Jonny’s post about when Enda Kenny might call the election got me thinking about just how the next election might pan out for each of the parties.
The next election is such a hard one to call as the old certainties have gone out the window. Not since 1926 have there been so many unknown variables in the contest that could impact the outcome.
The rise of Sinn Fein as a serious force in Irish politics has thrown everything up in the air. They are the party that get people talking and have sections of the media scratching their heads about how they should deal with this new phenomenon.
Going by the polls, Sinn Fein are a racing certainty to be the third largest party after the next election and if the campaign goes their way could bag over 30 seats.
So, how do they get there?
1. Don’t nuance your message
Sinn Fein’s main target in this election will be the many Labour seats in big urban centres. Coming out of five years in government, Labour’s message will be nuanced as they attempt to explain cuts they have stopped and programmes they have enhanced during their time in coalition.
The problem with all of this for Labour is that their message is a complicated one. Sinn Fein has the luxury of being able to deliver an uncomplicated message to disillusioned working class voters of “cuts or growth” and “establishment politics or change.” This is the uncomplicated and easy message that the party have to hammer home if they want to take Labour out of the game.
As Labour are mired in explaining complex decisions, the Shinner’s can develop easily explainable policies that should resonate with a key demographic that the party need and who feel they have been betrayed by the several parties at this stage.
2. Debating the debates
As the outside party it is tempting to think that the road to salvation lays in the leader’s debates. However, it is important to remember that only once in Irish history have TV debates had a direct impact on the election. The debate I am referring to is the 2007 debate between Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny which helped Fianna Fail pull ahead in the final week. Aside from that they have had little impact, if they did, Kenny would’ve lost in 2011 and Michael Noonan would’ve beaten Ahern in 2002.
TV debates are generally wanted by candidates who are behind and ignored by those who are ahead. One slip up can cost votes and in the past they have not always been Gerry Adams strongest suit. Agree to what you have to, but do not seek more than are required.
3. Leaders matter, but it’s not the entire ball game
Irish elections have always been presidential and the leaders of the parties do matter. Bertie Ahern, Dick Spring, Garret Fitzgerald, Eamon Gilmore and many others were huge reasons for their parties’ success. Adams has now been the leader of Sinn Fein for over 30 years and has led in its campaigns for all of that period. His leadership is a big part of the reason why the party has grown over the past twenty years.
How does the party win over voters that Adams cannot reach or who have not been listening to the party before? Make it about more than him. People often forget behind every successful leader there has always been an able deputy or solid team. The trick for the party is about getting to situation where people say “I may not be sure about Adams, but I really like (enter candidate or front benchers name here).”
This will give breadth and depth to the parliamentary party, who already have some very strong members and if the opportunities are used properly should increase the profile of some of the party’s candidates.
4. Parts of the media will be critical, embrace it.
“The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”, Oscar Wilde. Never was truer word spoke and when it comes to politics it is particularly apt. A general election campaign carries with it a lot of noise and static and it is the parties who can cut through that and stay relevant that typically win.
Less confident leaders crumble under the glare of a media attack, more able ones (Haughey, Ahern, and Kenny) can use a bad media environment to cut through to the voters. They can also use it to portray themselves as an outsider, who is rallying against the Dublin establishment. In the 2007 election, Fianna Fail very skilfully used the negative media coverage that was being directed against Bertie Ahern as a positive for the party. In fact, going back to my previous point, the key people who helped lead the fight back for the party were key ministers like Brian Cowen, Michael Martin and Dermot Ahern. It helps to have visible front benchers.
Irish people have a great sense of fair play and a negative media, can help parties deliver a message of an “agenda” which then leads you onto “why are these people fearing our message?.”
It is one thing to have high ambitions as to the number of seats you can win, but they need to be based on realistic prospects. Essentially there needs to be an adaptation of that old phrase of the economists “accept your realities as they are, not as you want them to be.” Where can the party make gains and where can they build foundations for the future?
If you believe Sinn Fein can sweep Dublin, what is it based on? Never, believe anything unless it is based on some sort of reputable research and never believe your own propaganda. Toss the “great night on the door” slogans in the bin and make an honest assessment of where you can win and where you cannot.
This is by no means the definitive path for the party. Sinn Fein is a complex organisation and there are real pitfalls for them going into this election. However, there are also some real opportunities there for them to make real advances. The next election will be the chance to make the breakthrough, but this will only happen if it’s based on realism, discipline and proof that as a party they can bat very deep.
Time will tell if there are new leaders of the Irish left in town.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs