After 2015, an uncertain future awaits the political parties

Insider's assesment of the last 12 months on the Irish political landscape

Fine Gael look set to return to power, but will Labour have enough numbers to join them in coalition?

Fine Gael look set to return to power, but will Labour have enough numbers to join them in coalition?

As the festive season approaches it is not only turkeys which are facing an uncertain future; politicians are also of a nervous disposition as they face the verdict of the electorate in the early weeks of the New Year.

The General Election beckons, most likely in February, and there is uncertainty around the corridors of power. Before looking ahead to Election 2016 however, Insider thinks it worthwhile to cast an eye back over 2015 and set the scene for the battle to come.

Electoral contests

As ever politicians will focus on results at the ballot box. In 2015 all eyes were on the month of May and two polling dates. The first was the British general election in early May, which delivered an unexpected overall majority for the governing Tories. The Irish parties have been examining that contest closely for lessons that might apply to our General Election.

Then on May 22 we had two referenda and a by-election in Carlow/Kilkenny. The same-sex marriage referendum was one of the most memorable events in recent Irish political and social history. The outcome gave rise to much jubilation and not surprisingly gave the Government parties a boost. It was a remarkable outcome in a country that only decriminalised homosexuality 22 years ago, and was historic in that Ireland became the first country to introduce the measure by way of referendum.

The proposal to reduce the eligible age of presidential candidates was however resoundingly rejected, which illustrates how difficult it is to get changes relating to the political system accepted by the public.

Finally the Carlow/Kilkenny by-election gave a boost to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. This is FF's strongest constituency nationally and the party had a well-known former TD, Bobby Aylward, in the race. As such it represented FF's best prospect of a by-election victory at last. While the party laboured somewhat, it crossed the line with a bit to spare and for a FF party whose toxicity has left it vulnerable to an ABFF factor in by-elections, it was a significant breakthrough.

A better year for FG, but not Labour

Joan and Enda.

While the Government remains largely unloved, the prognosis is still much better than this time last year. At that point the Government was mired in low approval ratings and controversy over a range of measures, most notably water charges, that were the cause of mass protests in November and December. This capped a miserable year that also saw significant losses for Government parties in the local and European elections.

This year however saw an improvement in both ratings and the mood. Interestingly most of the improvement in poll numbers came early in 2015. A Government conscious of its tendency to score own goals during its term to date, appeared to make a conscious effort to avoid such disasters and to control the political agenda. It largely managed this and also had the boost of a win in the same-sex marriage referendum in May, after which its poll ratings improved to the point where combined FG/Labour support reached 38 per cent.

With the occasional blip, support has remained around that level since, and while party strategists will be disappointed not to have built on those numbers since May, they will feel well positioned to tag on a few crucial extra points when the campaign proper gets under way in the New Year. Equally however, given this Government’s penchant for self-inflicting damaging blows it will be nervous of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the Government’s favour is an improving economy, but against that it seems utterly rudderless on issues such as the health services and homelessness.

For all that though things are still looking bad for Labour. The party undoubtedly had a success with the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum. It has also succeeded in putting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion back on the agenda, even if that is a matter for the next Dáil. The increase in the minimum wage and restoration of some public service pay cuts would also be seen as Labour triumphs. In many ways 2015 was a good year for the party.

Polling numbers however continue to be awful. In the key constituencies, it needs its candidates to both outpoll the marginal FG candidate, and also to be the ‘champion’ party of the left/centre-left, and be in a position to pick up the transfers to boost its seat tally. To achieve this, Labour needs to see its own poll rating stabilise at the 10-12 per cent rate, and for SF and smaller left parties to drop back. So far neither has happened and time is running out. There will be much nervousness in Labour ranks this Christmas.

Things are looking better for FG. The party has broadly maintained its support levels in the high 20s since the early summer and is now occasionally touching the 30 per cent mark. Breaking past 30 per cent gives FG a real chance of meeting its reputed target of 60 seats and, on a good day, possibly exceeding it.

On the other hand Labour’s struggles probably means FG is under pressure to deliver a very high seats total if the current coalition is to return. Otherwise FG will need a new coalition partner.

Interestingly, in recent weeks, FG has moved away from a 'core vote' strategy and started to tread on to Labour turf with pitches to voters, especially on economic matters, who might more traditionally be seen as supporters of the smaller party. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Tories' approach in Britain.

Uncertainty for FF and SF

It was a mixed year for Fianna Fáil. The party is broadly maintaining its 20 per cent support level. This would see it on average winning seats in all four and five seaters and potentially put it in the mix in the three-seaters. Party strategists appear to be targeting a haul of 35 seats, a modest target on one level, but a vast improvement on the disaster of 2011.

The party’s big problem is that it has no clear position on where it stands on government formation. Is it in the hunt for government at all? What will it do in the event of a hung Dáil? Many swing voters will not see the point in voting for FF unless these questions are answered.

The party has also run into trouble in a number of constituencies with regards to candidate selection, most spectacularly in Roscommon/Galway, where it is yet to select a candidate and where a very winnable seat now appears to be passed over. This does not convey a good impression. Insider has for years remarked that the party has never recovered from the departure of former general secretary, ace strategist, and party disciplinarian Martin Mackin in 2002.

FF also sent out mixed messages during the same-sex marriage referendum. While many FF figures played a key role in the various groups campaigning for a Yes vote, there was a whiff of Tadhg an Dá Thaobh about the party's own approach. This conveys the impression FF is unsure about where it stands in the political spectrum.

For SF it was something of a mixed year too. The party continued to be mired in a range of controversies, even if those controversies did not cause any major electoral damage. SF did however suffer a decline in ratings during the summer but Insider would attribute this to a move back to the centre on the part of voters as the election came into view.

SF did not have the greatest Westminster election, which produced a disappointing result for nationalism in general, especially when compared to the advance of the Scottish nationalists. In particular the nationalist parties seem to be under-performing in the more heavily populated areas east of the Bann.

On the other hand the party performed credibly in the Carlow/Kilkenny by-election and crucially showed an ability to pick up transfers from candidates further to the left. There has been much conjecture around SF and transfers but to Insider the position is clear - in cases such as Carlow/Kilkenny, where it is fighting with establishment parties it gets good transfers from the smaller parties, but in cases such as Dublin SW where establishment transfers are deciding the outcome between SF and another leftist party, things are not so good. Encouragingly for SF there are likely to be far more Carlow/Kilkenny than Dublin SW scenarios. The party looks well placed to make advances in the General Election but their scale is difficult to quantify at this stage.

And the others?

Independents and smaller parties continue to prosper. The key question is whether this is an instinctive 'a plague a' both your houses!' reaction that will dissipate somewhat as the election approaches, or a genuine desire for more Independent representation. Insider suspects the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Time will tell but I also suspect the boat may have been missed, and that there are not sufficient numbers of candidates in place across the country to capitalise on any bounce in support for others.

For now Insider advises everyone to make the most of the Christmas break, which will be brief this year as the action heats up ahead of Election Day.

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