Collapse in support for Government


ANALYSIS:The Budget seems to be the key driver of recent and dramatic shifts in voter preferences, writes DAMIAN LOSCHER

FOUR WEEKS later, and the final aftershocks of Budget 2008 ripple through the media.

Surveying the wreckage, the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll confirms that public confidence in the Government has been decimated.

Satisfaction with Government performance has collapsed, down to just 18 per cent, a massive fall of 28 percentage points.

Incredibly, a majority of Fianna Fáil voters (51 per cent) are dissatisfied with how the Government - their Government - is managing the State.

Party support figures suggest voters are outraged.

Fianna Fáil support has plummeted 15 percentage points to 27 per cent, while the alternative party of government, Fine Gael, has jumped to 34 per cent, a gain of 11 percentage points.

In more than 25 years of Irish Times/TNS mrbi polls, never have shifts of such magnitude been recorded, and never has support for Fianna Fáil fallen so far.

Conducted on Monday and Tuesday of this week, the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll comes in the wake of a Budget that was severely criticised for targeting the elderly, the disabled and the low paid.

Against this background, it may have been expected that pensioners and the working classes would be the most likely to turn away from Fianna Fáil. Except this is not what has happened.

Support for Fianna Fáil among those aged 65 or older declined (by six percentage points), but not nearly as much as it declined among younger voters (by up to 24 percentage points).

It would appear that older voters are either naturally less inclined to switch loyalties, or Fianna Fáil has over the years established a cushion of goodwill among pensioners.

The poll data reveals high earners to be the most disappointed with Fianna Fáil.

The professional classes (ABs) have practically deserted the party, with just 19 per cent of ABs supporting Fianna Fáil in this November poll compared with 56 per cent in June.

While the Budget is not the only significant political event to have occurred in the past five months, it is reasonable to assume that the Budget is the key driver of recent and dramatic shifts in voter preferences.

The seeds of this middle-class disappointment with Fianna Fáil were sown in the days leading up to the 2007 general election, when the Fianna Fáil vote surged.

Floating voters, when faced with a choice between a Fianna Fáil and a Fine Gael-Labour government, put their trust in Fianna Fáil because Fianna Fáil would, they reckoned, put the economy first and take the tough decisions.

By all accounts, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan did not grasp the nettle in the October Budget.

Vested interests were not challenged. Buckshot was used when a bullet was needed.

High earners were particularly sensitive to this failure to take tough decisions.

Rumours of a removal of the PRSI ceiling and a cut in child benefit meant they feared the worst.

On Budget day, the more affluent in our society were disbelieving. They watched the coverage and read the small print, but they couldn't find the grenade.

Instead of being pleasantly surprised, high earners were annoyed because the economic savvy and political steel they had hoped for and voted for in May 2007 was missing.

With 34 per cent support, Fine Gael would be in a very strong position if a general election were called.

The party, which has gained 11 percentage points, appears to have attracted a sizeable chunk of middle-class and disillusioned Fianna Fáil voters. The challenge now for Fine Gael is to consolidate its support by offering to these potentially tentative and demanding new voters a bold plan to revive our economy.

It is likely also that Fine Gael has attracted a number of former Progressive Democrat voters.

The first Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll to measure support for the PDs, conducted in 1986, revealed that the majority of PD recruits were previously affiliated with Fine Gael. If, back then, PD followers were looking for something radical, a more radical Fine Gael could now become their natural home.

Support for Labour is marginally lower in today's poll, down to 14 per cent, a drop of just one percentage point. With the Government parties under so much pressure, Labour will be disappointed to have not yet benefited from shifting voter allegiances. One theory might be that Labour is falling between two stools, with the disadvantaged working classes relying on the Independents and Sinn Féin to fight their corner, while most of the disillusioned middle classes are turning to Fine Gael for answers on the economy.

Looked at from another perspective, Labour could be the real winners in today's poll. If there were a general election tomorrow, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would need Labour to make it across the line. It would simply be a matter of Labour deciding whether to partner with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin is holding steady with 8 per cent support and is well positioned to attract more young working-class voters if, or when, the recession really begins to bite.

The Green Party has suffered some collateral damage from the recent events. Support for the Greens has declined marginally to 4 per cent, a drop of one percentage point. Certainly, its participation in Government is not helping the party win new followers at this time.

As dramatic as the rises and falls in party support in today's poll are, the most revealing statistics are those that relate to leadership, or lack thereof.

While Americans are pinning their hopes on president-elect Barack Obama and the British are leaning on prime minister Gordon Brown, the Irish appear to be left rudderless.

With the exception of the Independents, who have witnessed a huge increase in support (up six percentage points to 13 per cent), this latest poll strongly suggests a leadership void in Irish politics. Satisfaction with Brian Cowen can hardly go any lower (down 21 points to 26 per cent). Satisfaction with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (on 33 per cent) continues to slide. Satisfaction with Green Party leader John Gormley has dived (down 12 points to 28 per cent). And Gerry Adams is at a record low (down 12 points to 33 per cent). Only Labour's Eamon Gilmore's satisfaction rating (on 38 per cent) has increased since June.

In 1987, when the outlook for our economy was similarly gloomy, Ray McSharry delivered a hairshirt budget. He acknowledged the scale of the problem. His budget cuts were deep and the pain was shared between public and private sectors. Despite the harshness of the budget, a majority of voters believed it was good for the country. Leadership was shown, with the result that Fianna Fáil only dropped two poll points. No political damage was done.

With economists predicting that the public finances will deteriorate further, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance will get another, and potentially final, opportunity to prove they have the savvy and the steel to position our economy for success in the future.

• Damian Loscher is managing director of TNS mrbi

• This survey in the Republic of Ireland was conducted exclusively on behalf of The Irish Timesby TNS mrbi, among a national quota sample of 1,000 representative of the 2.82 million electors aged 18 upwards, covering 100 sampling points throughout all constituencies in the Republic. Personal in-home interviewing took place on September 19th and 20th, and the accuracy level is estimated to be approximately plus or minus 3 per cent.

In all respects, the survey was conducted within the guidelines laid down by the Association of Irish Market Research Organisations (AIMRO), and by ESOMAR (European Society). TNS mrbi is a member of both AIMRO and ESOMAR. Extracts from the report may be quoted or published on condition that due acknowledgment is given to The Irish Timesand TNS mrbi.