‘Centrist’ voters who deserted Fianna Fáil have still not settled on a new home
Opinion: If there is room for a new party it is likely to be on the right of the spectrum
With speculation (at least in some media organisations) going into overdrive on the questions of whether, when and how a new political party might emerge, it is instructive to examine the position of Irish voters on this question.
A good place to look perhaps is the last election, when the conditions for the emergence of a new party could scarcely have been better. The 2011 Irish National Election Study (INES) probed a representative sample of voters for their views on politics, political and economic reform and the state of the parties.
There is no doubt that voters were extremely dissatisfied with the existing parties at that time: large swathes of them deserted Fianna Fáil, while Independent candidates fared better than at any time since the early 1950s. This seemed the perfect seedbed for a new political party to form.
The consistent view is that if a new party is to emerge it is most likely to come from the right of the political spectrum, and for good reason.
As the 2011 INES shows (consistently with earlier surveys), Irish voters locate themselves on average on the right of the left-right spectrum.
In the light of the economic meltdown and the sense of political crisis that characterised the 2011 election, if there had been scope for a new party to emerge then we should expect to find right-of-centre voters having little confidence in politicians and their honesty and capability. The same would apply when it comes to attitudes towards institutions, especially the Dáil and the established political parties. The rationale here is that a weakening of confidence in existing parties and institutions will be a precursor for realignment, and we should be especially on the lookout for evidence of this among right-of-centre voters.
However, what the INES data reveal on the contrary is that voters on the right of the left/right spectrum have greater confidence in and higher levels of regard for Ireland’s political institutions and its political leaders than do others and they are less likely to support political reform. In fact, the voters who seem most dissatisfied with their institutions and the political establishment and most supportive of reform are the ones who place themselves in the centre in Irish party politics.
The patterns are pretty consistent: it is voters in the centre rather than those on the right who tend to see politicians as less competent, honest and more out of touch than others; the centrist voters are the ones who are especially interested in reform of the system.
If it is the case that it is the centre voters who are disaffected and primed to jump, then which way would they be likely to jump: to support left parties or to support parties further to the right?
On the whole, when it comes to specific policy issues, centrist voters are closer to right-wing voters than left ones and on some issues, such as immigration, they can seem even more right-wing. In short, Irish “centrists” are consistently closer to right-wing views than those of left-wingers on a range of different issues.
How have the centrists vote tended to vote? On the whole they used to vote Fianna Fáil. By recall, 40 per cent of them claim to have voted for Fianna Fáil in 2007 and 21 per cent for Fine Gael. But in 2011 the percentages were reversed: 38 per cent said they voted Fine Gael, 12 per cent Fianna Fáil, 16 per cent Labour and 15 per cent independent.
In 2011 centre-right voters dissatisfied with Fianna Fáil could find a perfectly acceptable substitute in Fine Gael. Except that it is not clear just how much of a substitute Fine Gael is. In policy terms, centrist voters, the ones who seemed to abandon Fianna Fáil in large numbers, have quite radical ideas on social issues, including staunch opposition to immigration.
There is also a strong current of support for political reform and a dislike of existing politicians that suggests that some future Irish political class could emulate their American cousins and run for parliament by running against it.
Overall, however, there does not seem to be much space for a new reshaping of the Irish party system. Independents do not form a coherent force (current spats inside the technical group show this in spadefuls), the right wing (where there might be space for a new party to squeeze Fine Gael as the PDs did of old) is relatively happy with the current political arrangements. The group that is unhappy comprises those voters in the middle who, nevertheless, on a range of policy issues lean rightwards.
The political centre of gravity in Ireland is centre-right, as is the political centre of disgruntlement and dissatisfaction. The centre abandoned Fianna Fáil in 2011, but the difficulty remains that centre voters need to find a place to go. Fine Gael – and some Independents – may have offered a temporary home in 2011, but it is not clear that Fine Gael will be a congenial option over the long run. Which means that the place where there is scope for a new party, or a newly launched party, with an emphasis on probity and competence, could well be a rejuvenated Fianna Fáil.
Back to the future?
David Farrell is a professor of politics at University College Dublin. Shaun Bowler is a professor of politics at the University of California, Riverside. The 2011 INES (directed by Michael Marsh) was a post-election study of 1,853 respondents. Households were selected using a random route method drawn from all 43 constituencies. Interviewees were chosen within households to fit demographic quotas.