In the last few weeks people have understandably been following the US presidential elections. However, since the last general election there has been a slow trend emerging in the Irish landscape; namely, the rise of the combined vote in the two main conservative parties.
I have used the Red C and B&A polls since they come are basically tracking polls coming out nearly once a month (as opposed to the irregular ipsos-MRBI and Millward-Brown polls). I have used the seat projections of Dr. Adrian Kavanagh with one exception – the most recent B&A poll; he hasn’t posted his projections yet but I have used an average ratio of seats to vote in his previous projections.
There has been a steady rise in the combined vote of the two conservative parties – from 50 percent in the General Election to 58 percent in the latest B&A poll. Since the election, the combined vote averaged 53 percent, only once dipping below the election result.
Adrian’s seat projections show a similar trajectory with the combined conservative seat total rising from 94 in the election to (using my applied ratio) 110 seats in the latest B&A poll, with an average of 101 seats throughout all the projections.
Given that there has been no slide in the smaller conservative bloc – the Independent Alliance, conservative non-party TDs – this means that the shifting fortunes of progressive parties have been just a rearrangement within the envelope. For instance, taking the combined Dail seat projections for Sinn Fein and the AAA-PBP, they have averaged 30 seats in all the polls since the general election – an increase of one seat since the election.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. The 2016 election result was a disappointment for progressives. The Fianna Fail and Fine Gael combined seat total fell substantially in 2011 – from 77.1 percent in the previous election to 57.8 percent of the Dail total, due the collapse in Fianna Fail seats. However, in 2016 this stabilised and rose slightly – to 59.5 percent. The average seat projection since the election shows the combined conservative vote is now nearly 64 percent. While this is still a ways off from their 2007 result, it is heading steadily in that direction.
If this is not surprising it certainly is frustrating. The progressive parties have been raising the right issues in parliament – banded hours, the 8th amendment, rent regulation; issues that one might assume to have traction with a large section of the population. And it may be that this progressive positioning may take time to translate into votes and seats. However, to date this hasn’t occurred.
I’d put forward three reasons why the Left hasn’t taken off yet.
- First, because the Left has yet to develop a common brand. In the last election, there was no sense that the Left could win or be in a position to form a government because there was no sense of ‘the Left’. The consensus was that whatever the result, Fine Gael would lead the next government (though Fianna Fail made a heroic run); the only question was what kind of government. After the election, progressives became highly fragmented with a number of parties and independents, making it harder to build that brand.
- Second, during the recession and austerity years, the Left’s narrative was one of protest. This is understandable – the Right controlled the agenda and positions of power. Opposition to their agenda was vital but as the economy moved from recession to stagnation and then to recovery, the Left is still marked as a protest grouping by many.
- Third, much of the Left still uses a vocabulary that is becoming less relevant to more people. We hear the phrase ‘the recovery hasn’t filtered down to many people’. This is all too true. However, it is slowly becoming less so every month. Over the last two years, more than 100,000 people have entered employment while unemployment has fallen by 66,000. Wages are creeping (in many sectors, creeping is the operative term) upwards, more so in the market economy; but now the public sector has begun to experience wage rises. There is early evidence that emigration is slowing. And even though the tax cuts are a bad policy and are being eaten up by rising living costs, people are relieved that it’s a long ways from the days when their take-home was actively being cut through tax rises.
This is not to paint a rosy picture; anything but. However, the challenge for the Left is to transform its language and ideas from a period when we were in recession to the current period where there is a recovery that is reaching more and more people. And to address the challenges facing us: Brexit, fiscal stability, quality of work, housing (where the Left has some good ideas), the poor performance of our domestic market economy, high living costs, real reform of our public services, etc.
We need to project a vision of where we want to be in ten years’ time, how we will live and how we will work. The projection of a broad architecture allows us to build the house; what’s more, it allows people to participate in that house building and feel confident that this is the right space to be; indeed, the space where they want to be. This calls for blue-sky thinking combined with specific policies to get us there.
Most of all we need to maximise cooperation and put behind the divisions; stop fighting last year’s battles. If the Left aims to bring in voters who are now lining up behind the conservative parties (especially Fianna Fail), then a good start would be to bring together those who voted for non-conservative parties.
Trends are just that, trends. The current one is discouraging. But this can be changed – through ideas, hard work and cooperation. We must change it. Otherwise, the conservative parties will continue to inch their way back to domination of Irish politics.
After years of recession and austerity, when the policies of Irish conservatism were exposed, this would be a tragedy.