Meath East: We’ve seen it all before

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:

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 15.12.05

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.

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  • Zig70

    The story for me is that there are a hard core of voters who think that choosing who runs the country is important and a growing rump who find it irrelevant. Similar story in mid ulster, deadly dull and irrelevant stats.

  • caseydog

    The Shinners will regard this as a disappointing result, as after the general election they believed that they were in competition with FF to be the main opposition party. FF have clearly won that battle.

    The majority of the electorate believe that the austerity programme is unavoidable, and are consequently voting for the two right wing parties.

    Labour are in a hole, and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to recover in time for the next election. It has been a sad period in government for them. They have little to show for their efforts. Dumping the leader at this stage of the parliament won’t help them.

  • Mick Fealty

    Great and pragmatic piece of analysis.

    On FF, 33% is way above anything the national polls are suggesting (which is an aggregate of sentiment massively broken up into local silos).

    I’ve heard there were boxes in Ashbourne that Byrne was taking 7% out of in 2011 that he got 23 and 24 out of this time. Ratoath was much less generous. But this will give them a useful focus for the locals next year (they only have to beat 23% to start making gains).

    Here’s a description of the constituency and its main issues from the WSJ blog on election day (http://goo.gl/O1yve):

    The town shows few obvious signs of deep financial distress, but many of its residents are still unemployed or under-employed, and a large number of households are struggling to service high levels of mortgage debt on homes that are now worth a fraction of the prices owners paid during the boom, says Michael Grogan, president of the Meath area branch of St Vincent de Paul, Ireland’s largest private charity.

    “The core problem is now unemployment and high mortgage debt. The way I would characterize it is that some of the (formerly) most prosperous housing estates are the areas we are sending the most help into now,” said Mr. Grogan.

    Bear in mind that neither Regina Doherty or Ms McEntee have strength the south of the constituency they are going to be fighting for significantly less than the maximum vote next time out.

    Labour are fecked, not just because of the bad result here (as noted above this is a well established part of the deal as the govt mudguard), but because relations inside the party aren’t great with one minister already as good as blaming staff…

    Where does this leave SF? I’d go with CJ’s view that this has never been a happy hunting ground for SF, but it was for Labour when disaffection was running high in Feb 11. Allowing for pretty severely bad weather, I’d agree with Gerry Adams view that Labour stayed at home.

    They were certainly not swinging out the doors to give his party a boost. If that 33% rating of a party some seem genuinely to think they were on course to replace does not send alarm bells ringing in Connelly House, they ought to be.

    That’s a twenty point gap in a demographic area that has been feeling everything the party has been trying to narrate worst. That is pretty ordinary result, notwithstanding the fact the party spent a pretty fortune on posters and bussing activists in from all over the island.

    FF will look to soak Labour for what they can get over the next six to eighteen months. Then, and only then, they will start coming after SF. At which point the party’s candidate selection may come under a severe test.

    HQ’s policy of parachuting in young, ingenue candidates over the heads of local activists may prove a weakness in defence against a party that has long practiced a game in which at the extreme end, locality is king.

  • Zig70

    The truth is Micheal Martin has done nothing special. The electorate has simply returned to home because the government are no different culturally. Bit duller but essentially little change in ethics or culture. That is the other side of the coin of the disinterested rump that think all politicians are the same. Meath is characterised by political dynasty and hard canvassing on the ground. FG weren’t taking the win for granted. I’d be cautious reading anything into percentages.

  • Kensei

    What crack was anyone smoking that SF would outpoll FF at the next election? 4-5 years is an absolute eternity in politics, and FF have a pedigree, machine and a lot of residual support. SF are blown ins with a lot of baggage. It is extremely rare for political parties to take an unrecoverable knock. I think of only the Liberals in the early 20th Century, Canadian conservatives (who subsequently merged and are now the government) and the UUP. Even the UUP arguably took 3-4 election cycles to get into that position.

    At the time of the last election, commentators where saying how SF were often positioned close to the last seat, so were a threat to SF. I simply thought that they occupied many of the last seats, and were therefore extremely vulnerable. SF have hit the low end of expectations in the South for ten years no and I see no signs of changing. Even the last election was towards the lower end of possibilities. Yes, the polls have had them ahead of FF for a stretch, but that was several years out from an election in the middle of the depths of an economic crisis: meaningless.

    Furthermore, they don’t even run candidates everywhere, and there are a lot of places with no history of voting for them at all. Their medium term challenge is to stabilise around what they have, soften transfer repellence and gradually pick up councilors and activists that will provide foundations for further growth. That leaves them where they want to be; a player when it comes to forming governments in normal times, and in a much better position when Gerry shuffles off than it looked like they would be in 2008.

    Not to say they don’t have challenges, or that there isn’t some way they could play things that would put them ahead of the curve or they don’t need to provide an alternative economic policy rather than saying no a lot. But it’s bloody hard and I find the idea they were ever going to overhaul FF fanciful.

    Surprised FF have got off so lightly so quickly, I’d have expected a Conservatives in 1997 styles effect. The difference may be the incoming government had nothing like the level of optimism or goodwill. I’m not sure how this will translate in the general, though – people might vote differently if they have a prospect of becoming the government, plus it’s hard to say if the turnout if a factor.

  • Mick Fealty

    Picked this up… not a SF view, but closely mirrors some of the views expounded just after the last election…

  • Zig70

    Odd vid, reminds me of when my da goes off on one. Essentially the same people still voted FF as in 2011, the difference is the turnout. Bit of a desperate attempt to plot another point on the graph.

  • SDLP supporter

    Who is this guy? I’d guess he’s some sort of academic lecturing in political science, sociology and such like.

    He seems the Irish equivalent of Private Eye’s Dave Spart or a somewhat manic pub bore that you’d try to edge away from after five minutes.

    Interesting that none of his ‘predictions’ have been borne out in the intervening two years, for example default, which he promised would happen “very soon”. I suspect that he fits into no party political matrix, for the moment you asked him to put out some leaflets and wear out a bit of shoe leather, you might well find that he’s disappear.

    The most perceptive comment I saw about the Meath East FF vote was that the people just want recovery, not a revolution.

  • Kensei

    I get what people were saying, but it always seemed fanciful. Someone needs to be able to knock down FF any time they pipe up for that to work; independents can’t provide that sort of coherent leadership by their nature, and SF have been relentlessly tarred as economic know nothings for ten years. In one sense, yes, there is a fair bit of truth, but in another this is utterly insane when you think about it. Shamefully, any traction they did get could be batted off with “Jean McConville”.

    For me the die was cast on that score the second Labour decided to go into government. You’d have to wonder at the sense, in retrospect. I can see why the LDs went into government in the UK, but Labour have got a mountain of pain for what?

    I’ll give Martin this. People assume the moment of greatest peril has arrived with the absolute drubbing. That is not the case. It is immediately after the drubbing when you are in the most danger. Inept leadership could have properly imperiled FF. He certainly managed to avoid that and provided a steady hand. Though he was probably aided by the scale of the carnage and the depth of FF’s history.

  • mollymooly

    “every government for the last 40 years has been a coalition”

    No, FF had single-party governments in 1977-81, 1982, and 1987-9. (To be fair, the latter two were minority governments. But Tony Gregory’s support in 1982 didn’t wipe him out.)

  • Scáth Shéamais

    The last time the party [FG] defended a seat at a by-election and lost was 1968.

    Actually I think it was December 1970.

  • Greenflag

    @ SDLP supporter,

    ‘The most perceptive comment I saw about the Meath East FF vote was that the people just want recovery, not a revolution.’

    Indeed -for now that is- Give it another decade of increasing income inequality and never ending austerity along with the inability of our elected politicians not least in Ireland /Northern Ireland /UK /USA to reverse the current inability of the ‘market system ‘ to create employment at livable wage rates that people will work for -and you may see in the absence of recovery -revolution .

    When the richest country on Earth has 50 million people on food stamps and 1% have 50% of all the wealth and virtually zero job growth for the past decade and yet increasing productivity which has exacerbated income differentials then what hope for smaller market economies like Ireland /Northern Ireland or indeed the UK ?

  • SDLP supporter

    Green flag, I concur with the thrust of your remarks. Somehow, though, we have to become a wealth-generating society. Representative democracy, if it is doing its job, should ensure that income inequalities never tend towards the extreme. I don’t, however, feel that there is a substantial class of really wealthy people, either North or South, that would make a wealth tax yield large enough to make a substantive difference.

  • Greenflag

    SDLP supporter ,

    ‘we have to become a wealth-generating society. ‘

    No question about the goal -It’s the how and the methodology/policies . Much depends on how one views human nature .Vast amounts of ‘wealth ‘ have been created in recent years in the financial sector and vast amounts lost . Mostly as a result of technology, robotics , some exotic financial instruments and ‘algorithms ‘ which took the risk out of ‘risk taking ‘ Governments everywhere in the West since the 1980’s and particularly since the 1990’s then added to the wealth creation pyre by relieving the banks of ‘responsibility ‘ for their ‘gambling ‘losses and then added further fuel to the already burning pyre by throwing the ‘taxpayers ‘ of western societies onto said pyres so that the banksters could continue to generate ‘wealth ‘ . Hasn’t worked . Not only that but the banksters have’nt yet learned they can’t return to the good old days when robo signing of CDO mortgages was fine and the never ending commissions bonuses were building up.

    In famine era Ireland people had to be ‘destitute ‘ before they could be given any aid . To become ‘destitute ‘ people had to give up their only at that time wealth producing asset i.e their acre or half acre of land and food supply.

    ‘Representative democracy, if it is doing its job, ‘

    That’s just it -It isn’t and thats not just in Ireland or the UK or the USA but is also true for Germany and France etc .That has been the de facto economic situation for the past 15 years or so even if we in the Republic were cloistered by our Celtic Tiger economic boom which was indeed an economic boom until our ‘wealth ‘creators got hooked on property .

    Trickle down economics probably worked in the 1980’s but since the advent of globalisation , and new communications technologies and the ‘internet ‘ and the vast increase in the market there has been and it’s still going on everywhere a squeezing of the ‘middle ‘ and working classes in the West while income disparities continue to rise within states which formerly had less income disparity. Meanwhile in China and India and in the other emerging BRIC countries their ‘middle class ‘ is increasing both in absolute numbers and in income . Even so income disparity is increasing even more in those socieities and their ‘politics’ are not as stable as the older democracies of the west .

    To date I can’t think of any politician -Irish or British who has posited any answers to this growing ‘cul de sac ‘ which is leading us away from what we used to consider ‘democracy ‘

    They don’t have any answers .They are not even asking the questions 🙁

    It will take a combination of several of the larger economies both in the West and in the emerging East and South to come up with answers to the malaise which will inevitably send the world on a path of further economic recession as western consumers no longer have the readies to buy the goods that keeps the economy going and the emerging societies save more of their increased earnings to provide themselves with support in their old age .:(

    Despite huge productivity increases the USA has the same number of jobs it had 15 years ago although the population has increased by 20 million ? Why is the percentage working population the lowest it’s ever been ? 50 million on food stamps ? 25 million unemployed and 14 million on ‘disability ‘ Essentially what is happening in the USA and UK and Ireland /Northern Ireland and elsewhere is that what we call the market economy is no longer creating good paying jobs in sufficient numbers to provide ‘opportunity ‘ for their working populations .
    But within their societies the rich get richer and the middle and the poorer classes get relatively less .That is not a situation which is going to lead to more democracy .In fact it will lead to a new ‘totalitarianism ‘ when the wheels eventually come off and our politicians are standing there gape mouthed and naked without an answer 🙁

  • BrianOTool

    What a load of rubbish

    “Bear in mind that neither Regina Doherty or Ms McEntee have strength the south of the constituency they are going to be fighting for significantly less than the maximum vote next time out.”

    Regina Doherty lives in Ratoath and w

  • BrianOTool

    What a load of rubbish

    “Bear in mind that neither Regina Doherty or Ms McEntee have strength the south of the constituency they are going to be fighting for significantly less than the maximum vote next time out.”

    Regina Doherty lives in Ratoath and was a cllr for the dunshaughlin district

    In fact the area she was allocated for GE2011 was the south where she got 8,677 votes compared to the FF guy who got 2,699 votes.

    In the by-election FG returned a higher % vote in that area, with Dunboyne giving 41% to FG

    Did you just decide to make a statement like that because it suited your argument, or do you have figures to back it up ??

  • @Scáth Shéamais @mollymooly Thanks indeed for the factual corrections, have updated accordingly. Interesting point made about independent support of govts – that doesn’t seem to have the same deleterious effect as when it’s a party. We don’t have to go back to Tony Gregory either: four independent TDs supported the last government, and all retained their seats bar Beverly Flynn, who retired. Compare that to the six Green TDs who also supported the government, who all lost their seats. Hardly seems fair!

    Perhaps independents are better at explaining to constituents what they got out of the deal, which has always been the challenge for minority partners to articulate.