Eoin O’Malley (15 February, 2011)
There’s is some degree of agreement in the opinion polls of all types (different companies, candidate based ballot paper questions and party questions, local polls and national polls) that over the course of the campaign Fine Gael has trended upwards and Labour downwards. As we can see from the Red C first preference vote trends, which is the only properly comparable trend of polls, that where Labour was within touching distance of Fine Gael in October and November (Millward Brown had Labour ahead of Fine Gael in September, but its estimates for Labour are usually above the Red C ones for some reason) since then Fine Gael has pulled away. The closeness of the race last autumn, with Kenny’s unpopularity, presumably gave rise to the ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ strategy.
While Fine Gael has run a good campaign, the focus by the electorate on policy issues and not leadership qualities has suited it. Fine Gael has also emphasised the team in Fine Gael rather than the leader, who we knew had not convinced the public. Labour’s focus on leadership when voters were concerned with policy has not worked. But what else may have gone wrong?
One big difference between Labour and Fine Gael is the position on the policy spectrum. Fine Gael has had very little policy competition. The PDs are gone, which removed an old threat for Fine Gael whenever it moved too close to the centre. Fianna Fáil is persona non grata for much of the electorate, so it has not posed to be a real competitor (although Fine Gael was careful to ensure that voters were reminded of Micheál Martin’s past). It could position itself where it wanted, without too much fear of seeping votes anywhere else (the odd independent excepted).
The Labour party, on the other hand, was squeezed from both sides. If it wanted to position itself in the centre, it had to be careful not to concede too much ground to ULA or Sinn Féin candidates. The delicate balancing act it had to manage was exploited by Fine Gael. Each time Labour mentioned more tax than cuts (to protect its left flank) Fine Gael could attack it as a high tax party – something that wouldn’t play well with Labour’s middle class support. Most Irish people, by a margin of two to one prefer cuts to taxes according to an opinion poll taken in the autumn. On the other side Sinn Féin and the ULA characterised Labour as part of the consensus of cuts.
The election is far from over. We can still see from the Red-C SBP poll that Fine Gael and Labour have a lot of ‘soft’ support of ‘likely to’ and might do’ potential voters, which can be won from each other. But Labour need to change its strategy.
The problem for Labour is that this two front war is one that is not going to change in the next ten days, whereas the absence of a lift in support for Fianna Fáil (despite Martin being the most popular leader) means that Fine Gael has no such fear.