Can Fianna Fáil Change to Survive?

Post by David Farrell (July 12, 2011)

It is not just political systems that need to be reformed from time to time, parties also need to go through a process of renewal if they’re to survive the trials and tribulations of electoral politics.  As reported in today’s Irish Times, Fianna Fáil’s parliamentary party met yesterday to have a full and frank discussion about its future and about how it might change and adapt in the light of its recent electoral defeat.  This is an entirely understandable move by the party leadership as it seeks to find a way back to electoral success in future elections.

The first attempt to explore the issue of party change systematically was by Kenneth Janda and Robert Harmel in a much-cited paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Politics in 1994. See also their paper in Party Politics published a year later.  As they show using comparative evidence, the three most common factors behind major change in political parties, is election defeat, the election of a new party leader, or changes in the dominant faction within a party.

Fianna Fáil has experienced the first two of these factors (indeed, arguably all three), so it makes sense that the tone of the discussions about change and renewal should be ambitious. The party has a steep hill to climb.

Will it succeed?  Well, if the comparative evidence is anything to go by, the party should.  In a recent stock take of political parties in a number of the world’s democracies, my colleagues and I find compelling evidence of the adaptive capability of political parties. Of course, there are parties that come and go all the time, but the larger, more established parties seem to stay the course for the most part, and one main reason for this is because they successfully tack and change to meet the prevailing electoral winds.

The sorts of discussions that the Fianna Fáil leadership are currently having suggest that they are well aware of the need to do this.

11 thoughts on “Can Fianna Fáil Change to Survive?

  1. It is perhaps worth pointing out that FF polled almost 400,000 first preferences – not far behind Labour’s total and a little over half of FG’s. Were it not for the fact that a large number of voters, in addition to switching their first preferences, altered their patterns of lower preference allocations to give FF a thorough kicking. A slightly higher share of first preferences and a more traditional pattern of lower preference allocation could easily have been reflected in a net 11 seat allocation between FG and FF which would have generated seat totals more proportional to their first preference totals.

    In addition, FF remains organised on a national basis. This provides a strong spring board.

    The following is a comment made by a perceptive observer on another site at the end of last year:

    “FF committed an error of competence and hubris. They thought they were using the developers for campaign funds and keeping employment high which all led to votes, but the bankers were using them both. They also thought they and their civil servants were smarter than they were. They believed their own publicity.

    However, the principles which attract many to FF are still there. National solidarity, social justice, nationalism and commitment to equal opportunity, a commitment to community and a commitment to the welfare of the less well off are still core principles for the party and a lot of its supporters. FF made a major blunder which has had severe consequences but they have done a lot right since disaster struck.

    FF’s determination to improve infrastructure and community facilities means that even if the bubble was a disaster we are not left empty handed. There has also been a welcome equalisation of society over the last number of years. FF are not responsible for all our woes as we would have been in a difficult position anyway but FF did make serious errors and deserve a strong dose of medicine.

    With that said, if the FF party is properly reformed and is frank about the problems which beset it then I think that it can recover to make a valuable contribution to the debate. In particular, I expect a new generation with new ideas to take the tiller. If there isn’t reform or the old-guard hangs in, then I expect FF to wither.”

    I would broadly concur with these comments, but with some caveats.

    FF developed out of Dev’s recognition that (1) without forcing a conflict with him leading one side he would be consigned to play second fiddle to Collins and his colleagues who exhibited considerable governing capability and (2) that a competing power bloc was needed to wrest power from the Civil War victors. The hunger for power is in the party’s DNA. Its track record at mutating as required to acquire and retain power at all costs is probably better than that of the orginal ‘stupid party’, the UK Tories.

    In addition, FF’s emergence deprived Irish politics of the opportunity to develop two competiting power blocs reflecting contesting views on where the boundaries of the state should lie. This is generally how politics is organised and conducted in most other mature developed democracies. Ireland has suffered as a result and a resurrection by FF could postpone this necessary re-alignment.

    The principal question is whether its almost inevitable resurrection will be characterised by opportunism or principle. The recent history of the party, regrettably, suggests the former.

      • Fair question. I merely quoted this pseudonymous commenter on another blog as it expresses sentiments that are rarely expressed and, in my view, capture some features of FF’s raison d’etre and impact in the modern area. Not saying I agree totally.

        As to your question, income and wealth inequality has increased continuously over the last 30 years in most developed economies – and, in particular, in those in the Anglo-Saxon orbit (in which I would include Ireland). However, the ESRI did find evidence (can’t find the link) that this was reversed a little in Ireland in the run-up to the collapse in 2008.

        Unfortunately, most of this limited reversal was bubble-based.

      • Here’s some evidence: 250,000 people, including 100,000 children were lifted out of poverty between 1997 and 2007. This was the largest fall in poverty numbers in such a short period ever measured in Europe.

  2. 387,362 first preferences is a long way from the 500,000 the party have repeatedly claimed in the Dáil and media.

    There is very little reason for Fianna Fáil to exist beyond 2011. None that would benefit the majority at least.

    • For better or for worse, Fianna Fáil is the opposition party. So long as Labour and Fine Gael remain joined at the hip, what other option is there? Sinn Féin?

  3. Fianna Fail are dead and buried and by the time the next election happens more financial pain, bankruptcy and the asset stripping of the country will have been visited on the inhabitants of this little island compliment of FF policies but more important their response to the crisis they created.

    FF are never going to recover full stop. In fact there will be nowhere to hide by the time the next election is called.

    As for their new leader just recall his halcyon days as minister for health? They are a joke of a party!

  4. Fianna Fail have a big job to do – to reorganise themselves as well as to rebrand their party. The support base is still there, especially in rural areas, if they can re-energise their brand and get the public to ‘believe’ in some form of restored credibility on the issues facing the country.

    It will be more difficult in major urban centres though, especially Dublin, where they no longer even have a sitting TD. Electorally, the Presidency and the by-election in Dublin West are two very big tests in the near future, but the real test will come in the local elections when dissatisfaction with the current government is reaching a high point. Whatever happens in the eurozone, it’s clear that austerity will continue to be the main plank of government policy, which won’t do much for the competency and already creaking credibility of the current incumbents. But ‘austerity’ has also been central to the FF approach.

    Political strategy is thus a challenge; since FF need to differentiate themselves from the coalition without any major policy changes on the economic front. They lack ‘heavy hitters’in their parliamentary ranks and seem bereft of ideas at the moment. Between a rock and a hard place in a way.

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