Huge decline in working-class support is Ahern's biggest worry


The Opposition will be cheered by its massive gains in Dublin, writes Stephen Collins, Political Editor

The first Irish TimesTNS mrbi poll since the election reveals a big shift in the political landscape since the general election in May. Support for Fianna Fáil has slumped and the satisfaction ratings of the Taoiseach and the Government are down, while the main Opposition parties have made significant gains.

Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fáil have been in this territory before. They experienced a similar slump in the aftermath of the 2002 election, when the issue of broken election promises dominated political debate. This time around, a succession of difficulties, including the Taoiseach's appearance at the Mahon tribunal, the continuing problems in the health service, the huge pay awards for the Taoiseach and his Ministers and the learner drivers debacle have clearly affected the Government's standing.

The detailed figures show that support for Fianna Fáil has suffered a massive decline among working-class voters, particularly in Dublin, and there has been a corresponding rise in support for Fine Gael and Labour among these disaffected voters.

A surprising aspect of the poll is that the satisfaction rating of the Tánaiste, Brian Cowen, is higher than that of Bertie Ahern. The contrast is accentuated by the fact that dissatisfaction with him is far lower than that with the Taoiseach. With a satisfaction rating of 43 per cent and a dissatisfaction rating of 50 per cent, Ahern is in negative territory. By contrast, Cowen, with a satisfaction rating of 49 per cent and a dissatisfaction rating of 33 per cent, is in strongly-positive territory.

Cowen's satisfaction rating was measured for the first time in an Irish Timespoll on the basis that he was appointed Tánaiste in June and is Ahern's anointed successor as Taoiseach

Interestingly, Ahern still gets a higher rating among Fianna Fáil voters, with 79 per cent satisfied, compared with Cowen, who gets a rating of 74 per cent from the party faithful. Cowen's lead over the Taoiseach arises from the fact that he is more attractive to Fine Gael voters combined with the fact that Ahern has become very unpopular with Labour voters.

Enda Kenny has also suffered a decline in his satisfaction rating, but he is now just one point behind the Taoiseach, the closest the gap has been since he became Fine Gael leader. Another positive for Kenny is that his satisfaction rating is well above his dissatisfaction level.

The satisfaction rating for the new Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, is a disappointing 30 per cent, 19 points behind the rating achieved by Pat Rabbitte in May. However, this is largely due to the fact that 49 per cent of voters have no opinion about the Labour leader and are there to be won over.

One bit of good news for the Government is that support for the Green Party has held up to its general election level, although there has been a worrying slip in Dublin. The party leader and Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, has had an impressive start in terms of satisfaction ratings, with 40 per cent, one point higher than the former leader, Trevor Sargent.

The baseline figures for the core vote of the parties show that the worst region for Fianna Fáil is Dublin, where the party has lost a third of its support since the last poll in May. There has been a corresponding increase in support for Fine Gael and Labour in the capital. In Dublin, Fianna Fáil is now at 26 per cent (down 12 points), while Fine Gael is running at 23 per cent (up 10 points) and Labour at 14 per cent (up 4 points).

Apart from Fianna Fáil, the other big loser in the capital is Sinn Féin, which has seen its support more than halved to 5 per cent since May, while the Greens have suffered a significant drop to 6 per cent. There were far fewer undecided voters in Dublin than in any other region of the country.

After Dublin the next worst region for Fianna Fáil is Munster, where the party received 29 per cent support, with Connacht/Ulster being a little better at 32 per cent. The rest of Leinster was easily the best region for the party, with support running at 36 per cent.

For Fine Gael the worst region is Munster, where the party is on just 18 per cent. It got 24 per cent in the rest of Leinster and 27 per cent in Connacht/Ulster. The really positive news for the party is its big increase in Dublin and the fact that it is not as dependent on rural supporters as before.

Labour's best region after Dublin is the rest of Leinster, while Sinn Féin's strongest region is Munster, where the party gets 9 per cent, compared with 6 per cent in Connacht/Ulster, which is its next best region. The Greens are marginally stronger in Dublin than outside it but their support is now evenly spread across the country.

The PDs have dropped one point since the election and the party is still at the same level of support it had in the polls before that contest. It has recovered some support in Dublin, but it has a problem in that its support is spread across the country and not concentrated in areas where it could recover seats.

In terms of class, Fianna Fáil now polls better among the wealthy ABC1 group, where it attracts 36 per cent support, than among any other category. This marks a big change for the party. In contrast to its support among the better-off, it is getting 26 per cent in the C2DE group (working class) and 33 per cent among farmers. Fine Gael has broadened its base and is now attracting the same level of support - 21 per cent - across the social categories. Its strongest support comes from farmers, where it is on 33 per cent.

Support for the Greens is spread evenly across social groups, but Sinn Féin is twice as strong in the lower-income group than it is among the better-off. In terms of gender, Fine Gael is now significantly more popular with women than with men, while Sinn Féin is stronger among men than women. There is no significant variation for the other parties.

The poll also reveals some fascinating changes in terms of support for the parties among different age groups. Fianna Fáil is strongest among the over-65s, where it attracts 36 per cent support, and weakest among the 18/25-year-olds, where it is on 24 per cent. By contrast, Fine Gael has overtaken Fianna Fáil among the 18/25-year-olds, where it is now the most popular party, with 25 per cent support.

As the over-65s are the most likely to vote in an election, Fianna Fáil's strength in this group is comforting for the party. For Fine Gael, the surge of support among young people may be difficult to translate into votes, but it is a heartening sign.

In recent years Fine Gael regularly trailed behind Sinn Féin, the Greens and Labour among young people, and that was ultimately reflected in gains by the two smaller parties.