Voters desert FF in droves to connect with Labour leader


ANALYSIS:Desperate times mean desperate poll results for Fianna Fáil but Fine Gael is not capitalising, writes DAMIAN LOSCHER

WE ARE living in extraordinary times and these are extraordinary poll results.

Today’s Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll reveals a staggering 10-point gain for Labour, elevating the party to 24 per cent support, two points ahead of Fianna Fáil. Never at any stage since the Irish Times/TNS mrbi series of polls began in 1982 have Labour outpolled Fianna Fáil.

Never has support for Fianna Fáil been so low, having fallen five points to 22 per cent since our November 2008 poll. Incredibly, the Fianna Fáil vote has almost halved since the 2007 general election.

Never has Fine Gael enjoyed such a lead in the polls. With 32 per cent support (down two points), Fine Gael are a clear eight points ahead of Labour and 10 points ahead of Fianna Fáil.

Less dramatic are the results for the Green Party (unchanged on 4 per cent) and Sinn Féin (up one point to 9 per cent).

Today’s poll results go beyond the natural ebb and flow of the floating vote. Entrenched Fianna Fáil party loyalties are being challenged by a perceived failure to deal with a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. On almost every measure, voters have rejected the Government’s handling of the crisis. Satisfaction with the Government which has fallen four points to 14 per cent is at a historic low. Remarkably, a majority of both Fianna Fáil (55 per cent) and Green Party (85 per cent) voters are dissatisfied with the manner in which the country is being managed.

The backdrop to this latest poll is as sensational as the results themselves. The Irish public is mourning the end of a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. The grieving process that we are going through and the impact this is having on voter preferences is reflected in the recent series of Irish Times/TNS mrbi polls.

Back in June 2008 voters were still in denial, ignoring very clear signals that the economy was in trouble. Fianna Fáil were riding high in the polls with 42 per cent support. Come November, denial had turned to anger, the full impact of which was felt by Fianna Fáil. The November poll showed a dramatic fall of 15 points for Fianna Fáil and a collapse in confidence in the Government. Disenchanted voters looking for answers turned to Fine Gael, who saw their popularity soar.

The new year signalled a new stage of grieving – depression. The economic news in January was especially bleak. On January 8th, the loss of 1,900 jobs in Dell was announced. Two weeks later, the Dáil voted to nationalise Anglo Irish Bank. The following week, the Central Bank forecast a 4.7 per cent contraction in the economy during 2009.

And February began as January had ended – more bad news. A public sector pensions levy was announced on February 3rd and the following day the January live register figures were published, along with predictions that unemployment could hit 400,000 by the end of the year.

It seems that all hope of maintaining prosperity – which was the reason Fianna Fáil were returned to Government – has evaporated, replaced by the fear of unemployment. This state of anxiety has in all likelihood prompted Labour’s surge in the polls. Eamon Gilmore’s “save jobs” mantra has struck a chord with the public. It is not surprising that his satisfaction rating has jumped six points to 44 per cent, making him the most popular party leader.

Labour have made gains across the board, amongst all age, gender and social groups. In an environment where all workers feel threatened, from solicitors to shop assistants, Labour’s focus on keeping people in employment has popular appeal. It offers comfort to a population still coming to terms with the new reality. It also hints that we want to be protected from the worst effects of the downturn and are not yet ready to enter the final stage of grieving – acceptance. Reaction to the pensions levy offers further evidence that we are not prepared for the painful adjustments that lie ahead.

Support for the main party of Government, Fianna Fáil, continues to slide, down to 22 per cent in this latest poll. Back in November the middle classes appeared to desert Fianna Fáil, arguably because they had lost confidence in the party’s ability to manage the economy. The latest poll shows the working classes too have lost faith in recent months, as the party struggles to stem the tide of rising unemployment.

The news for Fine Gael is mixed. On the one hand, they are the most popular party in Ireland today, with 32 per cent of the vote. On the other, a fall of two points means the opportunity to capture its share of recent Fianna Fáil defectors was missed.

The Greens, which continue to attract 4 per cent support, have emerged relatively unscathed from the current crisis, although this level of support would be below their trended average.

Sinn Féin, up one point, to 9 per cent, appears to have attracted some disgruntled working-class Fianna Fáil voters. Like Labour, their political philosophy has greater resonance in times of uncertainty.

Independents, who benefited last year from their high-profile attacks on the Government’s first round of cutbacks, have not held these gains, dropping four points to 9 per cent since November.

The wild swings in party support observed over recent polls are consistent with a hunger for answers and new ideas. Performance ratings for party leaders do not suggest this hunger is being satisfied. Enda Kenny’s rating continues to drift, down to 30 per cent, while John Gormley (29 per cent) and Gerry Adams (32 per cent) are at or near their lowest ever performance ratings.

Only Eamon Gilmore has managed to register a significant performance improvement and now stands as clearly the most popular party leader. Gilmore has obviously succeeded in connecting with voters, as evidenced by the jump in support for the Labour Party. However, it is difficult to gauge to what extent a lack of leadership elsewhere is helping to boost his ratings.

The Taoiseach’s satisfaction rating stands at just 24 per cent, a level comparable with president Bush’s approval rating just prior to leaving office.

It was on Bush’s watch that the US economy ran aground and during the recent election campaign the Republican Party had to carry the burden of this legacy. Similarly, Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil are tainted by their participation in the (over)inflation of the Irish economy. Only the boldest moves, the clearest signals and the brightest ideas can put sufficient distance between current leaders and past decisions. Only then will confidence return.

Is it too late to wipe the slate clean? The majority of voters (62 per cent) would welcome a new government. However, almost three in ten (28 per cent) would not like to see a change, despite most of them not being satisfied with the Government’s performance.

It seems most voters have an appetite for change while a minority believes the current Government may still be our only hope.

Damian Loscher is managing director of TNS mrbi