Now that Fianna Fáil has chosen Micheál Martin as leader a week before an election campaign, can he make much of an impact at this stage? Most research suggests leaders have a marginal effect. But this might say more about the research than it does about leaders. Few would argue that Tony Blair did not have an impact on the UK Labour Party, and that the change from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown wasn’t important. But how did Blair have an impact? His main impact was that he changed his party’s policies radically – so whether we can say it was his leadership that mattered or the policies is debatable. Except of course, that it’s likely that we would not have seen those changed policies without the leader.
It is also the case that when we evaluate a party’s policies that we do so through the leader. If a party had a policy articulated through a bland, unattractive leader the message might not get through in the same way when a telegenic and articulate leader is selling it.
The problem for Fianna Fáil is that it does not have a great deal of time to reposition itself in policy terms, so that route is not really open to it. He hardly can disassociate the party from the policies of the last few years. If the policies were right and it was just Brian Cowen was not the right mouthpiece, then he might make a difference. His ‘radio-silence’ in the last few years means fewer people have formed an impression of him than they have of Lenihan say, so the leaders’ debates could be crucial.
He could also take control of the party organisation. Candidate selection and other seemingly technical electoral issues will have an impact on the number of TDs returned. Many activists and supporters might be looking for any excuse and scapegoating Cowen could give Fianna Fáil supporters the excuse they want to vote for the party.