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.