Would FG be well advised to change its leader?

by Michael Gallagher (16 June 2010)

If FG asked the PSAI for its opinion on whether it should change its leader, would Irish political science be able to offer any evidence-backed advice? There are (as usual) arguments on both sides.

Someone alternative such as Richard Bruton may be in some sense a ‘better’ leader, ie a more credible Taoiseach-in-waiting VERSUS the benefit of getting a ‘better’ leader could be outweighed by the cost, in terms of public image and internal cohesion, of the process of ousting the existing leader.

FG is weak in urban areas, especially Dublin, and hence needs to have a leader who can connect better with that growing section of the electorate VERSUS there is no point in having a leader who boosts the party’s support in one region of the country if at the same time support drops by an equivalent amount in those areas where the existing leader was an electoral asset.

Many FG members and elected representatives have found that voters tell them, in effect, ‘I’d vote for you if only you had a better leader’, and opinion polls consistently show deep reservations among the electorate about Enda Kenny’s credentials as a potential leader VERSUS for some voters this may be a convenient rationalisation and in fact they would probably not vote FG no matter who its leader was, and moreover the 2002 election study (see The Irish Voter) suggested that party leaders have at most a marginal effect on voting behaviour, shown also by the high personal ratings both Mary Harney and Gerry Adams have had at various times in recent years without this seeming to make any difference to their respective parties’ support levels.

It is surely an indictment of the leader that at a time when the government is at historically low levels of support the main opposition party appears to be making no headway at all VERSUS this may be like a national football association believing that success is its due and sacking the manager every time it fails to win the World Cup, even though experience shows that its performance seems to be much the same no matter who the manager is, suggesting that there are deeper questions to be addressed.

9 thoughts on “Would FG be well advised to change its leader?

  1. There are deeper questions to be addressed. Some in FG if they’re asked can’t say what the difference between them and FF are, other than to say something like ‘We’re a decent bunch of chaps, the others are a dishonest lot!’

    If we think political leaders make no difference, and much of the research suggests this, then I think it’s as a result of model misspecification rather than the absence of their influence. The problem is that leaders change policy and are the vehicle through which policy is sold, so it’s difficult to separate the two.

    The problem for Fine Gael is not that it exposes old wounds – there’s no ideological split in Fine Gael really. And most would rally to any new leader that improved the party’s position in the polls. All this ‘party at war’ stuff wasn’t the cause of the party’s positions in the polls, the party was at war was because of its position in the polls. There was an underlying problem.

    The problem is that the party doesn’t really stand for anything distinctive other than not being FF. Not being FF is especially important at the moment – but it’s obviously not enough. A bit like Cameron/ Tories in the UK, there isn’t the sense that Kenny/ FG have a clear vision for the country – which allowed Clegg/ LibDems and Gilmore/ Labour emerge. Look at when FG did well in the early 1980s under FitzGerald – he clearly differentiated his party from FF and there was a clear vision for a type of Ireland he wanted to see.

    On paper FitzG was exactly what we think you should not want in a leader – academic, the opposite of telegenic, quite arrogant and bogged down in detail. FitzG didn’t do Obamaesque speeches that told stories and raised goosebumps – he bombarded you with data. But his version of Ireland was different to FF’s in a positive way – he did more than just say we wouldn’t do what they did.

    While I suspect it’s true that Kenny couldn’t convince the public he was Taoiseach material – this was probably also because he had no message. Even with Bruton as leader the party will still need to articulate some vision.

  2. Heave against Alan Dukes followed by election of John Bruton as leader followed by abysmal result in 1992 election…
    Heave against John Bruton followed by election of Michael Noonan as leader followed by abysmal result in 2002 election…
    Heave against Enda Kenny followed by election of Richard Bruton as leader??? Followed by abysmal result in 2012 election???

  3. As for the difference between FF and FG, here’s what Michael Marsh and I wrote in Days of Blue Loyalty (PSAI Press, 2002) p. 189, drawing on Maurice Manning’s biography of James Dillon, about a discussion that took place on this subject 50 years ago:

    “In mid-1960, nearly forty years before our survey was conducted, there was a discussion between two Fine Gael TDs: the radical reformer Declan Costello and the party leader James Dillon. During the course of this, Costello said that he had asked at a recent parliamentary party meeting what exactly were the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The replies he received are rather reminiscent of some of those offered by Fine Gael members in late 1999. One senior colleague had said he could not identify the policy differences since he didn’t know what Fine Gael’s policy was on any issue; another said that there was no difference between the parties; a third had agreed but said that this didn’t matter; and a fourth, Maurice Dockrell, a patrician Protestant representing Dublin South-Central, said that “the main thing was that we were decent fellows and our opponents weren’t”. For many Fine Gael members in 1999, Dockrell’s assessment still gets to the heart of the matter.”

  4. Charisma seems to be what the public find lacking in Kenny… if so, they won’t find it in Bruton either. Not to mention that he is responsible for a few terrible policy positions and could easily be selectively quoted by FF to show that his “insight” into the economic mess we were working ourselves into wasn’t as great as it has been portrayed. Select Bruton, and watch the poll figures stay exactly as they are… take a punt on Coveney though and see what happens?

  5. The main question posed in the article was what advice the political science community in Ireland could offer FG. From my perspective the best advice is to find a new leader. While I am not necessarily convinced that it would make any substantial difference to policy it would still serve one important function. This is namely that Fine Gael can claim they are listening to the people and accepting that the leader was not up to scratch and unpopular. There is no doubt Kenny is personally unpopular and while he may not be hurting the overall partys popularity he is not necessarily helping it. At this point FG risk falling behind labour and a change in leader could be the best chance they have of stopping the trend if only because they are not going to shift policy positions dramtically.

  6. They should elect Simon Coveney as leader he is by far their best speaker and political exponent. He has steel and does not take crap from FF.

  7. Re-the difference between FG and FF: In fairness to Fine Gael, if they were in government and Fianna Fáil in opposition we’d be asking exactly the same question about Fianna Fáil. Enda Kenny has at least attempted to offer some kind of message via his New Era document, but where has it got him in the polls? Where have been the media debates about Fine Gael’s policies? The current leadership battle has brought the party more coverage than any other issue since the last election. So maybe the media have a role to play for promoting an interest in the horse-race element of politics? Or perhaps they are just feeding a demand from the public?
    How bad is this current ‘party-at-war’ stuff? Is it really going to convince voters to turn away from Fine Gael at the next election? It’s certainly brought them a lot of media attention, and while I don’t subscribe to the ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ theory, there has been no evident bitterness as of yet. Perhaps a leadership contest might invigorate the party, give it airtime to discuss its policies, give it an opportunity to show the public that it cares and that’s why it is currently engaging in such soul-searching?
    The biggest problem for Enda Kenny is not the numbers in the polls dissatisfied with his performance, but the considerable proportion of don’t knows. This contest gives him a chance to address this now and I think most of us have been surprised by the resolve he has shown over the last few days.
    Re-the lack of an ideological split in FG, there has always been the undercurrent of a divide in the party between a liberal and conservative wing. This came to a head in the 1960s when the young turks convinced the party to abandon its nineteenth-century liberal laissez-faire policies in favour of a just society. There are (young) liberal elements in Fine Gael (largely Dublin-based) who are quite different in their views to the older, conservative (and largely rural) element. Think Declan Costello vs Gerald Sweetman and Oliver J. Flanagan. This is also evident in the motions passed at Young Fine Gael conferences, which seems quite more outspoken and provocative than both the senior party and other youth wings of political parties.
    This ideological divide could be that of social democracy vs Christian democracy, although I’m not so sure if either side puts a label on their beliefs? While it may be stating the obvious to claim that Dublin FG is different to rural FG, such a divide is not so evident in Fianna Fáil.
    I am not suggesting that the current conflict in FG is a product of this ideological divide, but is it a factor?

  8. The question has been asked as to what happens if the FG parliamentary party divides evenly on the motion of no confidence in Enda Kenny. The FG constitution states (para 49 (ii)) that in the case of the vote of confidence that takes place automatically within two months of a general election at which the party does not enter government, the leader shall resign ‘if he/she fails to secure a majority’, so in those circumstances the leader would have to stand down after a tied vote. The same article does not explicitly state the same condition for those motions of no confidence in the leader that may be put down at other times, and nor does it say anything about the chair being able to cast a second vote in such or indeed any circumstances. So the constitution may provide scope for argument if the parliamentary party vote really did produce a tie, with the prospect of a trek to the High Court. But surely that could not happen?

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