Fine Gael’s #GE16 pre-campaign campaign does not augur well for the real thing…

Whether polling day is on Feb 26th or March 4th, it is clear that we are only two or three weeks away from the start of the great 2016 corriboard shortage… sorry, the 2016 general election.

Over the coming two weekends we will have the Fianna Fáil and then the Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, followed by Labour at the end of January – presuming that Enda hasn’t already called the election and pulled the plug on Labour’s big day out.

While the corriboard campaign posters remain in their wrappings and the Vote for me leaflets stand ready, the electioneering has already as good as started.

One the most interesting aspects of Fine Gael’s pre-campaign campaigning so far is just how much time and energy a party determined to dismiss Fianna Fáil as irrelevant is devoting to attacking them. See Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s comment on the Taoiseach’s Wednesday afternoon press conference:

Could it be that Fine Gael’s own private polling is telling them something the national newspapers polls are missing?

It occurred to me recently that Enda has spent the last few years doing a very bad Bertie Ahern impression – making Enda the Bobby Davro of Irish politics you might say. Enda gets the minor gestures and mannerisms right – but he misses the core of the character.

Enda may be as accomplished and expert a glad handler as Bertie when it comes to wading into a crowd and shaking the hand and slapping the of everyone around him, but he his mimicry is one dimensional.

He does not possess Bertie’s skill and ability to command the facts and figures when engaging with the media on door step interviews.

While Enda still possesses many skills and abilities, not least his steely determination and ruthless streak, he is not politically hard wired to endure or sustain a long election campaign – especially if he hopes to keep his media interactions down to a few tightly managed ones.

In this context Fine Gael’s attempts to transpose the most recent Tory election campaign strategy to Ireland seriously risking backfiring on them and only highlighting the weaknesses they hoped to obscure.

It is a mistake on two fronts. First as they seem to be copying the Tory playbook here with minimal changes and adaptions.

Do they so see themselves as Ireland’s Tories that they cannot be bothered to make even the most basic of changes to the strategy, the text and the slogans? A series of recent Fine Gael social media posts have used the Tory line: “long-term economic plan” word for word:

While the Tories undoubtedly mounted a superb social media campaign in the 2015 UK general election and used the platforms, particularly Facebook, more effectively than most of their rivals (apart from the SNP who are the master campaigners both online and on the ground) that does not mean you take their campaign slogans and approaches lock stock and barrel.

Second, in taking the Tory campaign playbook en masse Fine Gael seems to have forgetten that we have a PR STV system, not First-Past-The-Post – indeed Fine Gael used to pride itself as being the defender of PR STV (they had opposed the two attempts to change the voting system by referendum in the 50s and 60s).

What works in a FPTP system does not necessarily work in a PR-STV one. Depending on where you live in a FPTP system you can find yourself voting for someone you don’t like rather than the one you do like most just so you can make sure the one you dislike more is kept out.

The idea that a vote for Fianna Fáil or Independent alliance is a vote for Sinn Féin is not so easy to sell in an STV system where the voter can vote the entire panel right down the line and omit the local SF candidate.

That said is easy to see the attractiveness of the Tory playbook for Fine Gael. The Tories succeeded in keeping their leader out of head to head debates, Fine Gael want and need to do the same – though for different reasons.

While Cameron was wary of elevating Milliband by sharing a head to head debate platform with him – there were no questions about the PM’s capacity to perform well in a head to head debate.

The other attraction was the Tories successful cannibalisation of their Lib Dems coalition partners. Cameron’s gains came mostly from Lib Dem losses (The Tories took 27 of the 49 Lib Dem seats lost as opposed to 12 lost to Labour and 10 to the SNP) – an option that Fine Gael is eyeing up here, using Labour losses to shore up their own numbers. Fine Gael are ready to fight this campaign to the last Labour TD.

Though Fine Gael’s polling numbers have recovered recently – at precisely the time they needed them to recover – they are still on course to lose seats, even if they do get 31/32% in the polls.

While these improving numbers are no mere coincidence and are a tribute to Fine Gael’s political strategists, the idea that seems to be floating about the commentariat that Fine Gael is now some invincible campaigning machine is more than a little bit short of the mark.

Fine Gael is having a few problems of its own right now, and they are problems entirely of its own making.

Though they will doubtless address the issue between now and the Árd Fheis (and possibly drum up future local difficulties in the process) Fine Gael was still short of the 30% gender quota up to a few days ago – a system they introduced and championed.

Not only that but its head-quarters operation has just ended an unseemly, costly and ultimately unsuccessful fight in the Courts with one of their own candidates: John Perry TD.

And before I am accused me of dragging up these problems like a Fianna Fáil-er whistling past the graveyard, I do not think this is a zero sum game. I do not presume that any loss of ground by Fine Gael over the campaign will automatically translate into a Fianna Fáil gain.

Fianna Fáil will have to make its own ground in this one and will need to land some hefty punches on Enda, Leo, Michael and Simon. It cannot depend on Enda and Fine Gael to just lose it.

  • mickfealty

    It is pretty full on… But they’ve just launched what could be a fairly effective poster campaign to try to re-create that 2011 vibe….

  • Thanks Tank

    Much of the electorate views FF’ers as either being corrupt or incompetent.

    All the blueshirts have to do is point to the numerous disasters and calamities and outrageous things the party was involved in.

    If they wanted to they could destroy Micheal Martin just by going over his record in the years proceeding 2011.

  • Thanks Tank

    It is full on but it will strike a chord.

    We’ll remember estates like that till we die, we’ll remember the reason why so many people between the ages of 25-35 have disappeared abroad.

    Don’t underestimate the depth of hatred that still exists for FF, especially among those who once voted for them. They are often the ones who hate them the most.

  • John Collins

    What if people start pointing to FGs failure to provide effective opposition to FF when they were engaging in their disastrous management of the country’s affairs? Remember Noonan’s most iconic quote from that period when he asked Brian Cowen ‘Miniister did a third child ‘bate’ you up coming from school’. This was his silly response to a quite sensible attempt by Cowen to draw attention to some of the the anomalies in the conditions for entitlement to Childrens Allowance in the ROI.

  • mickfealty

    It has that ‘walking on FF’s grave’ effect when you look at it first. But STV PR is a complex system. Hugh Linihan makes the point in the IT this morning that negative campaigning is barely a feature of Irish electoral politics because to make serious headway you need lower transfers from your opponents base.

    It may also make you vulnerable to counterpunching on issues if the message is not completely nailed down on your own side: a point well made by Alan Kinsella in Linihans piece. I’d add too that the past often fades a lot quicker than perhaps it should.

  • tmitch57

    “But STV PR is a complex system.”

    Actually it is normally known as PR-STV because it is a type of proportional representation (PR). Probably its most complex feature is that in the Republic multimember constituencies don’t have a uniform number of seats in each constituency as they do in NI. This presumably makes results in terms of seats more difficult to predict from one constituency to the next than in the North.

  • mickfealty

    I stand admonished but corrected! I’d add that the Republic has the addition of history and the benefits of a more open set of politics.

    NI tends (at this stage of development) to operate like a closed feedback loop (similar to a thermostat in a central heating system) constantly returning matters to the status quo ante, whilst the Republic’s is operating in open feedback mode so that each election is a progression into positions that have never quite been experienced before.

    Exhilarating, yes. But it comes with a sense that at any moment everything could be tipped into chaos!

    Some of the tensions it gives rise to are political (rise of Sinn Fein, the alphabet left) whilst others are structural: the army of independents largely betoken an serious alienation of the parish from the Dail (and Dublin in general).

    Underestimating this disorder, chaos and/or state of political randomness may be Kenny’s weakness (or indeed anyone who seeks to lead in conditions where the public voice is fragmented to an unprecedented degree).

    Irish democracy is now, more than ever it has been, being propelled through time via a deeply irrational improbability drive. Making things simpler than they actually are may have the opposite effect from the one intended.

  • Croiteir

    They should go for FF. They are still weak. I feel that FF are looking at the locals to estimate their potential for the Dail yet forgetting the Euros which are more relevant. FF is in for a shock. They still think they are the “natural” party of govt. But they are not anymore. They will not beat FG, nobody jumps of a winning horse and the economy is moving along nicely. MM will be the first Uachtarain FF not to be Taioseach. The best they can hope for is to beat SF and if they do not beat SF they will end up like the SDLP. FF cannot even manage its candidate selection and the news of MM taking money to beef up his salary from the public purse will hurt, sort of takes the shine of the AF day. I believe that FG should try to knock out FF at this election if possible, I know it sounds all wrong but it will be in FGs long term interests to see SF as the 2nd placed horse in the race.

  • mickfealty

    It doesn’t sound all wrong at all. It sounds like the perfect description of FG strategy, moreover its exactly what they need to do to win power, and therefore EXACTLY what they should do!

    FF turned up for the European election with a poor campaign and some really poor candidate selections and they got hammered for it. They *have* to pin their hopes on the local patterns and that this time they have something to campaign with.

    I’ll reserve judgement on Martin till afterwards, but the climate has changed. Stay at home FG voters last year won’t be staying at home this year especially in Dublin and FF HAVE to get some of their people home there just to make the future of the party safe.

    Also, I don’t think SF actually have to overtake them for it to be an unqualified disaster for FF. The relative bars for each party are high and low. as Derek says Martin NEEDS a good campaign this time round.

  • Derek Mooney

    There is a percentage of the electorate who have always thought that, but at the 2011 election that percentage increased dramatically and determined to throw FF out. That feeling and percentage had receded significantly since – and so, at various points over the last five years – notably during in 2012 – opinion polls have had FF at 25% and within 2/3 pts of FG – that is the territory in which this campaign will be fought.

    All the charges and claims yoh assert have been made against FF over the past 5, 10 or 20 (and more) years. Doubtedlessly FG will try to campaign along the lines you describe again and will try to just re-run the 2011 elevtion, but its hard to accuse the guys across the floor of something of which your own guys are guilty.

  • Greenflag 2

    NI as closed feedback loop and ROI as open feedback loop .
    Brilliant and concise and the truth 😉

  • mickfealty

    I do think about stuff you know, even when I’m not giving out on Slugger O’Toole… 😉

  • Greenflag 2

    Good to hear 😉

  • Reader

    Back in my day feedback was either negative or positive, not open or closed. When did the science change?

  • Greenflag 2

    When the term ‘fudge ‘ became recognised as a tool of political spin -thus you can have a closed or open negative and even a closed or open positive . An open negative in basic political English is the equivalent of NOT YET as opposed to just NO and an open Positive is like YES perhaps but maybe not ? I’m afraid scientific mathematical terminology does’nt cut it in the grey areas of political discourse where black and white or orange and green are somewhat complicated by various indeterminate hues .

    The scientific ‘method ‘ doesn’t change even if discovered new facts are proven and old ‘facts ‘ are seen to be short of the truth . Politics is different which is why Churchill once remarked that ‘Scientists should be on tap but not on top ‘ . Mind you for a physicist Angel Merkel is doing pretty well as a politician and then Maggie Thatcher was a chemistry graduate .

    Fudge has been an essential tool in the hands of Governments . It papers over defects and deflects noisy confrontation when used skilfully. Its sticky so politicians have to be careful they don’t get too much fudge on their resumes or reputations but in small doses like arsenic it can be a tonic to a successful political career .