Labour to take flak for austerity while Fine Gael aims for overall majority
Opinion: It is an iron rule that the smaller party always loses out in a coalition
Eamon Gilmore: even a reshuffle of minister is unlikely to have much beneficial effect for Labour.
There are days when we are reminded that Martyn Turner is one of the best political analysts in the country. Wednesday was one of those days.
His cartoon depicted Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore feeding the Seanad to salivating wolves chasing a chauffeur-driven car called “politics” in which the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were the VIP passengers. The cartoon captured a sense many have had that the Government is seeking to sate public anger and frustration at politics generally, and the Government in particular, by feeding fellow politicians in the Seanad to the unhappy voters.
Turner puts Kenny and Gilmore together in the car happily involved in this joint enterprise. The reality, however, may be more nuanced.
The Labour Party has been only half-hearted in its Seanad abolition campaign. Many of its members have ignored the Yes effort from party headquarters or simply gone through the motions, while some Labour parliamentarians have campaigned openly with those of us on the No side. Seanad abolition has been almost exclusively a Fine Gael project, with support, once it went to referendum, from Sinn Féin.
The other reality is that the Labour Party is already at risk of being thrown to the same wolves. The referendum, and the nature of the Fine Gael campaign, plays to a grand Fine Gael strategy to secure the elusive second consecutive term with or without Labour.
Risks for Labour
If, as seems likely at the time of writing, Fine Gael succeeds in the referendum to abolish the Seanad then many Labour TDs may find themselves next in line to suffer the same fate as the ravaged Senators.
The risks for Labour were emphasised by the findings of this week’s Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll. The party’s support is now measured at just 6 per cent, less than a third of what it achieved in the 2011 general election and its lowest poll figure for more than 25 years.
This is just one opinion poll; Labour is actually a few points higher in other recent polls by Red C and Behaviour and Attitudes. However, it points to a substantial risk that Labour could be decimated at the next general election, squeezed between a dominant Fine Gael, mildly resurgent Fianna Fáil and a growing Sinn Féin. As the political geographer Adrian Kavanagh pointed out this week, if Labour support at the next election were to fall below 10 per cent then only Willie Penrose in Longford-Westmeath, Seán Sherlock in Cork East and perhaps Joan Burton in Dublin West could be viewed as having safe seats.
It is just six months since the Labour Party took a serious wobble in the wake of the Meath byelection when it polled 4.5 per cent, compared to the 21 per cent it achieved there in the 2011 general election.
This week senior Labour figures, while acknowledging that 6 per cent is worrying, emphasise that the Government is at the halfway point and things will improve once the electorate sees economic improvement. Brendan Howlin’s words to Áine Lawlor on Tuesday’s News at One was typical of the official Labour response. “People are not going to reward those who destroyed our economy and punish those working . . . to fix the problems,” he said.
He expressed confidence that “the fairness, the objectivity of the Irish people” will reward Labour for its efforts “at the end of the day”.
This may be wishful thinking on the part of Howlin and other Labour Ministers. Even assuming an appreciable recovery comes before the probable election date in early 2016 it seems more likely that any electoral benefit will accrue to Fine Gael than to Labour. The traditional pattern of the smaller party suffering in coalition has been multiplied by the political volatility arising from the economic crisis. It has also been exacerbated by the sense that Labour overpromised in the panicky last weeks of the 2011 election campaign. Labour is just a third of the Government, but is already taking most of the flak.
It will struggle to find some political wins for itself in this month’s budget. A move by Eamon Gilmore from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade might have been seen as a natural switch at the end of the European presidency in July. However, even if Labour Ministers are reshuffled in the coming months, it is unlikely to make much difference to the party’s fortunes. It is very difficult to see how the party can easily turn things around, especially if the electorate is minded to obliterate at least one party in every general election.
The Seanad referendum campaign and the poll results coming together now create further complications. In addition to the former Labour TDs outside the parliamentary party, Gilmore also has to contend with rogue Senators and increasingly jittery backbenchers. Things may come to a head after next May’s local and European elections. The party is certain to lose seats in both. If the next round of polls shows no improvement things may come to a head before then.
Meanwhile Fine Gael carries on, having lost relatively less support since the last election and with some confidence that single-party government or other coalition options, if required, may open up for it at the next election.