Are the parties in tune with their supporters on matters of policy?
An online tool lets voters compare their views to those of political parties
By answering questions on issues related to European integration, economic and social policy, voters can see which parties they most agree with. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Coverage of the European Parliament elections tends to treat it as a horse race, with all the attention focused on who will win.
However, in order to make sense of the outcome of the elections, we must try and understand the message that voters are sending. In particular, we must examine where voters for different parties stand on key policy questions.
The Irish Times website currently features an online tool entitled EUvox, developed by a team of academics from across Europe, which allows voters compare their opinions with the policies of the main parties competing in the elections. By answering a series of questions on issues related to European integration, economic and social policy, voters are able to see which parties they most agree with.
As well as providing a useful way for voters to orient themselves in the Irish political space, it allows us to get a better picture of where Irish voters stand on a range of issues.
EUvox has stringent data protection policies in place to guarantee the anonymity of individual users, but we can examine the aggregate figures to shed light on voters’ attitudes.
To date, more than 6,000 people have completed the questionnaire. While this is not a representative sample of the population, it is perhaps the most in-depth information available on policy attitudes during the current election campaign and it can be used to make certain comparisons. For instance, we can compare the attitudes of Irish Times readers depending on which party they intend to vote for.
Of the three categories of issues included – the economy, society and European integration – economic questions prove to be the most divisive.
Two issues that have received a lot of attention in the media in recent times are the local property tax (LPT) and water charges. On both of these issues respondents were almost evenly split. Furthermore, answers fell broadly along party lines: the majority of Sinn Féin, Socialist Party and People Before Profit supporters oppose both LPT and water rates, while the majority of Fine Gael, Green and, to a lesser extent, Labour supporters are in favour of these measures. Fianna Fáil supporters are evenly divided on both of these issues, which reflects the somewhat equivocal position of their party. (Fianna Fáil opposed the timing of LPT rather than its introduction per se; and it supported the introduction of water metering while in government but has been critical of the current Government on this issue).
On other issues, the parties appear to be quite out of step with their voters. Writing in this paper recently, Breda O’Brien argued many socially conservative voters are “politically homeless”. The data lends some support to this view. For instance, while all the main parties are on the record as supporting multiculturalism, a majority of respondents from across the political spectrum believe immigrants must adapt to our culture and values. Ireland is unusual in that we do not have a major political party that seeks to politicise the immigration issue, an issue that has become the focal point of these elections in many other countries.
Naturally, many of the questions relate to the EU. In previous European elections, EU issues took a back seat to national issues.
However, the question of EU integration has been called the “sleeping giant” of electoral politics that, when awoken, will change the face of party competition.
Given the turbulence the EU has experienced in the past five years and the role it has played in Irish economic governance, it would be reasonable to expect EU issues would prove to be more divisive this time out.
The evidence collected by EUvox suggests that this is not the case. Only 11 per cent of respondents believe Ireland should drop the euro and the vast majority – more than 80 per cent – believe the EU has been good for Ireland.
The lack of serious opposition to EU integration is reflected in the policy positions of the political parties. As part of the EUvox project, the policies of over 230 parties from across Europe were examined, with the parties then being ranked in terms of their level of Euroscepticism. The list is headed by parties such as Ukip, the French Front National and the Dutch Freedom Party. No Irish party appears in the top 30; and the only one in the top 50 is the Socialist Party. If European integration is a sleeping giant in Irish politics, it would seem that it has not yet woken up.
Rory Costello is a lecturer in the department of politics and public administration and course director for European studies at the University of Limerick