Little strategic thinking in election manifestos of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil

Documents are random ideas designed to please maximum number of voters

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and  candidates at the launch of the party’s  general election manifesto at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and candidates at the launch of the party’s general election manifesto at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

It was the call that all columnists dread: my editor asked me for an analysis of the election manifestos published last Friday by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

That meant I would have to read them. Political manifestos are not written in the expectation that anybody is actually going to pay much attention beyond the executive summary. So it was a considerable surprise to find that it turned out to be a valuable exercise. I learned a lot.

I now know that Ireland has more men’s sheds per capita than any other country in the world, and the movement will attract support from a future government.

I used to think that minimum unit pricing for alcohol had been enacted: it is still an objective.

Fianna Fáil promises to enact a European Fiscal Union: I wonder if they have told Angela Merkel?

Both manifestos contain dozens of proposals, many of which we know will never be enacted

The two manifestos look very different – Fine Gael’s is slicker, with higher production values, lots of photos and more text. Fianna Fáil’s manifesto reads like a document that was rushed: it has a sparse, basic feel that has, at least as far as I can see, never been near a professional PR or communications consultancy. And someone forgot to run it through a spell checker.

Does the look of a document matter? I think it does: it reveals something about the personality of the underlying authors, the culture of the organisation that is trying to deliver a message.

Perhaps the message is more important than the medium. But how your message is presented says something about how much you value you audience, how hard you have worked to establish a clear set of ideas. Indeed, how clear those ideas are in your own mind.

Having good ideas is clearly of paramount importance, but being able to effectively communicate your policy platform is also critical. A poorly-presented manifesto might tell us something useful about the people who didn’t put much effort into it.

Puzzling

Fianna Fáil’s document has five main sections with between four and seven sub-headings. Fine Gael’s is organised differently, with 26 main sections. Some of the placing of Fianna Fáil’s policy proposals are puzzling: why are (unconvincing) ideas for SME’s contained within the section that deals with “quality of life for every family”?

The few words on the OECD’s proposed corporation tax changes – a hugely important issue for Ireland – are also mystifyingly contained in the same section. We are told, again in that “quality of life” section, that “[we will] allow the 250,000 indigenous businesses located in every village, town and city nationwide every opportunity to prosper”.

I could be being pedantic here, but this is, at best, very clumsily worded. Any party that plans to write and enact legislation needs to display attention to detail and demonstrate an ability to use words with precision and clarity.

Policies that will affect very small numbers of people often receive the same amount of attention as the big ideas

Fine Gael’s big tax proposal is the mooted increase in the standard rate cut-off point to €50,000. Its manifesto states: “The average full-time wage in Ireland is €47,596.However, people start paying the top-rate of tax at €35,300. This is deeply unfair.”

This has the virtue of a seemingly reasonable statement, but I’m not sure how well it will resonate with the current mood of the electorate. It is also vulnerable to the observation that average earnings are quite a bit higher than median earnings, a statistically geeky point but nevertheless an important one.

Their proposal will help less people than Fine Gael seems to think. Anyone on €50,000 or more a year will benefit, according to my calculations, by €2,940. Not to be sneezed at, certainly, but I wonder how many voters will think it the best use of budgetary resources. Should it be the big idea?

That tax change will cost close to €500 million a year. Extra health funding will cost up to €700 million a year. Arithmetically, at least, these two ideas reveal where the party’s budgetary priorities lie. Possibly their overall priorities.

Proposals

Both manifestos contain dozens of proposals, many of which we know will never be enacted. Fine Gael, for example, has one year left to honour its 2016 manifesto commitment to abolish the Universal Social Charge by 2021.

Neither party leaves us with a much of a sense of what they will prioritise, what they consider to be the most important of their myriad objectives. Fine Gael at least provides a summary set of tables listing its main ideas and how much they will cost, both individually and collectively. I couldn’t find a similar summary in Fianna Fáil’s document.

Both parties have fine words on health, education and housing but little genuine radical new thinking. And, frankly, not much money. Indeed, radicalism and money are, as usual, mostly missing throughout the manifestos.

Perhaps that’s inevitable at a time when things appear to be going so well, relatively speaking at least. While the problems are obvious the solutions are not, at least in the minds of the main political parties.

These manifestos are a grab-bag of policy proposals, a set of random ideas designed to please the maximum number of people. Policies that will affect very small numbers of people often receive the same amount of attention as the big ideas.

Coherence and overall strategy are hard to spot. “Vote for us and we will give you something” is at least one clear message, but one that few of us believe. They look very different but I would be hard pushed to say there is clear strategic difference.

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