With summer upon us and the political season drawing to a close, it is an opportune time for Insider to take the political temperature and to speculate about what may lie ahead. This review is of course given an added edge by the fact that, at some point in the next nine months or so, what is likely to one of the most unpredictable general elections in the history of the State will be held.
A government in recovery
Last Christmas you would have got long odds - 10/1 with most bookmakers to be precise - on FG/Labour being re-elected. After a pretty error-strewn year all round - and an horrific two months or so in the build-up to Christmas dominated by the water charges controversy - it was small wonder their poll ratings were so poor.
Throughout the term of this Government Insider has felt that, on balance, and after a rocky ride, the Government was likely to be re-elected. He has however warned that there is a particular point - perhaps difficult to quantify in polling terms - below which it cannot fall if this is to be regarded as an unfeasible goal in the eyes of the public, which in itself would finish the prospect of any meaningful recovery. Last Christmas, Insider wondered if this point had in fact been reached. It now seems reasonable to conclude it has not. Since Christmas the Government has been far more disciplined and coherent in its message. It has been assisted by a modest recovery in the economy, although it is acutely aware that large swathes of the country are not feeling this recovery.
Recently, the Government has given the impression of becoming more confident and willing to take decisions - important as a key criticism of the FG/Labour administration has been its lack of ambition and passiveness in many areas - such as the sale of the Government stake in Aer Lingus or indeed the same-sex marriage referendum, which was in itself a real morale-boosting win. On the flip side, the Government has continued to show a remarkable aptitude for finding trouble and using it to inflict damage on itself! The Siteserv controversy of recent weeks was another example of this.
Last year, Insider suggested that while passing the same-sex marriage referendum might not be an obvious source of a boost in Government popularity, it was nonetheless possible that the praise it would get for Ireland being the first State to introduce it by way of referendum would rub off on FG/Labour. So it has proven. The outpouring of joy and feel good factor generated has also given the Government a lift.
On a broader level though, the referendum was a real landmark moment for Ireland. While polls over the last number of years suggested strong support for the measure - and it was clear the younger generation were overwhelmingly in favour - many wondered if it would all prove too much, too soon, for some people, who would get cold feet at the last minute. Not so. The spread of support across virtually all sectors in society told as much as the quantity of the Yes vote. Angela Merkel is now being asked in Germany why she does not follow Ireland's example, and Irish immigrants in Australia are asking their hosts when they are going to catch up!
FF at sea and incoherent independents
The Government also had the unexpected bonus of seeing FF make a mess of the campaign. While the official FF line at the outset was strongly in favour - as you would expect from a party that has introduced most of the legislative advances in the area of gay rights – and the party was very well represented in the non-party campaigns such as Yes Equality, FF's own campaign was lacklustre. It also gave mixed messages during the campaign, appearing at times to be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it’ and several of its leading lights misjudged the mood of the electorate. In some parts of the country – and Galway West has been mentioned – the party seemed to abscond during the campaign. Of course it all ended with a painful falling out with a rising young senator Averil Power.
FF did have a morale-boosting by-election win on the same day as the referendum. Carlow/Kilkenny is as close as one gets to a FF heartland these days, however, and the party held most of the aces in that contest. Still, a win is a win. The problem however, is that there is no real sense as to where, if anywhere, FF is going. The party's policies are seen as broadly centrist but there is no sense it is either ready, or preparing, for government. Crucially - other than as a partner to FG in the next Dáil - there is no obvious route back to government.
Both SF and Independents have done well in recent years but again there is no real sense they could put together a government and there is no clear policy platform from either grouping. One senses SF has an eye on the election after next while the summit of the Independents' ambition is to find themselves asked to support a minority government. Renua is something of a wild card but it is probably too soon for a breakthrough for Lucinda Creighton's new party. So, getting to the nub of it, where does the Government stand as regards re-election?
Favourites in Insider's eye
At this moment, Insider sees a continuation of the FG/Labour Government as the likeliest outcome of Election 2016. Are people happy with the Government? No. If a Yes/No referendum were held what would the instinctive answer be? No. Would people trust any of its leading lights to hold the ornamental vase? Certainly not! In the final analysis though will people see them as a better bet to any alternative? Quite probably.
The most recent Red C poll puts the two parties on a combined 38 per cent, which is probably five/six points short of where the Government needs to be. There is still a lot of work to be done to make re-election a reality and it will not be easy, especially given its penchant for attracting controversy. Do bear in mind however that in 2010/11 FG support rose by a full 12 points in the space of five months while in 2007 FF support rose by 10 points in the space of a four-week election campaign.
A better approach here is to look at the 36 per cent support FG received in 2011. Where is this support going to go? FF is the most plausible option but the party shows little sign of a meaningful recovery while Renua and centrist/centre-right Independents are likely to impact only in certain constituencies. FG might not reach the heights of 2011 but it does still stand a very good chance of exceeding 30 per cent of the vote, which for FG strategists is the magic number. The party will play the economic competence card but will also heavily major on Margaret Thatcher’s old friend TINA – There Is No Alternative.
On FG's current 28 per cent rating, the party would, on average, win a seat in every constituency, and two in most five-seaters, giving a total in the low 50s. The target is to get the rating above 30 per cent so that two seats in the four-seaters become attainable and the party can reach its goal of winning 60 seats or more.
But what about Labour? Recovery for Labour has been more fragile and Insider would be surprised if Labour's vote share was as low as the local election performance of seven per cent. Something along the lines of its long-term average of 10-12 per cent looks likelier. The difficulty however is that, while in the past, that would have seen Labour well positioned to pick up a large share of the left-wing seats, it may now find itself behind SF in a large number of constituencies. As such, Labour will not get the same 'bang for their buck'. It should however, still hold enough seats in Dublin, and the traditional provincial heartlands, to give the coalition a fighting chance of returning to power, or at worst doing so with the assistance of friendly Independents such as Galway West TD Noel Grealish and Renua.
TINA will also feature in Labour’s campaign but the party will focus heavily on a vote for it as being the best way to keep FF out of power. In addition to bringing up FF’s role in the economic collapse, it will also claim that a FF/FG coalition will suffer from inertia and will be too cautious and conservative. Labour will also cite its own role in getting the recent referendum called and passed in this regard.
In the autumn Insider will consider how the various parties should look to fight Election 2016 but in the meantime advises everyone to have a relaxing summer ahead of a hectic political autumn/winter.