Radical shifts in party allegiance likely to favour FG and Labour


ANALYSIS:A general election is virtually certain in the coming months: opinion poll support at constituency level suggests Fine Gael on top, Labour in second place and Fianna Fáil in meltdown

DESPITE THE alleged proportionality of our voting system, party strengths in the Dáil never correspond closely to the proportion of votes actually cast in each election. This is because many of the votes cast for smaller parties elect no candidate, which has the effect of swelling the number of candidates elected for the larger parties. In this way, these larger parties get what is described as a “seat bonus”.

However, in 2002 the opposite happened in the case of Fine Gael, which in that year’s election quite exceptionally secured one-sixth fewer seats than its share of the vote would have justified. Leaving aside that eccentric result, which was dramatically reversed in 2007, in the other four elections since 1987, on average one-half of the votes cast for smaller parties and Independents failed to elect any of their candidates.

Accordingly, while polls asking about voting intentions are extremely interesting, it is only where the poll data is applied to individual constituencies that it yields meaningful seat data. Even then, results will, of course, be affected by the personalities of individual candidates – although over the 43 Dáil constituencies, that factor may average out.

Happily, a guide is available to the variations in party support that exist as between individual constituencies – the results of the local elections of June last year.

The data from these 170 local authority constituencies can be converted into figures for the 43 Dáil constituencies. Recent poll data for changes in party allegiance since June last year in Dublin, the rest of Leinster, Munster and Connacht–Ulster – which is set out in Table 1 below – can then be applied to these 2009 local elections data to update these Dáil constituency party support figures.

This table shows just how radical these recent shifts in party allegiance have been, which when applied to individual constituencies, yields the party seat figures in Table 2.

This suggests the kind of election outcome we could expect if the party support pattern continues up to the election.

In the case of Fine Gael, it emerges from the data that almost all of this party’s 45 per cent increase in electoral support occurred between the 2007 general election and the 2009 local elections, but in the case of the other three main parties, their changes in support were not completed by mid-2009, but have been continuing throughout the past year and a half.

The suggested Dáil seat pattern that emerges from Table 2 is, however, subject to several important qualifications – beyond the usual caveat that polls offer only a snapshot of public opinion at a particular instant.

An important way in which the figures in Table 2 may fail to reflect accurately the eventual outcome, in terms of seats won, is the problem that Labour may experience in finding sufficient attractive candidates to enable it to increase at one swoop its Dáil representation by a factor of two-and-a-half.

An absence of local level information makes it very difficult to make any assessment of the extent to which Labour has the capacity on the ground to turn votes into seats.

However, it seems likely that in this important respect, Labour is at a disadvantage vis-a-vis both of the two other principal parties.

Fianna Fáil has the opposite problem. It has at least twice as many TDs as it is likely to be able to elect.

And Fine Gael has a much lesser candidate problem because, having made a breakthrough in the 2007 general election, it needs a much smaller pool of new candidates than Labour does, and also because it seems to have been engaged longer than Labour in the process of building up this pool.

In about 25 constituencies, or three-fifths of the total, Labour needs candidates with a capacity to exploit fully its potential vote, so as to enable it to win seats that now seem to be within its reach.

The Donegal South West byelection result has led some commentators to suggest that Labour support as indicated by the polls may be “softer” than that of other parties.

Another problem for Labour is the fact that, whereas until now it had only one TD in each constituency, in about a dozen cases – mainly but not exclusively in Dublin – it could now face the same problem that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had to cope with over many years – competition, sometimes bitter, between TDs of the same party.

Pre-election poll figures for Independents sometimes underestimate the electoral performance of such candidates.

Support for Independents in such surveys may be underestimated simply because while voters know in advance what political parties will be seeking their support, new Independent candidates, some of whom may prove attractive to voters in particular constituencies, may emerge only after the election has been called.

There are indications that if more Independents were to be elected than is implied by the data in Table 2, the party most likely to suffer in this election would be Fianna Fáil.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that the polls underestimate slightly support for Fianna Fáil, because the unpopularity of that party may discourage some of its loyal supporters from admitting to pollsters their intention to vote for it. It would not surprise me to find this factor adding a couple of percentage points to Fianna Fáil’s latest poll percentage.

It is also possible that in the next Red C poll, Fianna Fáil’s share of the vote could fall below the 17 per cent that was recorded for it before the EU, ECB and IMF arrived here.

Garret FitzGerald was taoiseach from July 1981 to February 1982 and December 1982 to March 1987

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