Fall in Labour support will raise uncomfortable questions about leadership and direction

Last time a low of 6 % was recorded was in 1987

Harry McGee, Political Correspondent for The Irish Times, gives his reaction to the results of the latet Ipsos/MRBI opinion poll.

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 08:46

There is absolutely no doubt about the figure that stands out in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos mrbi opinion poll like a sore thumb.

It is the 6 per cent figure of voter support for the Labour Party and all the bleak conclusions it entails for the party leadership, its parliamentarians and its membership. Support for the party among voters has slumped since it reached a historically high 19 per cent of the popular vote in the general election in 2011. The latest poll finding reflects a downward trend that has been evident since the beginning of 2012.

A fall of three points to 6 per cent brings the party’s support level to worryingly low levels, a distant fourth behind the other three main parties, all of which have the backing of over 20 per cent .

You have to go back more than a political generation to discover similarly abysmal figures for the party in an Irish Times poll. The last time a figure of 6 per cent was recorded was November 1987, some nine months after the Labour Party had left a coalition government with Fine Gael, that had ran almost a full term.

In the general election that year, Labour won some 6.9 per cent of the vote and was considered very lucky to have salvaged 12 Dáil seats, having gone into the election with 16 seats. If the results of this poll were to be repeated in an election, Labour could be looking at its haul of 37 Dáil seats from 2011 plummeting into single figures. The downward trend is particularly evident in Dublin, where the party’s support has fallen to 9 per cent, from 29.3 per cent in the general election. On those figures, it would struggle to retain many of its 18 seats in the capital.


Disproportionate drop
While political parties dismiss opinion polls in public – and there is always a danger of overanalysing a single poll – they themselves are huge adherents of them. It is expected that support for the Government parties would drop in mid-term – especially in the wake of two difficult budgets – but that does not explain the disproportionate drop in Labour support compared to Fine Gael.

The findings will raise fresh questions about Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s leadership and also about the direction, and influence, of the party in government.


European elections
The most immediate concern for the party after this month’s budget will be the local and European elections next year. Unless the figures improve, there is the prospect of a repeat in both elections of the dispiriting performance in the Meath East byelection earlier this year, when the party finished a distant fourth to the other main parties. The repercussion of a similar collapse in support would mean the party would not win a single seat in the EU parliamentary elections and could also see it losing scores of council seats, especially in Dublin.

Labour argued in 2011 that it was going into government in a position of relative strength and its high seat tally would help it avoid the fate of smaller coalition parties. That has patently not been the case so far and while Labour has achieved some notable successes in this Coalition, little of it has been reflected in wider public opinion, with Fine Gael getting a disproportionate share of praise and Labour getting more than its fair share of criticism.

The disappointing figures extend to the satisfaction ratings for Eamon Gilmore as party leader. Only 15 per cent of voters express satisfaction with him, less than half of the support for Taoiseach Enda Kenny.


Dissatisfaction
Even among Labour supporters, there are figures that will raise concerns. Some 44 per cent of Labour supporters in this poll express dissatisfaction with Gilmore’s leadership, compared to 40 per cent who express dissatisfaction. These figures are in marked contrast to the responses of the supporters of other parties to their leaders. Four out of every five Fine Gael supporters are satisfied with Kenny, with 17 per cent dissatisfied. Similarly, Gerry Adams has 77 per cent satisfaction ratings among party supporters, with 16 per cent dissatisfied. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin gets the backing of 70 per cent of his party supporters, with 23 per cent saying they are dissatisfied.

Elsewhere, the trend for Sinn Féin this year has been of resurgence and it is five points to the good compared to the beginning of the year. By contrast, Fianna Fáil has fallen four points from its 26 per cent showing in June. The correlation is not direct. While Sinn Féin may have taken some support from Fianna Fáil, the bulk of support for both parties comes from different social classes and age groups.

The other level of volatility in the Irish political landscape remains very high. The most reliable indicator of this is how Independents and others fare. When the situation is settled, the number of Independents is greatly reduced, as happened in 2007. But these poll findings show that over one in five voters will vote for none of the four main parties. This trend is sharply evident in Dublin, where some 32 per cent (34 when the Greens are included) say they will vote Independent or other. It is also most evident among the most affluent, with some 24 per cent of the top two social classes saying they will vote Independent or other. Elsewhere, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are all within four percentage points of each other in Dublin. Fine Gael attracts most support from the affluent AB1s social class and farmers, with Fianna Fáil drawing larger portions of support from over-65s, and also from Munster.