12-step recovery programme offers hope to Fianna Fáil
TIM BALE got a fright when he came to address the Fianna Fáil ardfheis two weeks ago. Bale is one of the UK’s leading political scientists and author of recently published The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron.
He was invited to Dublin by Fianna Fáil’s general secretary Sean Dorgan to talk to the party about lessons it might learn from how the Tories coped with their collapse after Thatcher and how they managed their subsequent recovery and return to power.
Bale thought he was coming to speak at a fringe event and was taken aback to realise he was at the main podium, speaking to the full hall, with the party leader sitting right behind him.
What he had to say was always going to be uncomfortable for Fianna Fáil to hear.
From his study of the Tories, Bale distilled key lessons for any party that had suffered a major defeat. He set them out to Fianna Fáil as a 12-step programme for recovery.
1 Fully grasp the enormity and scale of the defeat. Fianna Fáil has to recognise the extent to which it is despised. No one is listening to you, he told the delegates, no one is interested in what you have to say and no one cares about you. It took the Conservatives many years to appreciate that voters saw them as a nasty party. Fianna Fáil too is still struggling with recognition of how toxic its brand has become.
2 Don’t Underestimate Your Opponents.The Tories thought that Blair was a “lightweight phoney who would mess up early”. Fianna Fáil similarly thought Kenny wouldn’t be up to the job. Many Fianna Fáilers think they can wait for the Government to mess up or break up and the voters will flock back to them. They are deluded.
3 Do Spend Money on Opinion Research (even if it’s money you don’t have). Bale warned ardfheis delegates that Fianna Fáil cannot understand what voters think by talking to each other or by reading newspaper opinion columns. There is nothing, he said, more informative than hearing a focus group of ordinary people saying what they really think of you. Then, of course he warned, Fianna Fáil should listen and act on what they had to say.
4 Don’t waste time defending your record.Fianna Fáil, like the Tories then and the British Labour Party now, think that a lot of what they did in government was defensible, but nobody is interested. Fianna Fáil defending its record in government and arguing that it did some good things simply suggests to voters that the party doesn’t get it.
5 Don’t waste too much time on internal structural reform.Much of this organisational reform stuff, he suggested, was displacement activity, wasting time simply to delay tackling more difficult tasks. The ardfheis spent much of the weekend enacting one member one vote and other organisational rule changes. That’s all well and good, said Bale, but get it done quickly and get on to engagement with the wider electorate.
6 Do all possible, visually and verbally, to signal change.The Tories hadn’t gone as far as changing their name but, when Cameron finally came around, they did change their look, tone and started saying and doing new and surprising things. The most important thing Bale said is to communicate that you are changing.
7 Accept that policy review should be strategic and symbolic rather than substantive.By all means, Bale believes, parties in this predicament should spend time reviewing their policies, not so much because it might help them in office but because it is a means of persuading the commentariat or chattering classes that the party is doing some new thinking. Fianna Fáil should recognise, however, that very little of policy they develop now will end up being implemented if and when they are back in government.
8 Do spend time opposing the government tooth and nail.However, he warned the party to avoid falling into what he called “populist bandwagon negativity”. Fianna Fáil should be keeping the current government under pressure on the bread-and-butter issues but opposition for opposition’s sake delivers no long-term benefit.
9 Don’t be fooled by “success” in second order elections.The Tories convinced themselves they were on the way back when they did well in local, European and byelections, only to suffer defeat when the general election came around. It is a salutary warning to those in Fianna Fáil reading too much into their second placing in the Dublin West byelection.
10 Recognise that the key to comeback is leadership, not membership.Micheál Martin twisted in his chair as Bale elaborated that just as things go wrong from the top, things actually get better from the top as well and how the leader must “embody” change.
11 Realise that comebacks take two or three parliamentary terms.In a point that Martin has reiterated, Bale argued that Fianna Fáil should prioritise strategy over tactics. It should be prepared to do the hard work and do the right thing rather than simply seeking short-term popularity and attention.
12 Remember that parties with venerable traditions rarely disappear.
It was an interesting presentation, a road map to recovery for parties in trouble.
It is potentially of use not only to Fianna Fáil but also the SDLP and even the Ulster Unionist Party, to name but a few.