Fianna Fail’s distress; Labour’s opportunity?

It’s no surprise that the thread arising from Thursday’s post on the Irish Times’ poll result quickly resiled to the state of the Republic’s economy and what might be done about it. As Stephen Collins noted on Saturday, Fianna Fail’s support is collapsing at the same rate as the economy.However as Noel Whelan notes, Fianna Fail misfortunes (and the Opposition party’s good fortune don’t all come down to the events of the last week:

It’s not the events of recent weeks, however, which have shaped this results but the public view now of the policies pursued for the last five years. The reasons for the economic crisis are complex and many are international.

The two previous Fianna Fáil-led governments were responsible for some of the policies which have rendered Ireland’s difficulties more intense. They unwisely put or left in place too many tax reliefs which acted as an accelerant on an already overheating property market. They also drove bloated public expenditure without putting in place a sufficiently broad tax base to sustain it. In addition, the soft touch approach to banking sector regulation, while it may have been in accordance with international norms, has left our banking system even more exposed.

As Gerard O’Neill noted in the first of our recent economy focused podcasts, “it’s like defusing a bomb when you are not sure whether to cut the red wire?

And the Irish government is not alone in facing the same conundrum. Established incumbents everywhere are facing problems on an unprecedented (in modern times at least) scale.

Having dumped their government of long standing, Iceland is now contemplating entry to the EU, no doubt on whatever terms Brussels cares to offer them.

In the UK, despite a lot of sound and fury both government and opposition flounder (check out David Cameron’s poor performance on the Politics Show to see what I mean) in trying to face a crisis that even the established experts have no useful model to help them predict how different interventions might produce.

In the US, and despite his unassailable majority in both Houses of Congress, President Obama has come through with a stimulus package (protectionism and pork compris) that has several greybeards shaking their heads and saying it is simply not enough to pull the financial cat out of the fire.

What Friday’s poll figures suggest is that it is not good enough just to be ‘not the government’; you need to have a plan, or at least a big idea that’s invulnerable to simple counterfeiting by your opponents. And the very volatility of the situation means that formulating a coherent plan is difficult. When the opposition do produce an idea, like cutting TD’s expenses, the Government simply raises them and looks for the credit.

In this respect, you can see that Fine Gael have something of a problem. A problem volubly demonstrated in a fractuous exchange between Brian Hayes and Willie O’Dea on last week’s Saturday View (about 16 minutes), when Willie asked his Fine Gael counterpart how his party was going to raise the €850 million in public expenditure cuts they had proposed. The whole thing breaks down very quickly into a verbal scrap largely because, in essence, Fine Gael’s analysis of ‘what must be done’ is pretty much the same as the Government’s.

And that is reflected in the polling. Outside Fianna Fail loyalists, Fine Gael supporters are the most supportive of the government’s cuts package:

In party terms Fianna Fáil voters were most supportive with 46 per cent saying it was about right, 20 per cent not tough enough and 27 per cent too tough. However, Green Party voters took a very different view with 42 per cent saying it was too tough, 26 per cent not tough enough and 22 per cent about right. Labour voters took a very similar view to Green Party voters while Fine Gael voters were closer to Fianna Fáil in their view of the measure.

Which puts Labour in a very interesting position. For once in the Irish political cycle policy matters. And there is no convenient place across the water to go and grab and a tried and tested, off-the-shelf solution, as both main parties were wont to do back in the Thatcherite day. It also happens that Labour is in a position now to criticise the government from a space that is clear and discrete from Fianna Fail’s own fading PD coloured positions.

Their instincts tell them that cutting jobs in time of recession is both regressive, and part of the same pro-cyclical pattern that got the country into the mess it is now. For once, that’s a popular message too. It puts them, as Willie might put it, on the side of the angels, with a populist proposition that opposes in principle as opposed to specific practice.

And Labour is taking the opportunity to begin to find ways of narrating the crisis, something which has eluded both Enda Kenny and his analogue in Britain, David Cameron. It seems their leader, Eamon Gilmore, is taking a leaf out someone else’s book:

I think [the poll] is measuring a very fundamental shift in political thinking for this country and reflecting a view that there is more to life than the economy. There is such a thing as society. We need each other. [People] are looking for a sense of hope, of optimism, that we can get through the recession.

Later this month they are hosting what they are calling a State of the Nation Economic Summit. Pulling in independent expertise, the emphasis is on framing questions and pulling in answers. It also emphasises that the event is open to everyone; although everywhere you look on Labour’s online real estate is the invitation to become a member.

Cute stuff. And better than issuing policy statements that will likely have to be revised and revisited in a matter of days or weeks never mind months. Still, it’s a long way from here to the Taoiseach’s office. But at least they have a plan; which is more than can be said, at this moment in time, for the two old Civil War parties.

Whelan rightly notes that the short to medium term gains for Labour are likely to be thin enough in the European elections. The more important shift may come at Council level, where, as Dan has noted before, broad oppositional gains may have much more dangerous, and generational implications for the once impregnable Fianna Fail.

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