the election is or of not voting if they're hung over or there's something good on television. The closer polling day looms, the more the doubts will gnaw.

Enda Kenny and the Fine Gael high command will be outwardly stoical - as is their wont. Privately, while polling like this would have driven them to despair as recently as seven months ago, they will be relatively pleased with it now. The "this election is between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein" narrative that Leo Varadkar began to sell on the day of the Local Election Count seems to be reflected in the numbers. The hope will be that the anti-Shinner majority of the electorate will defect to Fine Gael as the threat of a Provisional Government (forgive the pun) looms ever larger. Clearly though, the knives are being sharpened and the proverbial shadows are now being thrown by those who wish to succeed the Dear Leader. Dr. Varadkar, who is associated with the right wing anti-Kenny faction within Fine Gael, has made liberal noises on Irish abortion laws and especially the Eighth Amendment. Meanwhile, Simon Coveney, the standard bearer for what remains of the Garrett FitzGerald left of Fine Gael (or at least for those of its members under the age of sixty) has signalled that he opposes the further liberalisation of abortion laws. Bottom line: Varadkar is trying to unite the urban, economically liberal wing of the party behind him whilst simultaneously making overtures to the socially liberal wing, which has been allied with Kenny since the 2010 heave. Coveney is trying to unite the rural and economically dirigiste wing of the party behind him, whilst mending the breach that Kenny opened up with social conservatives by imposing a whip on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. In staking out their respective positions, Varadkar appears to be trying to distance himself from his friend Lucinda Creighton (whilst not closing the door on her return to the party) while Coveney would appear to be tacitly signalling that he disagrees with Enda Kenny's decision to expel the gang of six rather than reaching a compromise position that would have allowed aggrieved Fine Gael TDs to vote with their consciences. As WB Yeats might have put it: "How can we tell the dancer from the dance?"

Michael Martin will probably be the only party leader whose private and public thoughts will be the same. In the Local Elections, his party polled a consistent third and then managed to beat Fine Gael and come a full ten points ahead of Sinn Fein. Expect to hear a lot of that from him in the coming days. What's more, in addition to saying it, he'll have good reason to believe it too. His party has been sin-binned for at least one parliamentary term - but it would appear that the worst may be over. Fianna Fail has a not-insignificant chance of winning a plurality of the vote at the next General Election and a good shot at doubling its seats. Sadly, however, no better fate awaits the party as long as Martin is leader. As leaders go, he is to political parties what Hyacinth Bucket is to class - he can convincingly hum along to the tune but he doesn't know any of the words. Thus, while he can look and sound like a leader, there is no substance behind the sight or the sound, which is why if there ever is another Fianna Fail Taoiseach, it is unlikely to be him. That said, like Enda Kenny between 2002 and 2007, he is doing all the things a leader needs to do to become an unlikely Taoiseach, who accedes to the role despite his substantive qualities, rather than because of them. In today's political environment, such a "Jim Hacker" scenario can't be ruled out.

Labour's Burton Bounce is now unequivocally over. At 6% in the Red C and 5% in the other two polls, Labour now looks set to perform even worse than in the catastrophic Local Elections, with Joan Burton - until recently accorded an artificial veil of protection by a fawning media - gradually coming unstuck. She remains a politician of significant ability. However, the sheer magnitude of the task she inherited would appear to be getting the better of her. Her jibe at water charges protestors with expensive smartphones will have elicited careworn nods from people who don't trust her and would never vote for her, whilst attracting the ire of the remaining band of Burtonites who retained their admiration for her even as they turned viscerally against her party. Sadly for Burton and Labour, her ironclad political instincts, which brought her Alpha female status in a party which harbours intense politically correct discomfort at Alpha males have proven to be her undoing. Along with her predecessor Gilmore, she helped to unleash a wave of lowest-common-denominator populism, employing what the aforementioned Dr. Varadkar called a "5% strategy" of claiming that a fiscal affliction of unprecedented magnitude could be rectified by recourse to nothing more than tax increases for the wealthiest 5%. Such blatant irresponsibility is all very well for those who stand no chance of entering government in the near future. However, for a party with the realistic (and ultimately realised) ambition of forming a government, it was lethal. In simple terms, Burton terminally antagonised the friends she truly needed in order to pursue the support of friends who would cut and run at the first sign of trouble. Such low-road electoral strategies deliver exhilarating highs followed by depressing and sudden lows.

How low is low? It now appears that the oldest political party in Ireland may be completely destroyed with the very real prospect of Labour returning without a single TD at the next General Election. Consider the following:

In the Mulhuddart LEA, where Burton was first elected in 1991, Labour's vote imploded from over 27% in 2009 to just over 9% in 2014, while in neighbouring Castleknock (where Burton was elected in 1999), the party's vote fell to a pathetic 5.6% - losing the seat that Burton had taken for the party 15 years previously. Worse still, the party's vote across the whole constituency in the Dublin West by-election on the same day was a cataclysmic 5.2% (compared to 27% in the 2011 General Election). How much of a personal vote will Burton now need to move the Labour vote to the 13-15% share that she will need in order to avoid the humiliating specter of following in the footsteps of Michael McDowell and Mary Coughlan in reprising the role of seatless Tanaiste? And remember that on much better days for the party than it is likely to have at the next election, the Labour leader has lost his seat (Frank Cluskey in 1981) or come close (Dick Spring in 1987 and Ruairi Quinn in 2002).

After that sobering thought, the ability to win any seats on a 5-6% national vote is as much a matter of luck as talent. In 2007, on a national figure of 10.1%, Labour's vote efficiently extended to 20 seats, with Ciaran Lynch being elected on just over 9% of the vote in Cork South Central and not one constituency giving Labour more than 21% of the vote. Such a wide spread of the vote means that on more than an 8% showing, the party was able to win a disproportionately large number of seats. On below 8%, however, seats begin to fall like ninepins. Subtract a uniform 40% across each constituency from Labour's 2007 election total, and the party wouldn't have won a single seat - and that's before one factors in the number of constituencies where Labour will now have two candidates by virtue of having two incumbent TDs. There seems a real prospect that this will be precisely Labour's fate, with a meltdown even more spectacular than Fianna Fail's in 2011 being in the offing. Even if Labour manages to enjoy some limited pockets of local resilience, with the likes of Emmet Stagg in Kildare or Willie Penrose in Westmeath banking their personal brands into trend-bucking re-election, I fail to see how a Labour Party with a half dozen or so TDs (which looks like being about as good as it'll get for the Red Rose Brigade) being viable as a national organisation.One way or the other, without at least an 8% showing, it looks like we will (for better or worse) be saying au revoir to the Labour Party.

So what mysteries does this trifecta of polls leave in its wake? Whither Creighton? Will Lucinda seek re-election as an Independent in the expectation that a new and more salubrious Fine Gael leadership will re-admit her or will she cross the Rubicon and rupture her relationship with her former party as much as she has her relationship with its leader? What will Shane Ross do? Of what significance is Michael Fitzmaurice? Could the successor to the interesting but eminently unserious Ming Flanagan muster the boring seriousness necessary to found a new and electorally effective centrist force? And what of the increasingly triumphalistic far left? What new pretext will it find to sabotage itself and identify yet another sectarian division with which to further undermine its relevance? All I can say is, have a great Christmas folks. New year will be interesting.