Policy and the election campaign

By Jane Suiter

The campaign we have just witnessed is unusual in Irish party political terms and may be one of the first where national policy has played an important part.  There is little doubt  when we examine movements in opinion polls over the course of the campaign that Fine Gael ran the most effective operation. The campaign post mortems have not really begun in earnest but a common theme in those that have appeared so far has been the effectiveness of the various media campaigns. These are undoubtedly important but I will leave it to another time to compare them in detail. More interesting perhaps, from a political science perspective is the underlying logic behind those messages.

Writing in David Farrell’s book Do Political Campaigns Matter? Ian McAllister set out a model of modern campaigns Calculating or Capricious? The nub of the argument is that the character of  election campaign has changed markedly with the decline of voters with strong partisan attachment and the rise of late deciding voters. These late deciders can be divided into two types: capricious voters who are swayed by leaders and sound bite;  while calculating voters pay attention to policy and to the media. In all recent Irish elections voters have been deemed capricious in other words parties have competed with populist pledges on the basis of the personality and popularity of leaders. This served Fianna Fail well in 2002 and in 2007 and the other parties attempted to emulate it. However, the economic collapse culminating with the arrival of the IMF changed this narrative. The limited evidence available to date appears to point to voters in this election who appear to more be interested in policy and in national  issues  than before. The change agenda arising perhaps from Obama’s’ charismatic campaign was also very much on the agenda.

Fine Gael appears to have begun in its plan more than two years ago. It appears that Brian Farrell’s seminal book Chairman or Chief was consulted in detail and it was decided that Enda Kenny would be a chairman and would no longer attempt to masquerade as a chief as he had in 2007, nor indeed attempt an Obama type message. At the same time detailed policy development plans were quietly put in place.  Until recently, many  Fine Gael spokespeople have answered the question of why vote for Fine Gael with the time worn answer of because we are not Fianna Fail. That had also been the underlying message in 2007. Almost unnoticed by many in the party policy documents were released looking at jobs, the budget, health, the public sector and political reform. For the campaign,  these were amalgamated into a single heavily-tested document, the now infamous five-point plan to the surprise of many in the party. From this perspective, the decision not to put Kenny into the first leader debate allowed the campaign to settle on policy before the focus came on leader charisma.

Labour, on the other hand, appeared to run a very different campaign, one based more on the assumption of  non policy oriented  voters and decision was taken not to roll out many specific polices. Up to six months ago this was running well and that section of the website was instead filled with press releases and speeches. Little work appears to have been  done on detailed policy apart from in the banking and finance areas covered by Joan Burton, but even here little detail was published. Instead Labour appears to have wanted to keep to the old model of appealing to sound bite and the Irish love of chieftains. Two polls last autumn which probably erroneously put Labour support above 30% with Gilmore’s personal rating soaring appear to have consolidated  the view that this would be the most successful campaign method and thus  formed the basis of the campaign. The Gilmore for Taoiseach strategy was decided, policy was put on the backburner. When they campaign focussed on issue rather than personality, Labour had no Plan B. the Gilmore posters were printed, the mugs on display and the party was playing catch up.

In the meantime Fianna Fail and the Greens have been so focussed on the problems of running the Government had little to offer in their manifestos apart from the IMF’s four year plan. The result was that Fine Gael were allowed to position themselves as the party of  radical change despite having the only leader who also led in 2007 campaign of the four parties. Quite an achievement.

12 thoughts on “Policy and the election campaign

  1. Fine Gael advertised their “brand” like any marketing or PR firm would advertise tooth paste – much like the Obama campaign. Has Obama brought hope&change and lifted people out of poverty? Dribs and drabs maybe…

    Fine Gael’s policies make no sense & don’t add up – everyone from Labour to Fianna Fail and Sara Burke (on health) agree. Many people will eventually realise they were sold a pup in this five finger plan.

    I agree with you on Labour.

    Interesting you don’t mention the media and lack of critical analysis not to mention the bias of the SINDO’s front page last Sunday.

  2. FG planners and strategists did not need to consult books, though no doubt they may well have done so. In the run up to the 1997 general election, FF produced a dizzying amount of policy documents – including one which promised to cull the growing number of state quangos! – in just about every policy area. These policies had been developed in consultation with civic and community groups, experts, NGOs and so on, drawing on a wide range of experience. Bertie Ahern wasn’t rated all that highly as a potential leader by the media at that time, so the emphasis on policy was regarded as a strategic necessity by the party if it was to have any chance of dislodging the incumbent Rainbow parties, who incidentally enjoyed high approval ratings right up to the eve of the general election itself. Like FG in this campaign, FF’s hard work on policy paid off during election ’97, as the party was able to distill its messages into snappy soundbites and thereby capture the mood of the electorate. A key element in that public mood in 1997 was awareness that economic growth levels, and the first exchequer surplus in many a long year, was passing them by and a feeling that the government of the day was too slow in the business of wealth redistribution: in terms of increases in social welfare and old age pensions which were lagging further and further behind spiralling wage and cost of living increases and a mere 1% reduction in the top rate of tax when the clamour was for income tax reductions across the board.

    Different times; different parties. Same tactics. One wonders if the celebrated five point plan of Fine Gael will suffer the same fate as the policy platforms on which FF fought the 1997 campaign: ditched as soon as Bertie Ahern was installed as Taoiseach. This time the ditching will be for entirely different reasons of course. FG’s plans and those of its putative partner in coalition, the Labour Party, are based on growth rates that are largely wishful thinking. Take the anticipated growth figures out and the tax plans, reversing the cut in the minimum wage and social welfare cuts to the blind etc., or investment in expensive jobs’ stimulus measures, green, black red or whatever colour you fancy, must all fall by the wayside.

    Someone whould sponsor a competition for the most accurate representation of the wording of the announcement from the steps of the Department of Finance in Merrion Street in two weeks time that begins with: “Oh, things are much, much worse than we were led to believe by the outgoing FF administration…..”

    • “Oh, things are much, much worse than we were led to believe by the outgoing FF administration…..”

      Sums it up really…

      I’m waiting for their excuse for why they won’t/”can’t” reverse the min wage cut. There’s slim chance of that getting reversed since it’ll be effectively a wage increase which is “anti-business” as well as it being in the Memo of Understanding.

  3. Surely the most critical policy decision of the canpaign was the decision by new Fianna Fail Leader, Michael Martin, not to resile from the broad thrust of Government policy including the IMF/ECB plan.

    When really pushed he admitted some “mistakes” were made and instanced increasing public expenditure and narrowing the tax base too much. In other words the party had been too left wing. Not a word of criticism for the bank guarantee (championed by his rival, Brian Lenihan) or the IMF/ECB deal many viewed as a national humiliation.

    Thus despite running an extraordinary campaign winning most of the debates and becoming the most popular party leader, Michael looks to have anchored Fianna Fail to a sinking ship with a continuing decline in the (opinion) polls.

    If the campaign did anything, it consolidated a national consensus that the public should not have been made liable for the losses of private banking investors and speculators and that Fianna Fails lonstanding close connections with developers and their finaciers had proved ruinous for the country.

    Of course if Michael Martin had distanced Fianna Fail from the bank guarantee and had argued that the ECB/IMF deal should be renegotiated, many would have seen this as a deathbed conversion coming rather too late in the day. He was too intimately involved in both decisions.

    But if the real mistakes had been admitted, there was at least some possibility of “forgiveness” by the electorate. After all, who in the electorate really understood the fine distinctions between senior and junior subordinated debt at the time of the guarantee and many felt Fianna Fail had been “bounced” into hurried decisions. Without such an admission, Fianna Fail could not be forgiven and were doomed…

  4. As a previously politically involved English voter,now living in Ireland, I initially found the lack of policy emphasis here quite astonishing. In 2007 none of the plentiful literature I received (post or door-to-door) from FF, FG, and Labour had any, repeat any, mention of any specific national policy; it was all tribal (‘our turn now’) or local/clientelist. And the word amongst friends and neighbours is still so: vote for ‘our own’, regardless of fitness for office or national (let alone international) perspective (direct quote: ‘he’ll get your sewers fixed’). Labour’s slowness on the policy-campaigning front fits with adherence to this older pattern; it would be inconceivable in the UK for a notionally left-of-centre party to consider coalition with a rightist party in the way that Labour is considering with FG, whereas it does fit with the power-at-any-price that the Greens adopted with FF (or, to a lesser extent, the LibDems adopted with the Conservatives in the UK). That’s surely what makes opinion polling in Ireland so problematic; the local factors can be so local that national swings are difficult to interpret constituency by constituency. An argument for the list system, to break or diminish the local links?

    • @jbp,

      Given the background you describe, I’m a little surprised that you suggest a ‘list system’. In Ireland it is rare for Dail candidates not to be born and bred in the constuencies in which they stand for election – or not to have come up through the local organisation and local political ranks. In the UK, where, admittedly, localism is a factor, many party constituency organisations interview, and select from, a number of prospective parliamentary candidates (with most, if not all, being from outside the constituency). This has given us the joy of Mandy representing Hartlepool!

      Perhaps this might be worth considering in the Irish context since I am instinctively against list systems as it confers too much additional power on the factions.

      • I’ve been there, in the UK system: I was an election agent in 1997 (where, incidentally, a local figure emerged as the candidate despite competition from elsewhere in the country). I do feel that the local nexus is pernicious here, where families sometimes (still) decide who the next candidate will be — allegedly 1 TD in 4 in 2007 had close links to his or her predecessor. The weakness of local government means that TDs get, and have to atend to, a lot of the local stuff that should go to councillors; see Fintan O’Toole, passim. It also means that you have to have powerful parish-pump credentials, and preferably connections, in order to get a foot on the political ladder. How does Ireland get high-flyers into the Dail, except by accident? That’s the question, and a list or partial list system might be one way of doing it.

    • why oh why are so many people pushing for this “list system”? is this the new buzz word(s)? will you folks stop and think about this a while? its more democracy we need not less. so what if the ordinary person knows their TD by name? we should be proud that we have such an astute electorate. its only a small little island we have here. just 4.5 million people for heavens sake the some people are talking about national issues verses local issues is nothing short of daft. if we can’t govern an island of this size whitout all of this national v local issues stuff than maybe we shouldn’t be an independant state at all!

  5. Perhaps we should take the wise words of Sean lemass to heart: “Every promise made during an election campaign should be buried on the night of the election.”

    The main objective of any faction seeking to govern is to convince a majority of voters they have the ability and durability to provide competent governance in their interests. And it also requires an ability to soothe fears and to respond to voters’ aspirations. The personality of the leader/focus on policy is a secondary choice.

    But, by focusing on the latter – and making a virtue of necessity – FG has faciliated a very welcome move away from the ‘presidential style’ and appears willing to restore the more traditional and appropriate approach of a government from and in parliament with the Taoiseach being ‘primus inter pares’.

    On the policy front, with Ireland’s sovereignty diminished to such an extent, FG, similar to all the other parties, have ignored the key structural economic reforms that will have to be implemented as part of the EU/IMF deal over the next two years. These relate to the non-tradable, sheltered sectors (both public and private). It is understood that the report of the Review Group on State Assets and Liabilities has been finalised but there was a general agreement to postpone publication until after the election. In contrast there has been very limited analysis of the required refroms in the private sheltered sectors. These are areas where Ireland retains considerable sovereignty and where reforms will have significant impacts on existing powerful vested interests – but will generate enormous benefits for the vast majority of citizens.

    It is, perhaps, understandable that consideration of these issues was postponed until after the election, but it seriously damages and diminishes the democratic process. We still have some way to go before Ireland may be viewed as a properly functioning democratic polity.

  6. @jbp,

    I know the Irish produce more history than can be consumed locally, but I think you need to place this phenomenon in context. The biggest challenge facing nation states when emerging from colonisation or the overthrow of tyranny and seeking to establish viable democratic institutions and procedures is to secure the emergence of at least two competing political blocs with each representing broad swathes of public opinion – but holding conflicting views on the role of government and the boundaries of the state. (I would contend that this alignment only came to be settled finally in the US in the 1980s when Reagan brought large numbers of the Dixiecrats into the Republican fold – more than 200 years after US independence from Britain.)

    Most other EU democracies, irrespective of the length of time the current institutional arrangements have been in existence, have settled on a broad centre-right/centre-left split. De Valera, one of the greatest exponents of Machiavelli’s arts in the modern era, and recognising the potency and dominance of Collins, sought to build a competing power bloc around a mystic Republicanism – Gaelic, Catholic and free. And it has endured until now as the natural party of government. That this grip is being broken only now almost 80 years since this faction first secured power is a measure of how far Ireland still has to progress to become a mature democratic polity.

    One result has been that the cement of the main competing factions is a reliance on tribal loyalties and on kith and kin. And it requires a hunger for power and a willingness to suspend disbelief – similar to the original ‘stupid party’, the UK Tories. These instincts are bred in the bone and instilled from the cradle in aspiring politicians. And this applies to all the main factions – except that Labour and FG have never been able individually to convert hunger for power into a successful strategy. Though we seem to be getting closer in FG’s case.

    So, in response to your question about getting high-flyers into the Dail, I don’t think we need them – just people with common sense, good judgement and a commitment to the public interest. They have the resources to hire or commission all the expertise and management capability they may require.

    Maybe by the next election the factions will be aligned more sensibly and we’ll have more nationally (and internationally) minded – and less tribal – public representatives.

  7. It is just 3 days short of 38 years (28 Feb 1973) since we last has a change from a long unbroken run of FF governments. A short episode that occurred during RTE’s coverage of the count may be of interest to some in this parish.

    For the first time RTE had a link to a conputer in University College London to process and generate predictions from the early results. As the initial tallies of the first counts came in UCL’s computer predicted an FF win. However, in the studio it was noted that FG might gain a seat in Mayo West. The eventual winner of this second seat was Henry Kenny, the father of the current FG leader who inherited the seat following his father’s untimely death. Ted Nealon, scrutinising the early tallies in the studio, was characteristically sceptical about the wonders of these new-fangled computing machines. “I don’t know about this computer in London”, he declared, “but if FG is on course to gain a seat in Mayo West we’ll have a change of government”. It was the first clear indication of the end of FF’s 16 years in power.

  8. Alright , FF wiped out , a bunch of lefties in, but little has changed post-election as Labour line up for their six cabinet seats.

    I don’t think it has dawned on Fine Gael yet , but with circa 76 seats they have an effective majority.
    This is because of the obliteration of Fianna Fail.

    With 20+ seats Fianna Fail do not want to see or hear of another election for the next decade , thus they will allow a Fine Gael single party government through the new Dail unopposed .

    There is therefore no need for Fine Gael to buy off Labour or anybody else with cabinet seats , there is no need for them to change a single policy.
    Fianna Fail will not vote down a single FG money bill, not a single FG budget , nor will they take part in or oppose any No Confidence vote .

    I think that this whole new situation has occurred to Leo Varadker, and is beginning to dawn on Phil Hogan.

    This is why Fine Gael should not yield a single cabinet seat to Labour. As they stand now they are an effective majority government if they want to be.

    They should of themselves form that government now and present it to Dail Eireann for approval immediately . They should not wait on any Labour Party conferences that are undemocratic anyway in foisting their decisions on Ireland.

    To ensure a smooth transition , Enda Kenny should invite Micheal Martin in for a cuppa and ensure FF abstention in the vote for the FG government and the other matters of Dail procedure , budgets, money bills, No Confidence votes , as I have mentioned .

    He should then ask Micheal Martin alone to join his government as an act of good faith , as Foreign Minister again , the job that Martin does superbly.
    This would not then be described as a Coalition Government but as an ‘Agreed Government’ , and Leo Varadker could as he wishes call it a ‘Government of National Unity’ .

    Job Done!

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