Fine Gael still most popular party but Fianna Fáil up by 2%


ANALYSIS:Fine Gael will be encouraged by the broad base of support in key demographic subgroups

CONDUCTED ON Monday and Tuesday of this week, the first Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll of 2010 confirms Fine Gael as the most popular political party in the Republic and points to a small recovery in support for Fianna Fáil.

With 32 per cent support (up one point since the September 2009 poll), Fine Gael is eight points clear of Labour on 24 per cent (down one point) and a full 10 points clear of Fianna Fáil on 22 per cent (up two points).

Sinn Féin has drifted back one point to 8 per cent, while the Greens have also lost one point, returning to a now familiar 3 per cent level of support. With 11 per cent of the vote, Independents and Others are unchanged.

Since our last poll in September 2009, the country has been battered and bruised.

We have been flooded, frozen, flattened by the findings of the Murphy report and flogged into submission on the National Asset Management Agency.

Yet during this time, remarkably, the Government achieved a number of successes, including securing a Yes vote to Lisbon and passing one of the toughest budgets in Irish history.

If politics were boxing, we would say the Government won enough rounds in late 2009 to come out on top and today’s poll findings reveal opinion of Government performance has recovered slightly in recent months, up five points to a still lacklustre 19 per cent, but up nonetheless, and the highest level of Government satisfaction recorded since 2008.

Fianna Fáil, the main party of Government, has also registered a gain, albeit a more modest increase of two points. And while two poll points may seem like a poor return for strong economic leadership, it is important to consider the very real possibility that Fianna Fáil’s support peaked in December following the budget and has since retreated as the reality of 2010 – incomes squeezed, industrial unrest, falling house prices – begins to nibble away again at public confidence.

Fine Gael, on 32 per cent, has consolidated its lead in the polls. More encouraging than the one-point gain will be the very broad base of support Fine Gael enjoys across all of the key demographic subgroups.

Fine Gael’s popularity does not drop below 25 per cent among any cohort, the one exception being among the unskilled/ unemployed (DE) social grouping, where Sinn Féin as a fourth player dilutes the vote of all the main parties.

Since the middle of 2008, Fine Gael has outpolled Fianna Fáil and can now comfortably claim to be the party of preference for Irish voters.

But it is far too soon to call an end to Fianna Fáil’s dominance of Irish politics. Indeed, if Fianna Fáil builds on its budget performance and continues to show a willingness to make hard decisions for the greater good, come election time it would not be unreasonable to think that voters will forgive the party the sins of the past for the promise of honest and decisive leadership into the future.

Throughout 2009, Labour consistently attracted support from at least 20 per cent of voters, a trend that has continued into 2010 with Labour showing 24 per cent in today’s poll.

A drop of one point since September will only diminish slightly the satisfaction Labour will draw from outperforming Fianna Fáil for the fourth poll in succession.

If there were an election tomorrow, the challenge for Labour would be, as it was in the May 2009 local elections, to translate this goodwill into votes. Recent converts to Labour, no matter how disillusioned with the current Government, will need to be presented with credible and familiar local labour candidates at election time.

In 2009, Sinn Féin polled as high as 10 per cent in early September when the Lisbon Treaty debate gave the party an unusually high profile. Since then, Sinn Féin has retreated to more familiar territory and shows 8 per cent support in this latest poll.

In four out of our last five polls, the Greens have recorded 3 per cent support, suggesting the party has come to rely upon a core group of loyal Green voters, who recognise the need to compromise in order to have Green policies implemented.

Polling data suggests the Green Party has paid a higher political price among middle-class, Dublin voters.

It is difficult to discuss political poll findings in the current climate without addressing the issue of political leadership.

The composure and commitment shown by Brian Lenihan as Minister for Finance in recent months, on a number of fronts, probably underpins the more significant shifts (namely the lift in Government satisfaction and the gain for Fianna Fáil) in today’s poll.

Positive media comment on Brian Lenihan’s performance stands in stark contrast to the relatively poor ratings awarded by the public to the party leaders, the exception being Eamon Gilmore who registers a passable 46 per cent (up one point) satisfaction rating. All other leaders, Government and main Opposition parties included, fail to win the approval of more than one-third of voters – Brian Cowen on 26 per cent (up three points), Enda Kenny on 31 per cent (down one point), Gerry Adams on 31 per cent (up three points), and John Gormley on 24 per cent (up two points).

Previous poll findings have shown that it is possible for leaders with relatively low satisfaction ratings to get elected to government. In 1992, Albert Reynolds recorded a 28 per cent satisfaction rating in the poll directly before the general election and was still elected as taoiseach.

However, in the past three general elections, Bertie Ahern, the leader with the highest satisfaction ratings, went on to become taoiseach. Bertie Ahern’s lowest pre-general election poll rating was 58 per cent in May 2007.

The current leader satisfaction ratings suggest that we are looking for a stronger political leadership than has been shown in recent times. This presents a clear opportunity for the party leader who is prepared to step up to the plate.

The leadership issue may very well be the core decider in the next general election.