The last election was seen at the time as an electoral earthquake. In the midst of the worst economic crisis in our history it was to be expected that the voters would be gunning for the government of the day. The devastation of Fianna Fáil (losing three-quarters of their seats) and the disappearance of the Greens (losing all of theirs) certainly seemed of earthquake proportions, as were the historically high levels of electoral volatility – one of the highest ever recorded in any democracy (see here). It was said at the time that politics would never be the same again: moulds had been broken; party allegiances had been blown away; Fianna Fáil were judged to be in their death throes never to return again.
And yet…. Even at that time a closer look at the entrails of the results might have suggested that perhaps things were not quite as dramatic as they seemed at first blush. For instance, even though Fine Gael and Labour each won more Dáil seats than ever before (in the process knocking Fianna Fáil off that party’s hallowed perch as the top dog in the Dáil), it is worth noting that Fine Gael have won more votes in the past, and Labour’s vote total only just matched what they were winning in the height of their ‘Spring tide’. As for Sinn Féin, the anti-austerity wing of the Left, they could only manage a few percentage points of extra support. The big winners in that election were the independents, an exotic ragbag of individual politicians with little commonality of purpose (as befits their status).
That the main winners in the election were independents says something about the state of public opinion on Irish politics. Absent any serious choice between alternative parties, it seems that many voters felt they had little choice but to vote for independents.
Two years on and opinion poll trends (see analysis here) would appear to support the contention that the 2011 election was more a blip than an earthquake: Fianna Fáil are once again the top party (although still far below their traditional 40% levels); Fine Gael and Labour are settling back to familiar support levels (with Labour anticipated to do as badly in the next election as they generally do after a period in government); Sinn Féin’s support base while certainly rising is lower than it should be given the economic climate and its populist agenda.
The one constant is the continuing (if slightly declining) high levels of support for independents and spectacularly high levels of ‘don’t knows’ (35% in the recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll). It remains the case that in the absence of any serious choice between alternative parties the voters vacilate between support for independents or for ‘none of the above’. With nowhere to go the votes are going nowhere.
In short, what we have is a classic (if extreme) case of what the late Peter Mair would have referred to as voters ‘available to change’. All that seems lacking is a force for change, a political entrepreneur to rally a new group, a new political party that voters might latch on to.
So why hasn’t one emerged? Names of possible political entrepreneurs are bandied about, among them Pat Cox, Michael McDowell, or the indomitable Declan Ganley – the latter certainly showing all the signs of intent (see here). But so far there’s no real challenge to the established party system.
Possible explanations for this include: the high cost of election campaigns (requiring deep pockets to mount effective challenges), the relative unfairness of our electoral system whose small constituencies produce high electoral thresholds that are difficult for small parties to surpass, and the lack of a credible alternative who doesn’t come with baggage. Furthermore, this economic crisis has tainted most professions, limiting the potential for some ‘shining star’ to emerge.
The next election could well throw up surprises, but as of now the potential for real electoral change seems pretty remote.