Pub­lic ser­vices will be key bat­tle­ground in next elec­tion

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Pat Leahy

The ex­pec­ta­tion of power un­con­sciously suf­fuses party gath­er­ings - at the party’s think-in in Clon­mel in re­cent days, you could tell that TDs ex­pect to be min­is­ters; min­is­ters an­tic­i­pate a fu­ture in of­fice

Pol­i­tics is in­creas­ingly un­pre­dictable; elec­toral pol­i­tics es­pe­cially so. Most re­cent elec­tions have pro­duced sur­prise re­sults. Opin­ion polls pro­vide us with a re­li­able read of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape but they have of­ten proved an un­re­li­able pre­dic­tor of what ex­actly vot­ers will do when they go into the polling booth – partly be­cause in­creas­ing num­bers of vot­ers don’t know them­selves un­til they’re in there.

Nonethe­less, we can see some pat­terns in many re­cent elec­tions. There is of­ten a wave of sup­port for a can­di­date or party that catches a mo­ment and a mood among swing vot­ers who are alien­ated from nor­mal pol­i­tics and in the mar­ket for change, for some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Brexit, Don­ald Trump, Bernie San­ders, Jeremy Cor­byn, Marine Le Pen – she got to the run-off, re­mem­ber – Em­manuel Macron: they all rode a wave of pop­u­lar sup­port rooted in dis­af­fec­tion with pol­i­tics as usual. Cru­cially, the late de­ciders tend to swing to­wards the can­di­dates and par­ties who rep­re­sent a dis­rup­tion of busi­ness as usual. Post-elec­tion sur­veys have shown late de­ciders to be de­ci­sive in both the Brexit and the Trump re­sults.

Ir­ish pol­i­tics cer­tainly has its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties but it is not and can­not be im­mune to the pow­er­ful trends and forces sweep­ing the western world. In­deed, the waves have al­ready hap­pened here – huge num­bers of vot­ers changed their al­le­giances in the 2011 and 2016 elec­tions. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers swung to Fine Gael and Labour in 2011 and swung vi­o­lently away from them five years later, scat­ter­ing among Independents, small par­ties, Sinn Féin and some back to their old home in Fianna Fáil.

So large-scale volatil­ity is al­ready a fea­ture of the Ir­ish sys­tem.

Two fac­tors

But two fac­tors are work­ing to re­duce it here, and it may well have peaked.

The first is the re­mark­able fa­mil­iar­ity of the Ir­ish sys­tem, rooted in its cul­tural and struc­tural lo­cal­ism. Peo­ple know their can­di­dates, their TDs, even their min­is­ters. Vot­ers choose can­di­dates to rep­re­sent the lo­cal area and they like to know them per­son­ally. Elec­tion stud­ies show that an as­tound­ing num­ber of vot­ers have been asked for their vote per­son­ally by the can­di­dates, and more­over, ask­ing more vot­ers for their vote in­creases a can­di­date’s chances of be­ing elected. Some 8,000 or 9,000 votes will al­most cer­tainly get you elected, and over a cou­ple of years it’s em­i­nently pos­si­ble to meet that many peo­ple and shake their hands and tell them you are work­ing hard on their be­half. Why do you think TDs spend so much time do­ing just that? This re­mains one of the un­usual as­pects of the Ir­ish sys­tem, and it makes it sticky.

The sec­ond fac­tor tend­ing to re­duce the volatil­ity – and there­fore po­ten­tial for rad­i­cal change – is the im­prov­ing eco­nomic cir­cum­stances. The econ­omy is grow­ing ro­bustly, and has been for some time. It has been patchy and no­body ar­gues that it has reached all parts of the coun­try or so­ci­ety. Crashes hap­pen sud­denly, re­cov­er­ies are grad­ual and un­even.

But it’s real nonethe­less. Fifty thou­sand new jobs have been cre­ated this year. In­comes are grow­ing. And this re­al­ity is ex­ert­ing the grav­i­ta­tional in­flu­ence it al­ways does on the tides of pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal opin­ion.

That works in sev­eral ways. When the econ­omy is grow­ing spank­ingly and liv­ing stan­dards are ris­ing, elec­torates are very un­likely to de­mand a com­plete break with the sta­tus quo; the op­tions for rad­i­cal change look less ap­peal­ing. Vot­ers’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with gov­ern­ments tends to fo­cus on the short­com­ings of pub­lic ser­vices. If it seems dis­mis­sive to call th­ese real con­cerns the prob­lems of pros­per­ity, they are bet­ter than other prob­lems gov­ern­ments can face. They can be po­lit­i­cally po­tent nonethe­less.

If vot­ers throw out a gov­ern­ment in such cir­cum­stances, they are likely to re­place it with some­thing not ter­ri­bly dif­fer­ent. In our cur­rent con­text, that is prob­a­bly good news for Fianna Fáil.

This seems to be the turn our pol­i­tics is tak­ing. The great is­sues that vex pub­lic de­bate re­volve around the ef­fec­tive­ness or oth­er­wise of the gov­ern­ment’s role in pro­vid­ing pub­lic goods – hous­ing and health­care chief among them.

So pub­lic ser­vices will be a key bat­tle­ground – per­haps the de­ci­sive one – on which the next elec­tion is fought.

This places a strate­gic ad­van­tage in the hands of Fine Gael. Af­ter all, it has the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal tool – the power of ac­tion. If it can demon­strate that it is mak­ing progress in de­liv­er­ing im­proved pub­lic ser­vices, then that is a pow­er­ful mes­sage to bring to vot­ers.

The pub­lic’s ex­pec­ta­tions will not be com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic; they do not ex­pect mir­a­cles. But they will ex­pect Min­is­ters to show they are get­ting to grips with the prob­lems.

Dou­ble-edged sword

This power is a dou­ble-edged sword, though. If the Gov­ern­ment can­not point to demon­stra­ble progress in hous­ing and health – at least – then pub­lic ser­vices will be­come a stick to beat them.

Were such an elec­tion – fought on the grounds of pub­lic ser­vices – to ar­rive now, it’s dif­fi­cult to see how Fine Gael could pros­per. Likely Leo Varad­kar would try to make the elec­tion about some­thing else. That would be dif­fi­cult, I think.

Fine Gael is now, it fan­cies, the nat­u­ral party of gov­ern­ment in the way that Fianna Fáil once smugly pre­sumed it­self to be. The ex­pec­ta­tion of power un­con­sciously suf­fuses party gath­er­ings – at the party’s think-in in Clon­mel in re­cent days, you could tell that TDs ex­pect to be min­is­ters; Min­is­ters an­tic­i­pate a fu­ture in of­fice.

This is the long­est con­tin­u­ous pe­riod Fine Gael has ever spent in gov­ern­ment. But the party will only stay there if it’s good at it.

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