The two big parties are not ready for a general election

You would think Fine Gael had learned that Governments which preside over economic growth lose

Leo Varadkar’s definitive quashing of general election speculation this week probably means that an election – triggered by him anyway – is off the agenda until next spring at the earliest

Leo Varadkar’s definitive quashing of general election speculation this week probably means that an election – triggered by him anyway – is off the agenda until next spring at the earliest

 

Next time some august political expert nods knowingly and intones solemnly “it’s the economy, stupid”, feel free to point at him (or her) and laugh at an extreme example of banality masquerading as profundity. To say that the economy is important in election campaigns is like saying that the second half of a match is important. It is impossible to contradict, yet it adds little or nothing to the sum of human knowledge.

Of course it’s the economy, stupid. But what people who say “it’s the economy, stupid” often overlook is that it’s also other things, stupid.

After all, if presiding over a growing economy was enough to assure that a sitting government would be re-elected, then Fine Gael would have won in 2016 instead of losing 25 seats.

Fine Gael would have won in 1997 when John Bruton handed over a booming economy to Bertie Ahern. Tony Blair wouldn’t have won in 1997. Hillary Clinton would now be president of the United States.

Governments which preside over economic growth and rising living standards lose all the time. This is a message you would think Fine Gael would have learned, but apparently not.

Change is the most powerful political trope of our time. That’s why it appears in so many political slogans

The sanctification of “it’s the economy, stupid” (let’s call it ITES) as the alpha and omega of all political messages dates back to the 1992 US presidential campaign in which Bill Clinton defeated George HW Bush (the elder), transforming American politics and spawning a new movement of political imitators all over the globe, including in the UK and Ireland.

Concerned that the staff at Clinton’s campaign headquarters were frequently distracted, his chief strategist James Carville erected a sign on the wall of the office. It read: “It’s the economy, stupid”, and Bill Clinton went on to win the presidency. Every political nerd knows that, right?

Actually, there were two other messages on the famous sign, one above it and one below it. The one on top was “change versus more of the same”; the one underneath was “and don’t forget about health care”.

As Carville and his long-time partner Paul Begala explained in a subsequent book, change was the message. The economy was just an illustration of it.

“Change was the message and positioning Clinton as the candidate of change was the strategy,” they wrote.

“The economy, health care, welfare, reinventing government and all the rest were illustrations of that basic message; they were tactics, not strategy. Without the overarching theme of economic change for the middle class, Clinton would have looked like one more opportunistic politician who promised everything to everybody. The kind of guy who, if he were speaking to a group of cannibals, would promise them missionaries.”

Political slogans

Change is the most powerful political trope of our time. That’s why it appears in so many political slogans.

Political observers often talk of two types of elections – change elections and other elections. But in truth most elections are change elections. The public are always in the market for a change for the better.

Governments tend to think they deserve credit for economic progress, but the public often don’t believe that politicians are responsible for a strong economy.

The challenge for opposition parties is to establish credible proposals for change. The challenge for governments is to show how they appreciate that things can be made better

Politics – especially in government – revolves around the optimistic idea that there are things in our society that should be and can be made better. Electorates rarely believe that everything is just great, and the government should just keep doing what it’s doing.

They have expectations of public services – especially healthcare – that run ahead of the level of services that is currently available.

Objectively and quantifiably, the Irish health services delivers more and better care, achieving better outcomes, to more people than ever before. Yet people see the obvious failures of the system – chaos in hospitals, lengthy waiting lists for treatment, etc – and they think: politicians should do something about that. It is not an unreasonable expectation.

The challenge for opposition parties is to establish credible proposals for change. The challenge for governments is to show how they appreciate that things can be made better.

Leo Varadkar’s definitive quashing of general election speculation this week probably means that an election – triggered by him anyway – is off the agenda until next spring at the earliest.

Fine Gael needs to find a message that is more constructive and forward looking than 'don’t let Fianna Fáil ruin it!'

There are a few hurdles ahead – four difficult byelections and a potential Dáil vote on the Government’s broadband plan, for which there is unlikely to be a majority in the House, are just two – but anyone causing an election amid enduring uncertainty over Brexit would be justifiably subjected to charges of extreme irresponsibility.

My view has been since last year that an election is unlikely until there is some resolution of Brexit, and I can’t see a reason to change it now.

That means the parties have four to six months to prepare for the next election. The parties that use that time best are the ones who will prosper.

Better society

For Fine Gael that means realising that ITES won’t win an election on its own; it needs to demonstrate it understands that a strong economy is for the purpose of creating a better society. It needs to show a humility that perhaps does not come naturally to its leader. It needs to find a message that is more constructive and forward looking than “don’t let Fianna Fáil ruin it!”

The Opposition parties need to establish a credible platform for change that is bold but deliverable, distinctive yet defensible. Promising change is all very well but people will want to know: change to what?

The civil service has been “clearing the decks” for months now, one senior mandarin tells me.

Both the big parties have been talking tough on an election for weeks. Yet Fianna Fáil has been fleeing from an election; Fine Gael’s message is confused. As things stand neither is entirely ready.

For the big two there’s work to be done.

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