Learning from the Tories: A road map to recovery for parties in trouble?

Noel Whelan’s op ed piece is an intelligent structural rip from Tim Bale’s address to the recent Fianna Fail Ard Fheis on lessons to be drawn from the Tory come back after more than 13 years in the political wilderness.. Professor Bale was drawing on his recent study The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron… As Whelan suggests there are lessons here for all former incumbent parties here, north as well as south…

You should really read the whole thing… but here’s a few tasters:

3 Do Spend Money on Opinion Research (even if it’s money you don’t have) . Bale warned ardfheis delegates that Fianna Fáil cannot understand what voters think by talking to each other or by reading newspaper opinion columns. There is nothing, he said, more informative than hearing a focus group of ordinary people saying what they really think of you. Then, of course he warned, Fianna Fáil should listen and act on what they had to say.

5 Don’t waste too much time on internal structural reform. Much of this organisational reform stuff, he suggested, was displacement activity, wasting time simply to delay tackling more difficult tasks. The ardfheis spent much of the weekend enacting one member one vote and other organisational rule changes. That’s all well and good, said Bale, but get it done quickly and get on to engagement with the wider electorate.

6 Do all possible, visually and verbally, to signal change. The Tories hadn’t gone as far as changing their name but, when Cameron finally came around, they did change their look, tone and started saying and doing new and surprising things. The most important thing Bale said is to communicate that you are changing.

8 Do spend time opposing the government tooth and nail. However, he warned the party to avoid falling into what he called “populist bandwagon negativity”. Fianna Fáil should be keeping the current government under pressure on the bread-and-butter issues but opposition for opposition’s sake delivers no long-term benefit.

9 Don’t be fooled by “success” in second order elections. The Tories convinced themselves they were on the way back when they did well in local, European and byelections, only to suffer defeat when the general election came around. It is a salutary warning to those in Fianna Fáil reading too much into their second placing in the Dublin West byelection.

10 Recognise that the key to comeback is leadership, not membership. Micheál Martin twisted in his chair as Bale elaborated that just as things go wrong from the top, things actually get better from the top as well and how the leader must “embody” change.

11 Realise that comebacks take two or three parliamentary terms. In a point that Martin has reiterated, Bale argued that Fianna Fáil should prioritise strategy over tactics. It should be prepared to do the hard work and do the right thing rather than simply seeking short-term popularity and attention.

12 Remember that parties with venerable traditions rarely disappear.

Now, Micheal, Alisdair (and, erm, Mike?)… Any of that ring any bells?

In the context of Northern Ireland, I’d double ring number 8… Exaggerating the negative doesn’t always work the way you think it should… For instance, Sinn Fein’s progress in the polls in the Republic comes, to a certain degree, alongside a noticeable calming of some of the wilder (somewhat shouty) rhetoric of the early post election period last year… And as Fionnuala O’Connor noted earlier this week, whingeing is a deeply unattractive feature from whichever party indulges in it…

In point five, Bale also warned against putting too much focus on structural reforms to the expense of the ’embodiment of change’ in the leadership… something we saw clearly illustrated in the new(-ish) SDLP leader’s inaugural speech, which apart from technical difficulties, saw him floundering for a clear message on anything but structural reform…  Perhaps it’s something the new UUP leader should give serious mind to before making his first pitch to the public?

In the STV system of course, that’s not to be sniffed at… As Albert Reynolds once mused, “it’s not a general election, but 43 by-elections”. One of the  problems caused by the UUP’s rapid deflation across Northern Ireland was that it no longer had regional strongholds the way the Tories did even at their lowest point in southern England. The two larger parties on the other hand have votes and seats stacked up right across Northern Ireland.

Micheal Martin’s pay off for year visiting Cummain the length and breadth of Ireland was twofold: one, the soundbites given to expectant RTE reporters looking for split were singularly supportive of him; and two, it may be critical in retaining the geographical spread that’s critical if they are serious about returning to political seniority in a system that both rewards small parties but it can impose debilitating limitations on those that become too niche.

But do go and read the whole thing

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  • IJP


    I’m not sure the Conservatives, in England/Wales anyway, are as obvious a parallel as at first sight.

    In fact, they “only” went from 42% to 31%, losing just over a quarter of their vote share. That is distinct from FF which, if memory serves, lost more than half; even the UUP/SDLP have lost considerably more in the past 7-9 years (or even actually Alliance in the five years post-Agreement).

    So although the electoral system made to Conservatives’ decline look astonishing, there are many other parties who have crashed far further votes-wise.

  • But even after twelve years of Labour, the tories only managed to return to power with the assistance of the LibDems. Hardly a storming comeback.

  • Mick Fealty

    I mostly agree with that Ian..

    To a certain extent the relatively FPTP system.. So focusing on top down narrative works in Westminster because most of the MPs at Westminster remain safe and unchallenged no matter how bad things get.

    Whereas with one or two exceptions (O’Cuiv in Galway West, or John McGuinness in Carlow Kilkenny for instance) most of FF’s survivors had to cling to whatever was convenient when when the deluge came.

    They lost not only their commanding vote share, but also their Bertie seat bonus; going from transfer friendly to repellant in one election.

    SO what CAN FF take from Bale?

    Getting the internal reform over with quickly is critical. The UUP in particular pinned a lot of hopes on reform and it was done; but some more cynical say that it hasn’t changed anything. I doubt this myself, but it took too long and was the focus of too many hopes.

    And, nearly 7 years after Trimble stepped down, there has as yet been no clear signal of change.

    The SDLP is only now getting round to structural reforms. And these aren’t necessarily even reforms in the Fianna Fail sense, but are in danger of becoming leadership driven managerialist and localised shocks to the system.

    One thing I think Martin has done that puts him on the plus side of the equation is that he has created a sense that he is actually in charge and that he has the backing of his party. And the southern media found it particularly tough to judge this in advance of the Ard Fheis.

    It helped that his first rebel was Eamon O’Cuiv who has a name but has little heft beyond Galway West within the organisation. (Denis Healey’s unkind remark about Geoffrey Howe’s attack on Thatcher comes to mind)…
    But signalling change is for me the critical one (and he doesn’t have three cycles to move on this for the reasons set out above): he needs to take his limited opportunities to send a clear message on the economy and the fate of the nation.

    Here, if only in one particular aspect, Sinn Fein has an advantage over them as the other ‘big’ party in the Dail. They are seeking to occupy a position that no other organised party in the Republic wants: which is pretty much the anti position on almost everything.

    This is covered by one of the things Bale said that I didn’t quote, but FF should not waste time defending it’s past record. Martin’s apology threw up a great deal more questions than any it might have answered. His defence of Cowen and disowning of Ahern was viewed as partial and hard to follow.

    Signalling change means to some extent taking control of the national narrative. Striking out as the most unambiguously proEuropean of all the Irish is a start. Government may have numbers, but it is also preoccupied with the complex business of steering the ship of state through some very uncertain waters…

    One of the things that has all but killed the SDLP (and the UUP) was the drift of NI politics towards the eye of the GFA needle. To all intents and purposes in the minds of the northern nationalist public, they now have two nationalist parties who pretty much agree on everything. They chose (whether actively or by withdrawing from the process) the one who promised most and worked hardest for their votes.

    Martin has staked out separate ground (not from the government parties – who between them stole the largest numbers of their former voters) but from the dangerous young northern pretender who’s long term ambition is to do to Fianna Fail what they’ve already done to the SDLP.

    For this reason, I’d be looking at the referendum to see whether they are ready or even capable of signalling that change.

  • Mick Fealty


    It was enough to bring in a whole new political agenda. The Cons problem in opposition was that Labour was never as unpopular as their chief propagandists wanted us to believe. Once in power they do have some useful levers to pull.

    Handily enough for both big parties the result is the Lib Dems are getting killed (who’s share of the anti Tory alliance was just one secret ingredient in Labour’s uncharacteristic longevity in office)…

    Although I think that also serves to underline the difference between Westminister’s trench warfare dynamic and the much more gradualistic STV game in Ireland (on both sides of the border)…

  • IJP


    I’m really not close enough to the “ground” in the Republic to offer an informed analysis. I can only go by the stats.

    What has Bale to say to Northern parties, particularly the UUP and SDLP?

    3. Well, the UUP certainly invested in some limited focus group work around 2008 (as did Alliance around 2001). My suspicion is that the outcome was not properly analysed. Countless would-be politicians fail here because they cannot distinguish between someone politely confirming their [the politician’s] prejudices and someone actually telling them what they [the voters] think. The difference can be quite marked!

    5. I can confirm this from experience. I advocated all kinds of internal reform in the Alliance Party around 2003, but actually the party’s subsequent bounceback had nothing to do with what little reform there was.

    6. This is perhaps the most interesting. There is nothing “new or surprising” in what the UUP or SDLP say. The kneejerk into the standard Unionist or standard Nationalist camp is ever-present. What would have happened, for example, if the UUP had come out and actually backed the Justice Minister on prison symbols (an absolute necessity if they were being honest about “making Catholics comfortable within the Union”)?

    8. This seems to be the recipe for “Opposition”. Yet it is the SDLP, which doesn’t want to formalise this approach, which seems closer than the UUP to Bale’s approach. It tries to hold SF to account on the issues, whereas the UUP turns it into personality clashes. It doesn’t seem to do either any good, however.

    9. … and to the UUP re Dromore, the 2009 Euros, or even last year’s local elections. This is the UUP’s biggest failing in my view – it can’t address the deep problems it has largely because it denies they exist, and will point to all kinds of questionable stats to prove this. I suspect the SDLP’s problem is more one of disbelief!

    10. Certainly the UUP will soon have a Leader who could embody change. Yet I’m not sure I even agree with Bale here; the Conservatives’ fightback began at the 2005 General Election under that arch king of New Generation Change, er, Michael Howard…

    11. This is the most important one of all, for me, and yet it seems to me even the Conservatives are quite poor at it (certainly outside the south of England). The UUP offers the salutory lesson – deals with Alliance in 2001, with the PUP in 2006, with the Conservatives in 2008 and so on were all about short-term tactics and not long-term strategy. Any of those may have worked had it been part of a long-term strategy (say, of moderation; or of courting the working-class vote; or of mainstreaming NI politics), and failed not in and of themselves but because they were blatantly short-term tactics which had nothing to do with real vision and everything to do with attempts at short-term electoral gain. Even isolating the UUP appears to be a tactic rather than a strategy.

    12. This is true – we have a five-party system in NI and I see no evidence that is about to change, even as the fortunes of the five parties turn around. This is why the NI Conservatives, NI Women’s Coalition, UKUP, Newtownabbey Labour, Greens and now NICUP may attain the odd localised and temporary triumph, but will soon disappear.

    Initial thoughts, anyway!

  • Greenflag

    It may take another election cycle in the Republic to ‘bury ‘ FF in it’s present format .

    For the Irish voter even a former FF voter like myself (95% of the time anyway ) there is no discernible difference between FF’s policy re the current economic crisis and the FG/Labour Coalition . The fact of not being in power and seen as unlikely to return to power any time soon is only now beginning to eat away at whats left of FF . Political opposition in the Republic is now SF and the group of disparate independents who are powerless in the main to be other than whistleblowers or single issue standard bearers .
    FF is the invisible -unheard -silenced opposition .

    The FF electoral defeat in 2011 was far greater than was ever suffered by either Conservative or Labour parties in the UK since the 1930’s. In modern times neither Labour or the Conservatives have sunk below the 20% electoral support figure .

    FF’s share of the first preference vote, a mere 17% in the 2011 General Election was even lower than the 21% achieved by the old Irish Parliamentary Party in the December 1918 General Election that condemned it (IPP) to political extinction.

    In the Dublin West by election Oct 2011 not only was the FF candidate David McGuinnes defeated by the Labour Party’s Patrick Nulty for the seat, but they only managed to poll 18 votes more in the first count than Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party .

    FF mortuus est or at the very least in the IV ward on life support like their Northern alter ego (in the traditional party of power sense) the UUP .

    Current economic and demographic trends will eventually pull the plugs on both their life support systems and then it will be a matter for their erstwhile voters and supporters to find new political homes for their votes . There’ll be no shortage of choice on either side of the border .

  • Mick Fealty

    Only a fool would deny just what a deep pool of brown stuff FF are in… But the patterns on the graph thread show a bunching there rather than an decisive lead by one party over another…

  • FuturePhysicist

    It’s amazing that voters simply do what they’re told in response to strong leadership. Not one of these measures deal with the actual Conservative campaigns amongst voters.

    You’d think politicians were elected on ratings not votes.

    I mean “comebacks take two or three parliamentary terms” … least important to me, doesn’t add a single vote in my mind. Firstly this isn’t true … some governments have not even lasted a term even under FPTP, waves of people can be swung with hard work, effort, maybe even a bit of luck. But having a “realisation” is like sneezing at a truck, useless in context.

    Politicians are not voted or paid to have realisation that change takes time, any more than cooks are paid to have realisations that they shouldn’t leave the oven on.

    Once again journalists and commentators are getting strung up on stupid banal issues.

    3 Do Spend Money on Opinion Research (even if it’s money you don’t have) .

    Or spend some time with the electorate, much cheaper. In fact many voters (like myself) despise these swarm analysts who are a bunch of overpaid gurus with very little ability in mathematical competences.

    5 Don’t waste too much time on internal structural reform.

    Internal structural reform is important when it comes to engaging with the electorate, using resources and saving money. Not all parties have war chests from rich Belizean nationals. Sometimes mobilizing grass roots (Sinn Féin/DUP) by reforming structure keeps the electoral machine well oiled.

    6 Do all possible, visually and verbally, to signal change.
    Politicians have no problems showing u-turns and hypocrisy. The average voter doesn’t fall for stunts.

    8 Do spend time opposing the government tooth and nail.

    Often the tactful line between “populist bandwagon negativity” and “bread and butter issues” is defined by commentator self-interest, rather than a big picture. At the end of the day the big picture attracts votes. The Tories were as guilty on jumping on “populist bandwagons” when they were in opposition.

    9 Don’t be fooled by “success” in second order elections.
    If people are fooled by thinking you can juxtapose success in one area everywhere else by either simple repetition or complacency, they usually are not the ones who have success in politics anyway.

    10 Recognise that the key to comeback is leadership, not membership.

    Wasn’t Enda the least liked leader of the three main contenders during the general election, or has that been whitewashed to preserve another useless mantra?

    11 Realise that comebacks take two or three parliamentary terms.

    Or four, or seven, or one or less than one

    12 Remember that parties with venerable traditions rarely disappear.

    Yes those in the Women’s Coalition had nothing venerable about them!

  • FuturePhysicist

    So in summary “tackling youth unemployment” is a populist bandwagon and “signalling a good impression” is a bread and butter issue, Mick?

    You are SOOOO not the right person for criticising people about being out of touch.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I’m not expecting any replies to this, you guys made a real clanger about democratic politics here.

  • Drumlins Rock

    If you want to look at political survivors, forget the Tories, try the Whigs, or Lib Dems as they are now, origins in the 18thC, dominance in periods of 19th & 20thC but falling to around 2% of the vote in the 1950s, yet they are now back in government, ok next step is back to the 50s but they are great survivors!

  • FuturePhysicist

    Yip the Tories (from the Irish for Thieves) and the Whigs (from the Scots for Cowboys) are as popular here amongst the civic populous of this region as they’ve always have been.

    And people wonder why WE don’t have “normal politics”, is it normal to simply kowtow that way to what are seen by both communities as oppressive forces if not unchecked?

    Was it a sign of normal politics for the Conservatives to break from European unity of the right? How more different is that from King Charles going renegade against the original multi-national European Alliance? Wasn’t a sovereign debt crisis (pun intended) the cause of that nationalism too?