Opposition parties rarely win elections, governments lose them. Yesterday’s RedC poll for the Irish Sun seems to shows Fine Gael on its way to losing one. It is trending downward during the campaign. By now we were supposed to see voters considering government formation and moving back to the government. According to one Fine Gael strategist I spoke to, who seemed sanguine at the party’s poor start, voters would use the first week of the campaign to vent anger at the government, and then they’d see sense and revert back. This was a Fine Gael ‘strategy’, he said. While it still might happen, I think there are reasons why, using the current (broader) strategy, it might not.
First of all, the idea that this is a strategy is stupid. It appears to be a hope. And why would allowing people to vent their anger for a period do little more than damage party support? It assumes that this would have a cathartic effect for voters, but it’s more likely to form a habit, a habit of blaming the government. A strategy, if it’s to be meaningful needs to have a number of features, but inaction is rarely one of them. According to Rumelt, who succeeded in writing a business strategy book that doesn’t either just state the bleedin’ obvious or sound like a mystic, talks about strategy as diagnosing the problem or challenge, finding pivot or advantage that can guide an approach to coherent action.
Fine Gael has some problems. One is that parties in power tend to lose support. Especially ones that have implemented years of austerity measures. The government, though more especially Labour, had been seen to have broken promises. Fine Gael’s leader, Enda Kenny, is not a convincing media performer, and is prone to gibberish in every interview or debate. Fine Gael is also, fairly or not, seen as the party of the wealthy, not that of middle Ireland.
On the positive side for Fine Gael the government has delivered a significant seven point drop in unemployment. The economy has grown and is continuing to do so. It stood firmly with an approach of of fiscal retrenchment and economic prudence, one the opposition parties opposed with varying degrees of vigour. But it was an approach that appears to have paid off. It certainly seems to have worked better than that taken in Greece, which Sinn Féin and many on the left held out as an exemplar.
Even the current global economic uncertainty can be used to Fine Gale and Labour’s advantage, because it makes real the threat that the economic recovery is fragile, and that stability might be a more prudent course. Similarly the difficulties in forming a government in Spain and Portugal should allow the Irish governing parties sell themselves as the best prospect of stable government.
That suggested that the party would try to frame the election as a choice between stability with the current parties, and chaos with any alternative Sinn Féin-led government. Fine Gael and Labour would then have focussed on Sinn Féin. It could have painted Sinn Féin as a high tax party, and in a straight fight between Gerry Adams (although never a realistic prospect) for Taoiseach, many voters would have taken the tried (if not completely trusted) Enda Kenny. This would have suited both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael because each would have a cartoon-caricature enemy to attack. But the big advantage would be that in this context Fianna Fáil might be an irrelevance. Meanwhile Sinn Féin would be busy targetting Fianna Fáil (its real target) by reminding voters of how it wrecked the country. If necessary Fine Gael could attack it as the party that ruined the country and had learned nothing because it was engaging in ‘auction politics’ again.
It was also pretty obvious what the opposition’s main attack would be. This was well-flagged. They’d accept the recovery, but call it a two-tiered one, and offer a ‘fair recovery’ instead. Given that it was seen as a middle-class and right-wing party, Fine Gael, then need to ensure that it did not feed that accusation.
When the campaign started it seemed to take the party by surprise. But more seriously it veered away from its core advantage, economic prudence. By promising tax cuts and spending rises it immediately removed the main weapon it could use against Fianna Fáil, and the main argument in its favour. Having Sinn Féin correct it on the size of the ‘Fiscal Space’ the government immediately lost its credibility as the prudent option. That its prize-fighter and reassuring voice, Michael Noonan, who has recently suffered from ill-health, mixed up these numbers again detracted from Fine Gael’s image as the steady hand upon the tiller.
Fine Gael also spent much of the first week conceding ground to the opposition. It accepted that the ‘recovery’ hadn’t reached the whole country, which fed to the opposition’s frame of offering a ‘Fair Recovery’. Both Fine Gael and Labour have spent two weeks apologising for the recovery, something that they should be one of their core strengths. But worse Fine Gael’s large tax cuts allowed Sinn Féin to immediately charachterise as tax cuts for the rich. These played against the Fine Gael line of prudent economic management (it’s not clear these are affordable) and into Sinn Féin (and Fianna Fáil’s) one of two-tiered recovery. Fine Gael is having the campaign dictated to it by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.
In the leader debates Kenny has consistently concentrated most of his arguments on Micheál Martin. This might be because it is likely to lose votes to Fianna Fáil and not Sinn Féin, but this misses the point of the campaign strategy. By framing it as a choice between a Fine Gael-led government and a Sinn Féin-led one, Fianna Fáil and Martin could have been lost as an afterthought in voters’ minds. By concentrating on Micheál Martin in the debates, it highlights that Martin is there, and that in fact he’s a pretty good media performer with significant experience in government, not all of it negative. Kenny and Burton spent some time lauding Martin for his work on the smoking ban in the first leader debate! Beside Kenny he is a plausible Taoiseach (again the RedC/ Sun poll shows voters think so too). Martin spent a lot of effort in these debates saying that the polls were wrong in the UK, and suggested Fianna Fáil might be a lot closer to Fine Gael than we think. He was playing his party back into the picture.
While Fine Gael felt it couldn’t say no to participation in the debates, the Fine Gael campaign in 2016 has played to Kenny’s weaknesses. In 2011 he travelled the country unlikely to be troubled by little more than having to high five a four-year old. Meanwhile in Dublin Fine Gael’s policy press-conferences were handled by Noonan, Reilly, Varadkar and Bruton. He was well prepared for the debates and passed the test, mainly because our expectations were so low.
In the 2016 campaign Kenny is by far the dominant figure. He is doing more media interviews, and there’s much less focus on other cabinet ministers. Even when they are out they don’t always seem to help. Varadkar has admitted that Fine Gael may not be the largest party, again playing into the other parties’ campaigns. It hasn’t a quick one-line answer to all the questions about who would govern with who, and so wastes its valuable airtime on talking about its campaign rather than delivering its message.There has been no sustained attempt to attack Sinn Féin on taxes, or portray Adams, who at times is even more incoherent than Kenny, as the alternative Taoiseach.
There is still time for the government. It will just take a few points movement back to the parties. But Fine Gael and Labour need to give the unconvinced reasons to go back. This morning’s ad in the Irish Times suggests Labour recognises this. It has stopped apologising for the recovery, and has stopped ceding to Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin that they are the parties of fairness.
Fine Gael’s campaign has been incoherent. If Fine Gael wants to turn this around, it not only needs to get on message, but it could be too late for the original one, it needs a new message.