The Labour earthquake

 

SOMETHING OF an earthquake appears to be taking place in Irish politics as the effects of unemployment, lower living standards and the long-term cost of the banking rescue are being borne by the electorate. For the first time in an opinion poll, the Labour Party has emerged as the biggest party in the State, eclipsing both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and consolidating its dominant position in Dublin.

By taking support almost equally from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as it surged into a powerful lead in this Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, the party that has traditionally been regarded as a junior partner in coalition government threatens to re-write the political rulebook. Of course, this opinion poll represents a snapshot in time. A general election is a distant prospect. But its findings are likely to cause consternation within the two major parties and the issue of leadership may again be raised.

Of particular concern to Fianna Fáil will be the fact that the full impact of last Wednesday’s damaging banking reports may not be reflected by these findings, even though its support has contracted from 22 to 17per cent since January. It is now firmly in third position. Fine Gael has lost what was once a commanding lead and, with 28 per cent adjusted support, now trails the Labour Party by four points. Support for Sinn Féin and for the Green Party rose by a single point.

Labour added an unprecedented eight points to its support base on the adjusted figures. But its core vote has risen by five points and its supporters, uncluding undecideds, by seven points.

Despite this transformation in his party’s status, Eamon Gilmore’s satisfaction rating has remained unchanged at 46 per cent. But while his approval ratings were holding steady, public satisfaction with Brian Cowen nose-dived by eight points to 26 per cent, while Enda Kenny lost seven points to 24 per cent. Satisfaction with the Government dropped by seven points, close to an all-time low. Regardless of these vicissitudes, party leaders continue to attract majority support within their own organisations.

It will be suggested that this is an aberrant poll. It could be if the party did not command the premier party rating in core, adjusted and the old poll barometer of excluding undecided voters. The findings are certainly extraordinary. But the percentage of “don’t knows”, at 24 per cent, has remained largely unchanged this year. At the same time, support for the Labour Party has risen in excess of nine points across all regions and in both urban and rural areas. It now attracts 39 per cent support in Dublin, more than the combined strength of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

The Labour Party is in a powerful position. It has built support by opposing the Government on most issues and by adopting populist positions. As the general election approaches however, voters will look for the alternative political vision. If this poll is to mark a fundamental shift in politics, Mr Gilmore will have to convince voters he can be trusted to lead an alternative government.