Pressure now on Fine Gael to deliver if it wants to retain power
Public services may be the decisive battleground on which next election is fought
An astounding number of voters have been asked for their vote personally by the candidates, election studies show, and moreover, asking more voters for their vote increases a candidate’s chances of being elected. Photograph: Alan Betson
Politics is increasingly unpredictable, electoral politics especially so. Most recent elections have produced surprise results. Opinion polls provide us with a reliable read of the political landscape but they have often proved an unreliable predictor of what exactly voters will do when they go into the polling booth on election day – partly because increasing numbers of voters don’t know themselves until they’re in there.
Nonetheless, we can see some patterns that have been evident in many recent elections. There is often a wave of support for a candidate or party that catches a moment and a mood among swing voters who are alienated from normal politics and in the market for change, for something new, something different.
Brexit, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Marine Le Pen – she got to the final run-off, remember – Emmanuel Macron: they all rode a wave of popular support rooted in disaffection with politics as usual. Crucially, the late deciders tend to swing towards the candidates and parties who represent a disruption of business as usual. Post-election surveys have shown late deciders to be decisive in both the Brexit and the Trump results.
Irish politics certainly has its particularities but it is not and cannot be immune to the powerful trends and forces sweeping the western world. Indeed, the waves have already happened here – huge numbers of voters changed their allegiances in the 2011 and 2016 elections. Hundreds of thousands of voters swung to Fine Gael and Labour in 2011 and swung violently away from them five years later, scattering among Independents, small parties, Sinn Féin and some back to their old home in Fianna Fáil.
So large-scale volatility is already a feature of the Irish system.
But two factors are working to reduce it here, and it may well have peaked.
The first is the remarkable familiarity of the Irish system, rooted in its cultural and structural localism. People know their candidates, their TDs, even their ministers. Voters choose candidates to represent the local area and they like to know them personally. Election studies show that an astounding number of voters have been asked for their vote personally by the candidates, and moreover, asking more voters for their vote increases a candidate’s chances of being elected. Some 8,000 or 9,000 votes will almost certainly get you elected in an Irish election, and over a couple of years it’s eminently possible to meet that many people and shake their hands and tell them you are working hard on their behalf. Why do you think TDs spend so much time doing just that? This remains one of the unusual aspects of the Irish system, and it makes it sticky.
The second factor tending to reduce the volatility – and therefore potential for radical change – is the improving economic circumstances. The Irish economy is growing robustly, and has been for some time. It has been patchy and nobody argues that it has reached all parts of the country or society. Crashes happen suddenly, recoveries are gradual and uneven.
But it’s real nonetheless. Fifty thousand new jobs have been created this year. Incomes are growing. And this reality is exerting the gravitational influence it always does on the tides of public and political opinion.
That works in several ways. When the economy is growing spankingly and living standards are rising, electorates are very unlikely to demand a complete break with the status quo; the options for radical change look less appealing. Voters’ dissatisfaction with governments tends to focus on the shortcomings of public services. If it seems dismissive to call these real concerns the problems of prosperity, they are better than other problems governments can face. They can be politically potent nonetheless.
If voters throw out a government in such circumstances, they are likely to replace it with something not terribly different. In our current context, that is probably good news for Fianna Fáil.
This seems to be the turn our politics is taking. The great issues that vex public debate revolve around the effectiveness or otherwise of the government’s role in providing public goods – housing and healthcare chief among them.
So public services will be a key battleground – perhaps the decisive one – on which the next election is fought.
This places a strategic advantage in the hands of Fine Gael. After all, it has the ultimate political tool – the power of action. If it can demonstrate that it is making progress in delivering improved public services, then that is a powerful message to bring to voters.
The public’s expectations will not be completely unrealistic; they do not expect miracles. But they will expect Ministers to show they are getting to grips with the problems.
This power is a double-edged sword, though. If the Government cannot point to demonstrable progress in housing and health – at least – then public services will become a stick to beat them.
Were such an election – fought on the grounds of public services – to arrive now, it’s difficult to see how Fine Gael could prosper. Likely Leo Varadkar would try to make the election about something else. That would be difficult, I think.
Fine Gael is now, it fancies, the natural party of government in the way that Fianna Fáil once smugly presumed itself to be. The expectation of power unconsciously suffuses party gatherings – at the party’s think-in in Clonmel in recent days, you could tell that TDs expect to be ministers; ministers anticipate a future in office.
This is the longest continuous period Fine Gael has ever spent in government. But the party will only stay there if it’s good at it.