One of the most difficult tasks facing any Taoiseach is managing the final days of their Government. It’s a difficult task, even at the best of times, but when you have an imploding health policy, a possible series of public sector strikes, nervous back benchers, not to mention a coalition partner free-falling in the polls, it can get pretty hairy.
While the last couple of opinion polls have brought comfort to Enda Kenny and Fine Gael, showing the party at its strongest levels in over three years, those polling numbers – if repeated at the 2016 election – would still result in:
- Fewer Fine Gael TDs,
- Considerably fewer Labour TDs
- More Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independent TDs
What is very far from clear, however, are the number of losses and gains on either side. How many seats will Fine Gael lose? In all likelihood, it will be nowhere near the number that Labour will lose.
Having an dozen or more anxious Labour TDs individually wondering if they will survive the next election will not make the final days of this Government the happiest or calmest of times for either the Taoiseach or Tánaiste.
Using the last few opinions polls as predictors of the make-up of the next Dáil is probably as accurate and reliable a method as examining the entrails of the Christmas day turkey. You’d be better advising using the giblets for gravy.
While it is possible to use the relative strengths from the polls to make a reasonable guess at how the first two seats in most four and five constituencies will go – calling the final seats is all but impossible, yet it is their allocation which will decide the election… so why is Fine Gael spinning the outcome as a foregone conclusion?
Those third fourth and fifth seats will be determined not only by transfers, but probably by low preference ones: given the number and range of independents and small parties on offer.
Speaking of independents, it is fantastical to presume that independent candidates will somehow transfer to each other and not break across to any of the bigger three and a half parties (FG, FF, SF and The remains of Labor).
Take my own constituency of Dublin Bay South. Having spoken with local activists (of whom I am one) and candidates of almost all hues over the past few weeks; about the only thing they all agree on is that Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy TD will be elected – after that, all bets are off.
Most agree that there are five candidates in contention for the remaining three seats: Renua’s Lucinda Creighton, The Green’s Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan, Labour’s Kevin Humphries and possibly even Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews.
One particular pundit suggested that the constituency will breakdown with two TDs being on the government side in the next Dáil and two on the opposition side, adding that they saw Renua as a contender in the government column, not the opposition one.
What makes the speculation on this individual constituency more interesting is that some of my interlocutors seem to be privy to results of party or candidate polling in the constituency.
Of course, they (or is that I) could be bluffing and the figures they cite may be concocted… sorry, I meant politically adjusted, to suit their preferred outcome, but it does remind us that national newspapers conduct their opinions polls in a way that political party do not.
The main political parties use constituency polling, not broad national polls. They know from experience that individual constituency polls showing the names of the particular local candidates are a better indicator of outcome than broad national polls.
Constituency polls are more likely to pick up on the individual popularity of a particular big beast and – especially in areas outside Dublin – key geographic factors, such as the desire of a district or town to have its own local TD almost whatever their hue.
This is not to suggest that media organisations should be doing constituency polling instead of national polls – it is just to remind ourselves that the people who run campaigns – as opposed to those who comment on them – do things differently.
Neither is this an attempt to gloss over what have been a number of bad polling results for Fianna Fáil. Yes, the shifts have all been within the margin of error, nonetheless those figures suggest the party is just holding ground at a time when it should be gaining it – especially in Dublin.
The latest Irish Times poll shows Fianna Fáil support at a paltry 10% in Dublin, which is surprising as, in 2014, it got 12.6% in the Dublin Euro constituency and over 14% in the Dublin Council elections. The Irish Times poll has Fianna Fáil support at 10% in the capital it also, curiously, has it at 16% among urban voters – who knew Dublin wasn’t really urban?
While recent polls may appear to support the Fine Gael narrative that the election is over before it has begun and that Enda Kenny’s place in the Fine Gael pantheon as the first FG Taoiseach re-elected to serve a second term is secure – but appearances can be deceptive, particularly in politics.
The government has had remarkably high unfavourable ratings throughout its term – even from very soon after it was swept into office. The latest Irish Times poll shows 57% dissatisfied with the Government’s performance as opposed to just 34% satisfied with it and 9% with no opinion.
The dark secret at the core of the Fine Gael narrative that no one in Fine Gael likes to talk about is that it depends on a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the current government’s performance holding their nose and voting Fine Gael or Labour in 2016 – compelled into that choice as a way of keeping others out.
It is a valid campaign strategy – the Tories used it to great effect in the UK. But, while the Lynton Crosby playbook may have helped the Tories to cannibalize their coalition partners and use the prospect of a Labour/SNP government to return itself to office with an “overwhelming minority”, it didn’t help Harper’s Conservatives in Canada.
The Canadian Tories lost out to an unpredicted landslide in favour of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. The Crosby playbook is also a strategy that works better in a simple First Past The Post system.
No matter how much the Fine Gaelers spin and the Labour party denies the existence of reports showing meltdown – the reality is that nothing is decided yet. There is still a lot to play for – for politicians on all sides.