Irish by-elections, by and large, are a bit of harmless fun. The outcome rarely influences the balance of forces in parliament, but it gives the voters a chance to give the incumbent party – whatever incumbent party – a good shoeing. Everyone feels better about themselves except whatever hapless candidate has been persuaded to stand by the ruling party. Famously, no government party had won a by-election for 30 years until Patrick Nulty stood under the Labour banner in 2011 – and he was an opposition politician in all but name, remedying even that within a couple of months.
Meath East was something different, then, but largely because the unstoppable force of anti-incumbency came up against the immoveable object of dynastic politics. Helen McEntee was no doubt a fine candidate, but that never really mattered once she was a McEntee. So far, so obvious.
What may be less obvious is that Fine Gael have always been rather good at by-elections. The last time the party defended a seat at a by-election and lost was 1970. This is often due to their lengthy periods in opposition, always as the government-in-waiting, which allows them to capitalise on the usual anti-incumbency sentiment, even when replacing an outgoing FG member. In fact, the last occasion on which FG defended a by-election seat while actually in government, before yesterday, came in 1975, when a 24-year-old Enda Kenny took his father’s seat in Mayo and put his feet up on it for another 24 years until it was his turn to have a go as leader.
In all by-election outings since that defeat in 1970, the party has held the four seats it has had to defend in opposition, retained Kenny’s and now McEntee’s while in power, and won 8 seats scrapping with Labour or engaged with a trial of strength with Fianna Fáil while the latter formed the government.
Whither FF now? At the 2011 general election, their two candidates in Meath East took 19% of the vote between them, slightly higher than the national average of 17%. Latest polling puts them on 24% nationally, whereas Thomas Byrne took 33% on Wednesday, significantly ahead of trend. A good day out, then.
But Byrne didn’t pull in many more individual first preferences than the two candidates FF fielded in 2011 managed. Given the higher turnout expected at a general election (last time about two thirds of the electorate turned out, compared with 38% on Thursday), the challenge will be persuading the Labour voters who have evidently stayed home on this occasion to come out and switch (back) to FF, rather than Sinn Féin.
As the perennial third party (surely re-confirmed for this electoral cycle by FG and FF sweeping up 75% of the vote between them in Meath East), Labour has generally found by-elections tough going. Even counting Nulty’s “hold” in Dublin West, Labour has historically lost more seats than it has retained when defending them in by-elections, while during the last period of Fianna Fail government (1997-2011), it won just one of the four votes held to replace government members, the other three falling to other opposition parties.
Wednesday’s performance was admittedly a new level of dire. Labour came 5th with 5% of the vote. The party was squeezed between a rock, a hard place and Sinn Féin: that is, the standard midterm anti-incumbency touched on above; the iron law of Irish politics that dooms any junior coalition partner; and Sinn Féin.
The first of these factors won’t, by definition, be an issue at the next general election. But the second is about as immutable a political rule as exists on these islands. Call it Dessie’s Law: becoming the minority partner in a coalition government invariably costs votes.
Coalitions may work for the nation, they may work for the senior partner, but they are electoral suicide for the little guy. The Progressive Democrats, a perennial coalition understudy who infamously gained a lower share of the vote at each successive election it fought, are an obvious example. The PDs helped form a government in 1989 and lost about 15% of their already tiny first preference vote between the ’89 and ’92 elections. Back in government from 1997, they lost another 15% in 2002 (although gaining seats) and another third of their remaining support in 2007, effectively finishing them as a party.
The Greens, meanwhile, grew their total support in general elections from 1.5% to 4.7% during 15 years in opposition between 1992 and 2007. After four years in government, they were sent right back to square one in 2011 – 1.8%, and no seats.
But Labour’s own performance in past elections after government is the most illustrative. While we’re talking about by-elections, it’s worth noting that Labour has only once won a by-election while in power, when it entered government for the first time in 1948. That period was also unique in that Labour gained support after being in government (gaining an extra 0.1% of the vote at the 1951 election, after reuniting with National Labour).
Since then, every time Labour have been in power – five times between 1957 and 2011 – they went on to lose ground at the following election. They lost a tenth of their vote after just 252 days in the early ’80s, and almost half between ’92 and ’97.
Past performance is not a guide, etc. But it’s always happened to them; it’s happened to the Greens and PDs before them; it’s happened at Westminster to the Liberals in 1918, 1931 and, in all likelihood, 2015. Something analogous might be at work with the SDLP and UUP gradually losing electoral ground to their respective senior partner in Stormont’s double-unity administration – hence the occasional noises that this can’t go on forever.
The smaller parties might be wise to heed those noises. The Assembly and the Dáil are of course very differently composed, but the outcome of elections to them is the same: an executive formed by coalition, compulsory in respect of the NI Executive, invariable in practice in respect of the Irish Cabinet (almost every government for the last 40 years has been a coalition). The Southern example shows that every junior party needs a spell in opposition from time to time, to rebuild its support following electorally disastrous time in government. Unless anyone comes up with a way to buck this trend – I’m certainly fresh out of miracles – that’s certainly where Labour are heading.
In the Republic’s politics, then, things are reverting pretty much to type. The unknown factor is Sinn Féin, who continue to upset the southern apple-cart. On Wednesday’s evidence, they appear to have lost out the most from FF’s recent and remarkable recovery. They’ve been polling consistently better than Labour and almost on a par with FF since the last election, but couldn’t foreclose on the left-wing vote in Dublin West and took 13% of the vote in Meath East, about the same as Martin McGuinness took nationally in the 2011 presidential race. This seems a trifle disappointing given SF’s ongoing detoxification in the south among a generation raised to think of the party as boogeymen from the distant north:
In addition, SF already hold seats in the adjacent constituencies of Meath West, Cavan-Monaghan and Louth.
But much of Meath East is within the Pale, a solid commuter belt (that never has favoured SF – they lost out in Wicklow, Kildare North and Dublin North in 2011) now practically part of Greater Dublin. The capital is still strong Labour territory; the party has more councillors in the city than any other party, and as many TDs as FG even without Nulty or Tommy Broughan. The story of the next election already looks like Labour being reduced to a Dublin-heavy rump, with many of their rural seats destined to go from red to green, of whatever hue. They’ve been there before. Only SF making serious inroads in their Dublin vote – in much the same way, and in much the same seats, as the Workers Party and Democratic Left did prior to 1999 – would be a radical shift.