With the festive period now over, politicians have turned their thoughts to the year ahead and in one respect the mood across the parties is the same – we are now in an election year.
Even if most still expect the contest to take place in early 2016, politicians will behave as though polling day is mere months away and the political system will be a hive of activity with selection conventions, leaflet drops, and nationwide PR blitzes from the various parties and Independents.
New Year – new party
Last Friday saw the first big set-piece moment of the political year with the launch - or rather promise of a launch - of a new political party. The announcement, made by Lucinda Creighton and her group of former FG TDs and senators, has been greeted with an initial degree of scepticism by political commentators – that the party still has no name and only vaguely defined policies does not help its cause - but equally there is no lack of intrigue.
Indeed Insider couldn’t help but think back to the comment of the late FG TD John Kelly on the formation of the Progressive Democrats that they were like “unruly spectators at the side of the football pitch threatening to run on for a piece of the action”.
While it is easy to mock the embryonic new party - already dubbed Reboot Ireland - there is something to admire in the case of Dep Creighton in particular, who gave up a high-profile junior ministry with the promise of further progression in FG to take this course of action. However, there is much work ahead and many barriers to overcome if the party is to succeed.
While some have argued that Dep Creighton has deliberately chosen to keep the message vague in the hope of simply cashing in on the mood for change, Insider is strongly of the opinion that ‘Reboot Ireland’ must convey a clear political message as soon as possible.
Insider does not detect an insatiable appetite for a new party as such but does feel that a well organised party with the right message might break through among certain sections of the electorate, in particular middle-class families lukewarm towards FG and also that 25 per cent of the electorate who usually voted FF but abandoned the party in 2011 - in particular the famous FF voters borrowed by Phil Hogan for FG who are unimpressed with FG but hesitant about returning to FF.
Research indicates these voters are broadly centrist, but with strong views on certain issues and with a liking of strong leadership and are very unhappy with the workings of the political system.
These developments will be closely watched in Galway West because if the new party is to thrive anywhere it is difficult to think of many constituencies where it is more likely to do so. The demographics of the constituency are favourable to it - the past success of the PDs indicates Galway West is receptive to new parties (although the continuing presence of the former PDs adds a further layer of competition too ). One of the party’s founders will be Sen Fidelma Healy-Eames, with strong speculation that a number of local councillors may also join.
Prior to the launch of ‘Reboot Ireland’, the most obvious question for 2015 is ‘Is there any hope of recovery for the Government?’ It is notable that The Irish Times’ opinion poll before Christmas (and other polls broadly concur ) put the combined support of the government parties at a mere 25 per cent. This is the type of support the Brian Cowen-led government ‘enjoyed’ for most of 2009 and 2010 before a final plunge in support after the EU/IMF bailout. Nobody thought Cowen’s government stood a hope of re-election so is not the same true in this case?
In Insider’s view, while the odds have now moved very much against the prospect of re-election, it is not such an outlandish proposition as there are differences between the muddle this Government finds itself in and the position in 2009/10.
First, by 2009/10 FF had already been convicted by the electorate for its role in creating the crisis. Secondly, things were clearly getting steadily worse (culminating in the bailout ) while at the moment there is at least the hope of recovery. Then there was the crucial fact that there was a clear (and traditional ) alternative government on offer, in contrast to now when it is not really clear what sort of alternative government might materialise.
The Government is banking on economic recovery to help it out of the mess. It would do well to heed the remarks made to Insider by one voter recently that the anger out there was not so much against austerity but against ‘cronyism’. Insider would put it more broadly and describe it as anger over incompetence and poor governance, including cronyism. The Government for the next while should focus on exhibiting some competence and humility before trying to claim credit for any economic upturn.
With the Government in the doldrums, the Opposition should be making hay. What is striking however is that, according to opinion polls, many of the gains are being made by smaller parties and Independents. It is also notable that neither FF nor SF has managed to win any by-elections in the lifetime of this Dáil.
Polls suggest only a modest improvement by FF from its disastrous 2011 showing – that said, if FF manages to break through the 20 per cent barrier then it should be in a position to make significant seat gains as its task will be made far easier in the four-seat constituencies and it will also be able to challenge in three-seaters. On current figures the party could win around 35 seats and if it could reach its local election vote share of 25 per cent Micheál Martin’s objective of doubling its number to 40 seats might be met.
Despite not winning any by-elections SF made excellent progress in 2014. The task facing the party now is to maintain its increased support and convert it into significant seat gains in the General Election.
It faces several hurdles in achieving this. Three that stand out are – can SF produce a coherent policy platform that can realistically be implemented in government? Can it persuade the electorate that SF in government is a realistic proposition? Can it identify sufficient candidates of the calibre required to capitalise on its potential support across the constituencies?
Independents and smaller parties face similar questions, but for them it will arguably be even more difficult to come up with answers. Insider feels the success of Independents will ultimately come down to the calibre of individual candidates running under that banner and not policy platforms.
We might not have a general election but we will still be going to the polls this year. The Government has confirmed that the long-awaited referendum on same-sex marriage will be held in May, together with a referendum on reducing the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 21.
Insider will consider the prospects of each proposal passing closer to the time. For the time being however he will point out that in a referendum campaign all of the onus is on the side proposing change (normally the ‘Yes’ side ). The supporters must explain coherently to the public why in their opinion the change is required and what the benefits are. Those opposing are simply arguing for the status quo to be maintained and everyone knows what the status quo is. The bar to be cleared by the Yes side is normally a very high one, hence the mixed record of governments in referenda.
At this early juncture Insider suspects that the proposal to reduce the age for presidential candidates will be rejected but that the Government stands a good chance of winning the same-sex marriage referendum provided it has its homework done in advance.
Across Irish Sea
The most important vote to take place in May however will be the British general election. This is a genuinely intriguing contest with a seemingly ultra-tight battle between Labour and the Tories and very few pundits prepared to call the outcome.
Several of the key questions pertinent to the next Irish election arise in the UK election too. In particular, will the surge towards smaller parties such as UKIP and the SNP be maintained or will a focus on government formation lead people back to the major parties? Will people buy the argument not to ‘give the keys back to the people who crashed the car’? Will the outgoing government lose seats due to a backlash over austerity? Will the smaller coalition partner be decimated as polls suggest?
The British election will be of pivotal importance on this side of the Irish Sea as it is likely to be a key stepping stone on the way to a referendum on EU membership in 2017. Finally, while it is likely to be a dull contest with predictable outcomes in Northern Ireland, there will be a particular fascination with the voting behaviour of the Scots – is the SNP really going to eat into Labour’s base in a big way?
All in all this is not likely to be a dull year for political anoraks!