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

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty