Government parties feel the pain

Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Fine Gael down three points while Labour Party registers sharper fall of six points

THE LATEST Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows a drop in support for both Fine Gael and Labour. For the first time since the general election in February 2011, the Government has the backing of less than a majority of the electorate.

Fine Gael have lost three points (down to 33 per cent ), with Labour registering a sharper fall of six points (down to 13 per cent).

The other party to lose ground, albeit marginally, in today’s poll is Fianna Fáil, down one point to 14 per cent support.

Notable and significant gains are recorded for Sinn Féin (up six points to 21 per cent) and Independents/Others (up three points to 17 per cent). The Green Party is on 2 per cent, up one point since our October 2011 poll.

This latest poll was conducted in-home among 1,000 eligible voters aged 18 years and upwards, across 100 sampling points covering every constituency in the country.

The poll was conducted on Monday and Tuesday of this week, just over two weeks since the deadline for payment of the new household charge had passed. While the fallout from a lower than expected level of registration was still reverberating through the media, at the time of interviewing water metering had become the new battleground.

While the headlines change every day, the thread that links every story is austerity. It is ever-present in the media and in our lives. And it is the most relevant policy issue in Irish politics at this moment in time.

For the supporters of austerity as the path to salvation, Fine Gael is the obvious party of choice, and while it has lost some ground in today’s poll, the party outperforms the other two broadly pro-austerity parties (Fianna Fáil and Labour) by some considerable distance.

Fine Gael, you could say, owns austerity and this makes the party near bullet-proof among pro-austerity voters. For example, the party’s greatest gain in recent years, not surprisingly, has been among the middle classes.

Even the septic tank rebellion has had no effect on Fine Gael support among the farming community (where Fine Gael mops up 68 per cent of the vote), because farmers like Europe, Europe likes austerity, Fine Gael also likes austerity, so farmers vote Fine Gael.

The austerity debate is also extremely relevant to Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, who are struggling to establish a point of view on austerity that is compelling, different from the current Government view and yet appears consistent with the decisions they made when they were in government.

On the austerity spectrum, Labour is arguably falling between two stools, neither on the left nor the right of this new dominant continuum. As a result, Labour’s vote has been squeezed and is now at a level last seen when Fianna Fáil was riding high in the polls.

Firmly positioned on the opposite side of the austerity equation are Sinn Féin and Independents/Others, including the United Left Alliance, who reject austerity as a solution to our economic problems. Many voters have taken a similar view.

The left has seen huge gains in recent years as the impact of spending cuts and higher taxes has been felt on working, low-to middle-income families.

In today’s poll, Sinn Féin is the number two party in Ireland, and is the most popular party among working-class voters, with 28 per cent support, compared to just 22 per cent for Fine Gael. Labour attract just 14 per cent of votes among working-class Ireland, behind Independents/Others who enjoy 18 per cent support.

So long as austerity is the critical conceptual dimension along which political parties are positioned by voters, the current pattern of voting preference should remain intact. But will the austerity consensus among the middle classes hold?

There are questions being raised now about the probability of austerity being effective, based on the outcomes of previous austerity programmes elsewhere and the evidence emerging from the European austerity programme countries.

The European Stability Treaty Referendum campaign will bring the effectiveness of austerity into even sharper focus. If attitudes towards austerity shift, this may represent the first real threat to Fine Gael since entering Government, and present Labour, Fianna Fáil and the Greens with an opportunity to establish and own new points of policy difference.

Further evidence that confidence in the Government’s austerity strategy could be weakening may be found in the Government’s very low satisfaction score of 23 per cent, 14 points behind their October 2011 rating. If you exclude Fine Gael supporters from the data, just 12 per cent of voters are satisfied with the Government’s performance. (Interestingly, just 22 per cent of the current Labour base are satisfied with the Government). These are very low numbers indeed, historically low if you exclude the 2008-2011 period.

In line with a drop in party support for the two parties of Government, satisfaction scores for the Government party leaders have also fallen.

Enda Kenny remains the most popular party leader (on 42 per cent) but has dropped 10 points since last October despite a very energetic and industrious few months.

Considering that satisfaction with the Government (down 14 points to 23 per cent) and satisfaction with the Labour leader Eamon Gilmore (down 14 points to 27 per cent ) have fallen more precipitously, Kenny’s decline may have been sharper had he not been as active and visible recently.

Gerry Adams is now the second most popular leader, with 29 per cent satisfaction (down three points), consistent with his leadership of the second most popular party in the country.

Satisfaction with Micheál Martin’s performance has dipped (down 5 points to 24 per cent), while Eamon Ryan draws a satisfaction score of 13 per cent , up two points since our last poll.

Looking at today’s poll findings more holistically, it seems that the recent household charge adventure has opened a new chapter in our relationship with austerity. The reluctance of households to register was a quiet protest, but a protest nonetheless.

For the first time we were asked if we wanted austerity instead of being told we needed it. What will shape our politics in the near future is the extent to which the introduction of a household charge has encouraged voters to “buy in” to austerity or has whetted their appetite to resist.