The Labour party has overtaken Fianna Fáil in the recent TNS/MRBI poll. The first time in the history of the state. A historic moment no doubt. I am not too familiar with the methodology behind this poll but I assume it is a fair and honest reflection of the electorate at the present moment.
Fianna Fáil’s satisfaction rating has plummeted to 14 percent. 62 per cent want a change of government. The support for the parties is as follows: Fianna Fáil, 22 per cent (down 5 points); Fine Gael, 32 per cent (down 2 points); Labour, 24 per cent (up 10 points); Sinn Féin, 9 per cent (up 1 point); Green Party, 4 per cent (no change); and Independents/others, 9 per cent (down 4 points). The message is simple: the electorate want Fianna Fáil out of office.
This is not at all surprising. The present government are undoubtedly responsible for a large part of our current economic woes. The government facilitated the crisis through domestic policy decisions over the past nine years. I sense that the electorate would be more forgiving of the government if they were a) humble enough to admit responsibility and b) responded with fair and equitable policies to manage the public finances. They have done neither and the electorate will vote with their feet in the local and European elections in June.
There is a general feeling that those who created the mess we are in have gotten away unscathed whilst ordinary working & middle class families feel the brunt. Everyday in the Irish Times letter pages (which is not neccessarily a reflection of the general public of course, but reflective of middle-Ireland which is likely to determine the next government) there are insightful & articulate critiques of the government’s economic policies. The general sentiment is that they lack equity and perpetuate a system that needs serious-radical reform. The government still seem hell bent on pursuing more of the same conservative fiscal policies.
What is more interesting about the poll however, is that Fianna Fáil voters are shifting their preference to the Labour party. Like a lot of people I have caught the recession fever and watch, listen and read every analysis available. Maybe I am becoming compulsive but at the moment I feel like I have not eaten if I miss a) Morning Ireland, b) 6 o’clock news, c) prime time, d) questions and answers, e) the week in politics and most importantly a whole range of newspapers and blogs when I arrive in UCD every morning. I am addicted. Anyway, from my consumption overload I can confidently (and this is not necessarily a party political preference) conclude that Eamon Gilmore has proved himself to be an intelligent and insightful politician. The electorate has obviously made a similar conclusion.
It is not as if the Labour party are well organised at a local level. This lack of grassroots organisation (and the primary strength of Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin) is the Labour party’s primary fault. Of course, there are many well organised individuals in labour going forward for the local elections but en-masse it is a weakness. This may prove to be a thorn in their electoral ambitions come the general election. But, if Eamon Gilmore continues to perform in the public sphere as he has done over the past four months, then, he may carry the Labour to its biggest electoral victory in the history of the party. Perhaps the electorate are looking for new policies and new ideas that FF and FG cannot provide. Perhaps the electorate know that replacing one centre-right party with another centre-right party will produce no substantial difference in public policy.
Fine Gael have dropped two percentage points and no doubt there will be calls within the party to replace Enda Kenny with Richard Bruton. If Labour lose support with Richard Bruton as leader then it will be obvious that the electorate are supporting parties according to their leaders. This would be disappointing as it would highlight that ‘leadership’ rather than progressive policy change is what will determine the next government. Leadership may instill confidence in day to day economic activity but it is no replacement for insightful, innovative and progressive public policy that is governed by an inclusive approach to decision making.
The power of ‘leadership’ is something that ‘post-modern citizens’ have yet to relinquish. It is obviously more important to the electorate during a ‘crisis’. However, this emphasis upon strong leadership in recessionary times has brought catastrophe throughout history. It should be viewed with a critical eye. Strong leadership does not neccessarily equate to good decisions or good governance. Sean Fitzpatrick may have been a charismatic leader in Anglo-Irish but he obviously had no capacity for honest and diligent decision making. Corporate governance at its worst. Obamania may have reignited the importance of strong leadership amongst the electorate. A kind of ‘why cant we have someone like him’ type mentality. Either way, I sense strong leadership will prove to be a decisive factor in any election during this economic crisis, which could persist for many years to come.
The current economic crisis could potentially produce a new political topography in Ireland. Six months ago it would have sounded pretty naive to argue that Labour could become the leading political party in government. However, this is not all that unrealistic anymore. Labour could potentially create a government with Sinn Féin, the Greens and a selection of Independents. This would offer the electorate a new choice outside the centre-right versus centre-right option. Pure speculation of course, but, only time will tell. But, in the current whirlwind of political economy nothing appears inevitable anymore. A space for innovative change but simultaneously a space for regressive change.