Election may not usher in expected change


Some people will have high hopes the coming election will bring a transformation. We should not hold our breath, however, writes MICHAEL MARSH

ALMOST EVERYONE now expects a general election in 2011 and, if the current polls are taken as a good indication of political support for parties, we will see a bigger change after that election than at any since the foundation of the State.

Fianna Fáil started 2010 with the support of over a quarter of the electorate, a level that now looks like a wildly optimistic target for the future. While a slight decline was evident through the early part of the year, the October revelations about the extent of indebtedness followed by the arrival of the bailiffs in November drove the party down to previously unplumbed depths.

Labour and Sinn Féin seem to have been the main beneficiaries of this decline. Labour’s strong showing in some polls in the spring and George Lee’s desertion threatened to unseat Enda Kenny and, although this impetus was not sustained, Labour remains clearly in second place. Sinn Féin’s more recent rise is almost certainly linked to the visit of the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, and the December Budget.

Of course there will be some changes between now and election day. Despite using a variety of indicators, all polls suggest much support is not committed firmly: Don’t Knows remain at high levels and respondents who do express a vote intention either say they could change their mind or indicate other parties they might equally well support.

In addition, we might doubt these polls really do capture voting intentions in a representative way. There were huge differences between the estimates made by different companies in the autumn and, although the gaps are much smaller in the most recent polls, there must be some uncertainty about whose poll, if any, we should believe.

Many people think Fianna Fáil will not do as badly as these figures suggest, but perhaps those same people would have resisted any suggestion that Fianna Fáil’s support could fall to about 25 per cent in 2009 or that its poll ratings drop to 17 per cent this month.

However, there is some theoretical and empirical evidence to suggest Fianna Fáil voters might be reluctant to admit their support in the current circumstances, just as Tory voters in the 1990s and Labour voters in the run-up to this year’s election in the UK seemed to evade the pollsters.

We do know that polls typically underestimate Independents, and often Fine Gael, and overestimate the Sinn Féin vote – the latter probably because of turnout differences.

Even taking all this into account, the next election still appears to be one that will prompt the “electoral earthquake” cliche in countless media reports.

Political scientists use an index of electoral volatility to capture the extent of change between elections. This can in principle range from 0 to 100. In Ireland, since the 1930s, when the modern party system could be said to have formed, the rating has typically been about 10, but has ranged from 3 (1969) and 4 (1973 and 1982) through to 15/16 in 1987 and 1992 to 20 in 1943.

If we assume that the distribution of the vote will be close to the latest Ipsos/MRBI poll, then the figure for 2011 would be 29 – describing almost twice as much change as at any election in more than 50 years. This is huge by the standards of well-established democracies, although we have seen far greater changes in eastern Europe in the last 20 years.

Denmark in 1973, the Netherlands in 2002 and Canada in 1993 all saw similarly high levels of volatility, but in both Denmark and Canada lasting change in the subsequent development of the party system was only relatively small. The ruling Canadian Conservative party won only two seats in the 1993 election, its vote share falling from 43 per cent to 16 per cent (an almost identical decline to that now faced by Fianna Fáil), but by 2006 it was able to win the election and return to government.

Denmark saw five new parties winning votes in 1973 after decades of notable stability, but the party system now looks more like it did in 1971 than 1973. The largest of the new entrants, the Progress Party, which won 16 per cent of the vote, remained out of government and declined almost to extinction by 2001.

Dutch electoral politics remain very fluid and, although governments remain in the hands of the old parties, the new anti-Islamist PVV provides important support.

It is striking that in the Danish and Dutch cases in particular, much of the volatility could be attributed to new parties rather than change being simply a circulation of support between the more established ones.

Volatility on the scale expected here really would be remarkable if there were no new entrants. While there are as yet no concrete indications that any new movements will be running candidates, it is widely expected that voters will have more options on election day than appeared in the last MRBI poll and that political reform will feature prominently in the manifestos of new entrants.

It has proved remarkably difficult for new parties to mount any enduring challenge to the old ones in established democracies. The main exceptions are countries such as France, where parties were never strong anyway, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, and Italy, where the old system was apparently blown away by a corruption scandal whose awfulness makes Irish politics appear almost completely untainted.

New parties have appeared, winning perhaps 15-20 per cent of the vote at most, but they typically fail to sustain that initial impetus, just as the Progressive Democrats did here. The PDs of course were drawn from within the party system, and had a hugely popular leader (Desmond O’Malley), but still attracted the support of fewer than one in eight voters at their peak. For any new movement to top that now would be a considerable achievement.

While new parties can be expected to focus very clearly on political reform, the terms of our “bailout” can also be expected to feature heavily in the campaign between now and election day. The issues raised by the latter alone might be expected to give the next election a character that has been absent for some time, with parties taking different positions on policies that are important to voters so that people can be expected to have strong preferences.

As the work of the Irish Election Study (www.tcd.ie/ines) has made clear, recent Irish elections have been about issues only to the extent that voters trust different parties to realise goals that most voters sign up to. However hard it is to credit it now, Fianna Fáil won in 2002 and 2007 essentially because it was trusted to boost or sustain prosperity.

There is little evidence that, even if voters differed on how this was to be achieved or what was to be done with the wealth once it was generated, such concerns are a significant determinant of electoral choice.

This is arguably due largely to the failure by parties to differentiate themselves from one another. Voters find it very difficult to say how party policies differ on a range of issues and expert commentators often experience similar difficulties. We must add to this the fact that local campaigns tend to focus much more on what a candidate can do for their area rather than what their party can do for the country at large. Many commentators blame the electoral system for this, but even if they are correct – and most political scientists would reject this simple determinism – it is clear that voters value highly the political attention to local concerns our system provides.

What will be significant about this next election is whether, despite the electoral system, voters are willing and able to differentiate between parties on policy issues and to indicate the direction they would like to see taken by future policymakers.

Parties do appear to differ on what balance between tax increases and spending cuts is necessary to fill the hole in our national accounts regardless of the banks’ debts: will voters have preferences and will they vote on the basis of them?

We are also likely to see parties adopting different positions on how far the State should make us responsible for these debts.

Political reform is less likely to provide a basis for such differentiation, as all parties will promise reform. Differences may come down to how many TDs can be cut, how quickly the Seanad can be abolished and whether we replace PR with the Australian alternative vote or the German additional member system – none of which is likely to address the deficiencies in our political system.

It is possible that voters will support a party that can convince them it is serious about such reform, but this will not provide a very clear mandate for how such change will be realised. However, it could also happen that the next election will, like its predecessors, be fought with a strong emphasis on local candidates, and policy will again take a back seat.

Will Michael Lowry be returned because he supported the “bailout” and the Budget or because he appeared to have eased the path for a Las Vegas in Two-Mile-Borris or secured a toilet for a local school?

We cannot be surprised at the direction taken by the polls. The extent of the economic crisis alone would lead us to expect significant change but, given a party system that long ago broke away from its roots, the potential for sudden change is always there.

If this new electoral volatility reflects emancipated, critical citizens, it could serve as a basis for improved democratic accountability, but if it reflects capriciousness and increasing intolerance for the political process, it will post a greater challenge for political reform.

It is important for the future of debate about our politics that we understand what voters are doing and why they are doing it, so any reform can be evidence-based rather than founded on anecdote and wishful thinking, like so much policy in the past. This is something the next Irish Election Study can help to give us, if adequately funded.

Unfortunately, this is currently far from assured in the absence of the government funding there has been in the past.

Michael Marsh is professor of comparative political behaviour and pro vice provost/chief academic officer of Trinity College Dublin, and co-author of The Irish Voter(Manchester University Press, 2008)

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