Do smaller parties always lose in government?

By Eoin O’Malley

The latest opinion poll (analysed here) indicates that the Labour party is bearing the brunt of governing whereas Fine Gael and Enda Kenny seem to be enjoying an extended honeymoon with the electorate. This is backed up by the analysis of polcors in Ireland, one of whom reported here that Gilmore was seen as ‘dithering’ and ineffectual in cabinet.  reports of Kenny’s performance in cabinet are that he is effective and fair – surprising many. So do small parties always do badly in government, and if so why?

In a special issue of Irish Political Studies on minor parties in Irish political life I argued that small parties have tended to act as punchbags for the heavyweights in government. Parties in government throughout the world tend to lose support – the mere act of governing forces parties to make real choices quite different to the hypothetical ones they can make in opposition. But obviously this does not always happen. If a government is seen as competent or is lucky to govern through an economic boom, or there is no effective opposition parties in government can perform well in elections.

But we can see below in Ireland the relative percent (not percentage point) effect on a party’s seat total of being in government or opposition is much greater for small parties than large ones. This is because seemingly small changes have bigger effects on small parties, but big parties can also suffer dramatic falls, such as happened to Fianna Fáil in February. The Greens, however, were wiped out.

Type of party
Opposition or government Mainstream Minor






This doesn’t always happen. The PDs, up to 2007, did well electorally out of government. But if small parties tend to get punished for government, why might this be? And why, when the government is going well does the larger party tend to benefit?

One reason that small parties tend to suffer more from government is that they have distinct (niche) ideologies that tends to get smothered in government. But here we can see that the success of the PDs was in making their ideology the mainstream. Importantly, the constant bickering with Fianna Fáil served to remind the electorate the party was there and relevant. From 2002 the PDs were less aggressive in looking for policy victories.

Another reason is that small parties tend not to deliver in their niche areas. The PDs delivered tax cuts and its electorate rewarded it, but many other minor parties chose to focus on areas on which they cannot deliver or that have little impact on ordinary voters’ lives. So climate change and carbon taxes may have been important to Green party activists, but was less so to ordinary voters than would have been, say, reforming the public transport system.

There is also an organisational reason. Minor parties (of which Labour is not one) tend to have to spread resources too thinly. So the ministers are required to be ministers, but also party leaders and are wanted for party functions. When they become ministers some leaders tend to concentrate on just their departmental job. Larger parties, especially ones with the Taoiseach’s office, can use ministers or the Taoiseach in areas as they are needed without losing their impact in their department or at cabinet. This should not be an issue for Labour, which is big enough to manage organisational development and run their departments.

So should Labour be worried? Well yes. We can see that for whatever reason, small parties tend to get blamed when things go badly, but the larger parties tend to gather up any glory going. The policies the government is going to be forced to pursue are ones that Fine Gael would probably be happy enough to be associated with anyway. But selling state assets and cutting the dole is not going to appeal to natural Labour supporters. Given that this will happen anyway, the party needs to carve out niche policies that it can deliver on.

5 thoughts on “Do smaller parties always lose in government?

  1. The PDs actual national percentage level of support nationally went down, as far as I know. They increased their seats once due to clever vote management and luck, but I think that can reasonably be discounted as an outlier.

    I wrote a rushed undergrad essay on this a few years back, and I seem to remember that only one party who voted to support a government ever increased their share of the vote in Ireland. I think it was the WP in ’82, but I could be wrong.

  2. It seems FG had some sort of actual plan for what it wanted to do while Labour did not?

    Also, Labour don’t seem to have set people’s expectations of what it wants to achieve in office. FG had its five point plan – as cheesy as it is, it still means there is something that FG can be held to account against at the next election.

    Also, Labour has been a massive disappointment in the way it has gone about governing as we have a Labour social welfare minister attacking social welfare fraud from the bottom up but not from the top down at the same time, an education minister who has done nothing to stop the book school scam or schools asking for donations from parents, a minister caving into the ESB unions to prevent a national grid company being set up independent of the electric supplier and a Labour reform minister who admits he has never asked for a line by line explanation of the range of persk and allowances given all across the public sector.

    The a Labour Foreign Minister who to be frank does not have the personality required for that office.

    Labour in short have been a huge disappointment so far. It’s early days yet so we shouldn’t get too carried away with polls.

  3. Eoin,

    Your points are indisputable, but you may be overstating the dilution effect of leadership spread on smaller parties, which I don’t think is of any particular relevance to executive performance. More likely it’s to do with the allocation of portfolios between the major and minor parties of government from the outset. This sets up a particular dynamic that mediates into public perception of the party’s performance in office as a whole. The two most powerful positions in any government are the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance without whose authority nothing that involves a cent of public expenditure can go anywhere. The relationship between the two, moreover, must be mutually supportive; otherwise there is a risk of a severely negative impact on the profile of the government generally and its re-election potential.
    It’s noteworthy that only once – and then only when they were in no position to argue the toss – has Fine Gael allocated the Finance portfolio to a Labour Minister. In the current administration the portfolio has been split in two, but it’s apparent that Brendan Howlin’s role is subsidiary to that of Michael Noonan. Moreover, Howlin is cast in the role of the ‘Minister for Cuts that impact on Ordinary Citizens’, whereas Noonan retains control over the macreconomic and strategic direction ‘high profile’ aspects of the portfolio. Labour’s other two ministries in the big spending departments of Social Protection and Education, and Pat Rabbitte’s slot in Comms, Energy and Natural Resources , place the smaller government party in the frontline of consistent bad news delivery to the general public, particularly as regards micro-cuts in social and educational services whilst Rabbitte is likely to become increasingly identified in the public mind with energy price rises.

    None of this would matter very much if the Labour Ministers demonstrated a capacity for reform or innovation or creative thinking in their respective portfolios that will ultimately accrue in real benefits to the general public, especially to those who rely on public services. It may be too early to judge them on that score yet, but the early signs are far from encouraging. Further, the media performance of Labour Ministers – with the occasional exceptions of Quinn and Howlin, who at least appear to have some vision and grasp of priorities – has amounted to a mixture of smug, incoherent or, at best, unpersuasive. Then again, Labour showed a marked deficit in solidly grounded policy proposals before the general election. Key figures in the leadership of the party were well-known to hold to the belief that the public didn’t read policy documents so therefore they weren’t worth spending too much effort on and that negative politics was the more profitable card to play.

    Every government is different and I don’t believe there is any hard and fast rule that says the smaller party in government must, of necessity, suffer any greater loss of popularity than the larger one. Compatibility between respective support bases also needs to be considered. At the time the 1992 FF-Labour coalition fell asunder, for example, it is noteworthy that Labour still maintained its higher poll ratings and that immediate opinion polls favoured a continuation of that partnership. Ideological compatibility on economic policy and taxation between FF and the PDs also worked in the PDs favour in their first term in office to 2002.

    This current government is different in that it has absolutely no power in respect of fiscal policy and even less over its political choices. Its priority has to be to regain what it likes to call our ‘economic sovereignty’, without which it will simply continue to be in office but not in power, however much bluster and blather its leaders and respective Ministers put about to the contrary. Given the current international environment, there can be no certainty that it can succeed in throwing off the yoke of the MoU in two years time. But if it fails to do so, arguably it won’t be just Labour that reaps the whirlwind of public anger in due course.

  4. I would agree with Veronica that there was a certain ideological overlap between the PDs and FF on economic issues, although the PDs were also fortunate that they shared power with a taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who had no particular ideological beliefs and just went with the flow, as such.

    It’s still too early to make a definitive judgment on Labour in office, but its ministers seem overwhelmed by the task at hand. Eamon Gimore lost his momentum during the election campaign and doesn’t seem to have recovered any sense of composure since. He gives the impression of actively disliking the position he now finds himself in. He would do well to heed what Mary Harney (while overlooking her own approach to governing) had to say to John Gormley that any day in government is better than a day in opposition.

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