Is Fianna Fail the new Woolworths of Irish politics?

It’s not published until 3rd March, but one book I recommend you place an advance order for from Slugger’s Bookstore is James Harkin’s Niche. Belfast émigré Harkin examines a number of stories from business, culture and politics and comes to a single insight: everywhere the broad middle is collapsing.

He offers Woolworths as an iconic exemplar of how a broadly curated High Street offering failed when customers chose instead to draw from a range of highly segmented retail outlets:

The big beast of retail media and politics now find themselves in an unenviable position. Many of them hove into view only in the middle decades of the 20th Century, and only thanks to a unique confluence of history, politics and the appearance of new industrial machinery – a set of circumstances that are now on their way out. By holding us captive with a near monopoly of our attention, they integrated the general public into a broad new kind of culture.

Little by little, however, the vehicle in which they held us – from the pick ‘n’ mix display in department stores to the selection of policies offered us by mainstream political parties, from the middlebrow films produced by Hollywood to the midlist fare on offer in the Book-of-the-Month-Club – broke down.

In Ireland, it’s hard to think of a political party with more mainstream ‘High Street’ appeal than Fianna Fail. From the late ’40s even kids in the Dublin street began to sing skipping songs with words like “Vote, vote, vote for DeValera”.

The brand was ubiquitous and universal, and the party was just beginning a long (and their opponents would say relentless) political hegemony.

Now there are many reasons for being sceptical about the true nature of the party’s current poll ratings, but no one predicted a year ago that they would be lucky to gain enough seats to push them up into the mid thirties. As we noted back in December, the party’s once universal and ubiquitous national coalition is cracking up.

Even at Fine Gael’s high point in the November 1982 election, Fianna Fail still came in ahead of them. Yet far more interestingly, from the point of view of Harkin’s thesis, is how few Independents there were (2), or any significant representation from the left of Labour (2).

The big broad appeal is fading from Irish politics. It might be said that Labour and Fine Gael’s success thus far has sprung from a decision to segment the voter base (with Labour taking public sector workers, whilst Fine Gael appealing to the private sector) rather than going for another ‘catch all’ like the ill fated Mullingar Accord.

Thus in the week or so that’s left we might expect Labour to ramp up the message that they can best push a public sector job protection programme, if their target voters push up the proportion of Labour TDs in the next government.

Whilst it’s hard to disagree with Simon McGarr’s slightly world weary observation that there is no swing to the left in Irish politics, this is at least as much because because the swing voter no longer exists in the way he did back in 1982 as the innate conservatism of a very small island nation.

It was inconcieveable back then, for instance, when life was extremely tough for anyone outside the big party system, that a figure like Mick Wallace in Wexford would stand a decent chance of winning a seat in Dail Eireann.

That he does, and dozens more like him do, is perhaps testimony that the days of Pick ‘n’ Mix politics, pre-curated to give the political party maximum general appeal, is coming to an end.  And, if Harkin is right, not just in Ireland. And not just in Politics.

That doesn’t mean this is the end of Fianna Fail, any more than the ’02 election spelt the end of Fine Gael. But it is probably the end of the broad, bland, middlebrow political appeal as the infallible recipe for political success in Ireland.

Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream – James Harkin.

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