In 1944, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, disaffiliated from the Labour Party because it believed the party was being infiltrated by communists, specifically the selection of Jim Larkin as a general election candidate. Five TDs (James Everett, Thomas Looney, John O’Leary, James Pattison and Dan Spring) associated with the ITGWU left Labour to form National Labour. They contested the 1944 general election as a separate party, winning four seats (Looney losing), and five seats in 1948 (James Hickey gaining). It formed part of the Inter-Party government, led by Fine Gael’s John A. Costello as Taoiseach, and with Labour, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan. James Everett served as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, and in working in government, their differences subsided, the National Labour TDs rejoined Labour in 1950 (Noel Whelan got the decade here wrong last Saturday, as well as Derek Keating and John Whelan’s names).
Could we see a similar short-term split? There are now five TDs (Willie Penrose, Tommy Broughan, Patrick Nulty, Róisín Shorthall and Colm Keaveney) and one Senators (James Heffernan) who were elected as Labour but who have lost or resigned the party whip. They continue as party members, speaking at party conference, but if this situation persists at the time of the next general election, it’s possible that they would contest on a separate common platform. The analogy with National Labour is that they would aim to rejoin the party fully in due course, on a change of leadership, or shift in policy direction. There are others who might contest under such a platform, possibly under a banner as Labour Left. Cian O’Callaghan, current Mayor of Fingal, who has worked for Patrick Nulty, comes to mind. This would be intended as a temporary split, the name here reflecting the dissent of Labour Left of the 1980s and early 1990s, as opposed to that of Militant, which did split completely, and when its members were expelled, most prominently Joe Higgins and Clare Daly, they did not plan to return. 1
Tho another possible outcome is that Labour would leave the government, and that these rebels would contest as full Labour Party candidates. If this rate of attrition continued, Eamon Gilmore could face a vote of confidence within the parliamentary party within the next two years. I want to see this coalition last, so this is not an outcome I would like to see.
The leading parties this year differ from those in 1945, the first contested election, but as the only election to date where an Independent candidate secured a place on the ballot by canvassing the support of Oireachtas members, and with reports today that David Norris could well be successful in his attempts to secure a nomination in this way, it is interesting to read back on this year.
Seán T. O’Kelly, then Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, was chosen as the Fianna Fáil party candidate. Fine Gael had been declining in support, losing seats and votes at each election since 1933, and at the outset were reluctant to contest. On 11 April, The Irish Times reported that the only likely candidate was Dr Patrick McCartan. This report also included a statement from Labour that “no member of the Labour Party in the Oireachtas may sign a nomination on behalf of any Presidential candidate or associate himself in promoting any such candidate”.
Patrick McCartan had been a member of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Dála, elected in 1918, 1921 and 1922. He reluctantly voted for the Treaty, and soon after retreated from political life, not contesting the 1923 general election. By 1945, he was associated with anti-de Valera Republicans, and received the support of the Old Comrades’ Association of the IRA (Irish Times, April 1945). McCartan had to secure the support of either four County Councils or 20 Oireachtas members; he fared poorly with the former, while working quietly on the latter.
The prospect of an Independent candidate spurred Fine Gael to action, who nominated Seán Mac Eoin, an IRA leader during the war of independence. His paper was submitted on 6 May 1945 with 17 Fine Gael signatories, as well as Independent TDs Alfie Byrne, Thomas Reilly and Richard A. Anthony.
On 15 May, Labour Party then reversed their decision, and allowed their members to sign a nomination form, perhaps concerned by then that a straight contest between the two largest parties would give Fine Gael too much of a dominant position within the opposition. Patrick McCartan was nominated with the support of 9 of the 11 Clann na Talmhan TDs, 5 of the eight Labour TDs and 6 Labour Senators. His Labour nominees included future leader Brendan Corish. This year, it is the many Independents, Fianna Fáil, Socialist Party and People Before Profit TDs and Senators who are free from any direct order as to who to nominate, while it is still not precisely sure what Sinn Féin will do.
The high salary of the president, at £22 000, was an issue in the campaign; Clann na Talmhan had agreed to sign McCartan’s form on the condition that he would accept a reduction to £5000 with expenses of £2500.
Patrick McCartan performed reasonably in the election, and transferred relatively strongly to Seán Mac Eoin, despite ideological differences, presaging the success of Clann na Poblachta in 1948 and the formation of the Inter-Party government.
|Candidate||First Count||Second Count|
|Patrick McCartan (Ind)||212,834||19.6%||-212,834|
|Seán Mac Eoin (FG)||335,539||30.9%||+117,886||55.4%||453,425|
|Seán T. O’Kelly (FF)||537,965||49.5%||+27,200||12.8%||565,165|
So Seán T. O’Kelly was elected on the second count and was unopposed when he nominated himself for re-election in 1952, serving till 1959.
We hear a lot about the fate of coalition partners after coalitions, particularly that of junior parties. Here is a full breakdown of how parties have fared in the elections after coalition.
Inter-Party government 1948–51
Comprised of 31 Fine Gael, 14 Labour, 10 Clann na Poblachta, 7 Clann na Talmhan, 5 National Labour, with the support of 8 Independents. Fine Gael had been on a downward trend since its first election in 1937 and the government gave it a real lease of life.
National Labour folded back into Labour in 1950.
After the fall of the government in 1951, Fine Gael increased to 40 (+9), while all smaller parties lost seats. Labour got 16 (-3), Clann na Talmhan 6 (-1) and Clann na Poblachta 2 (-8).
Inter-Party government 1954–57
In 1954, 50 Fine Gael, 19 Labour, 5 Clann na Talmhan.
In 1957, all parties lost seats: 40 Fine Gael (-10), 12 Labour (-7), 3 Clann na Talmhan (-2)
Fine Gael–Labour 1973–77
In 1973, it started 54 Fine Gael and 19 Labour.
In 1977, both parties fell: 43 Fine Gael (-11) and 17 Labour (-2).
Fine Gael–Labour 1981–82
Started in June 1981 with 65 Fine Gael and 15 Labour. Was always a minority government, it initially had the support of Jim Kemmy, while four Independents and small party representatives tactically abstained, until the January 1982 budget vote.
In the February 1982 election, Fine Gael fell to 63 (-2), while Labour had no change at 15.
Fine Gael–Labour 1982–87
In 1982, 70 Fine Gael and 16 Labour.
In 1987, a dreadful result for both parties, 51 Fine Gael (-19) and 12 Labour (-4). The emergent Progressive Democrats took support from Fine Gael and pushed Labour into fourth place.
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 1989–92
In 1989, 77 Fianna Fáil and 6 Progressive Democrats.
In 1992, the PDs became the first junior coalition party to increase its seats after an election. Between the two parties in 1992, they had 68 Fianna Fáil (-9) and 10 Progressive Democrats (+4).
Fianna Fáil–Labour 1993–94
Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left 1994–97
The 27th Dáil saw two governments. Political legend has it that Labour lost support because they went into government with Fianna Fáil. But according to Pat Leahy’s Showtime, their support was still high in November 1994. If this is true, then it was their political promiscuity rather than their support for Fianna Fáil as such that hurt them.
Overall figures for 1992 saw 68 Fianna Fáil, 45 Fine Gael, 33 Labour, 10 Progressive Democrats, 4 Democratic Left, 1 Green and 5 Independents.
In 1997, Labour and the PDs lost out: 77 Fianna Fáil (+9), 54 Fine Gael (+9), 17 Labour (-16), 4 Progressive Democrats (-6), 2 Green (+1), 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Socialist and 6 Independents (+1)
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 1997–2002
After a full term, both parties increased their seats: 81 Fianna Fáil (+4) and 8 Progressive Democrats (+4). Again the PDs proved the only junior party to increase seats after government.
Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats 2002–07
Of course, the PDs were not so lucky the third time they entered an election while in government. In 2007, both parties fell to 78 Fianna Fáil (-3) and 2 Progressive Democrats (-6).
Fianna Fáil–Green Party–Progressive Democrats 2007–11
Bertie Ahern formed a government in 2007 comprised on 78 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens and 2 Progressive Democrats and the support of 4 Independents. The PDs were on our last legs anyway at the formation of the government, and we voted to dissolve in November 2008. And then nine days ago, Fianna Fáil fell to 20 seats (-58) while all six Greens lost their seats.
So across all coalitions, only twice had the junior party made gains at the next election, the Progressive Democrats in 1992 and 2002. And that party’s later electoral record is probably not something anyone would wish to cling to as a hopeful outcome. Having said that, none of this can inform of the counterfactuals, how a party would have fared at a subsequent election had they stayed out of government.
We’re awaiting this morning the Programme for Government, which will be some sort of compromise between the manifesto of Fine Gael and Labour. Given the ratio of seats of 76 to 37 (2.05:1), the balance will be in Fine Gael’s favour, but there are elements of Labour’s manifesto I like, and not just on social issues. In their section on taxation, Labour write, “Labour accepts that it will be necessary to introduce a site value charge, in order to prevent higher taxes on work”. Fine Gael have instead proposed a “site sale profits tax”, levied on the profit made from the site value on the sale of a residence. As a reliable and sustainable form of taxation, I find a site value tax most attractive, possibly the least worst form of any taxation, and it is possibly too the only economic measure proposed by Labour I would certainly endorse. But I only fully appreciated the problems with own proposal last Thursday, as I was doing a last-minute flyer drop off Leeson St the day before the election. I met an elderly couple who felt it wrong that they would particularly be hit because they wished to trade down on their retirement.
A site value or land value tax is economically attractive because it does not disincentivize further investment in one’s property. And other than occasional changes to the amount because of improvements in amenities like a new Luas line, it is a fairly steady source of revenue. A transaction tax, whether it be stamp duty or sales profit tax, would be dependent on vagaries of the market.
Labour did, however, acknowledge that because there would need to be a preliminary survey of property, it couldn’t be introduced till 2014. There should also be relief for those who have recently paid high levels of stamp duty. If we do get a pledge on such a tax in the Programme, and if that’s the timescale we get, I will be pleased, particularly so if over time more is raised through a land tax and progressively less through taxing income.
Political reform was an issue in this election, unusual in any case, and perhaps surprising given the state of the economy. But I think people realized that part of the reason the country found itself in the position it did was because of poor political institutions which came inordinate power to the executive and the lack of check on its decisions. All parties proposed changes on political reform, and as the two parties likely to form the government, Fine Gael and Labour, got scores of 74 and 68, the two highest scores, from the Political Reform Scorecard, there is no excuse not to expect changes here.
Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot
Already we’ve names mentioned for the position of Ceann Comhairle, as something to be divided in the spoils of government. But in the New Politics document, Fine Gael have called for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot by all TDs, as is the case with the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. It can’t be done straight away, as the first order of business in a new Dáil is the election of Ceann Comhairle. But Enda Kenny could propose someone while declaring that he intended to appoint them as a Minister of State, someone who would be credible as an interim Ceann Comhairle. Within the first month, the standing orders could be changed, the interim Ceann Comhairle would step down, to be replaced by secret ballot.
A role for all TDs
A few times on Saturday and Sunday, I heard radio commentators ask Independent TDs what the point was of them in the Dáil if they would not hold balance of power. A Dáil election forms the legislature, which has a function in its own right, apart from being a sort of electoral college to elect the executive. Backbenchers, whether government or opposition, should have more power and part of this means being able to propose motions or legislation in private members’ time and reasonably expect that it will be open for a free vote of the Dáil. There are many issues, like stag hunting, which shouldn’t be considered a matter of a confidence vote but a free vote of all members.
In Britain, it is an embarrassment, but not the end of the world, if a government loses a vote it has proposed. Given the majority this government has, and the fact that there will inevitably be backbenchers unhappy with certain government proposals, this could be an opportunity to relax the party whip system, so that it wouldn’t be seen to be such a big deal if they were vote against. In Britain, when they had a vote last year on the introduction of deferred payments for college fees, there were members of both government parties who voted against or abstained.
Fewer but stronger committees
There have also been proposals to strengthen the committee structure, to give it greater powers of scrutiny over legislation and over appointments to state boards. Though Fine Gael intends to give permanent Constitutional recognition to certain committees, the structures could be put in place before such a referendum. The number of committees could be reduced and then strengthened in their power. A distribution of chairs by a d’Hondt or rotational system would reflect the diversity within the Dáil. It is fair that the positions in executive, at cabinet or junior rank, to be composed only of those who have formed the government, but that isn’t undermined by sharing this in the legislature. In the US House of Representatives, the current Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy is the radical Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, who would like to shut down the Federal Reserve, something that made Majority Leader John Boehner wary of his appointment. Imagine if Shane Ross or Joe Higgins were to chair our own Banking and Financial Regulation Committee.
There were many other proposals on political reform proposed by the two incoming government parties, these are just a few of them that have most relevance to the Dáil itself which could be started straight away.
Included in the Labour Party manifesto is a commitment to a referendum to allow same-sex marriage (or to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, as I would rather phrase it). I welcome support from any party for such a change and I would put what time and resources I could into campaigning for a Yes vote in the case of such a referendum. But I think it is possibly counter-productive of Labour to presume that the best way of achieving this is to a commitment to a referendum.
Yes, the High Court ruled against Katharine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, a couple who were married in Canada and who have been seeking since 2006 to have their marriage recognized here. But as the Supreme Court has yet to judge on this, we don’t have a definitive ruling that it would be unconstitutional to allow this. Representing the couple were Gerard Hogan, a Progressive Democrat, and Ivana Bacik of Labour (some parallel perhaps to the political divergence between Olson and Boies in California, who had represented Bush and Gore in 2000).
For Labour to call for a referendum now means that they accept that the proposal would contravene either the wording in Article 41.1.2° “The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State” or in Article 41.3.1° “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. Labour are proposing what would probably be an unseemly amendment with an explicit exception. What would be better would be to try convince people that rather being an attack on the institution, allowing gay couples to marry would strengthen Marriage, by promoting it as the end of stable relationships for all, and for the protection of those children being raised by gay parents.
Thankfully, we seem finally to have heard the end of the line of questioning that implied that Fine Gael and Labour should have put forward a joint policy platform so that people would know what they were voting for. Fourteen months ago, I outlined how I believed this election would be about a fight between Fine Gael and Labour on the balance of the next government. I had presumed rough figures of Fine Gael around 65 seats, Fianna Fáil around 50 and Labour around 40, and that the fight would be about whether Fine Gael or Labour get Minister for Finance.
In such a circumstance, even with figures closer to current expectations, where we were nearly certain that there was going to be a coalition, it wouldn’t make sense to negotiate details of a programme for government before an election. The fine balance of the weight of such a programme between preferences of the two parties would have to depend on seats. For the two parties to arrange details before the election would deny voters the chance to decide that balance. I believe there were only such formal pre-election arrangements in 1973, 1997 and 2007. The idea that it is a problem that two different parties have different ideals seems to me nothing more than a Fianna Fáil ploy to confuse matters, and which someone like Vincent Browne likes to tag on to just as a consistent line of questioning. It shouldn’t even make sense a Fianna Fáil scare tactic when they point to differences between Fine Gael and Labour; if voters want coherent government, they should surely then vote for Fine Gael to make coalition less likely.
But consider even the stated aims of the two parties. Labour’s aim is to lead government, as we know from their poster slogan, Gilmore for Taoiseach. In all honesty, when I saw the first one of those, I presumed it was an overenthusiastic attempt by a private Labour member. On current seat projections, Gilmore could only be Taoiseach if he led a coalition of Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and Independents of different hues. Put another way, Labour are standing 58 candidates and Fine Gael currently have 51 TDs. To lead a coalition with Fine Gael, nearly every Labour candidate would have to win, while Fine Gael made only modest gains. Labour should be questioned on the maths as they see it working out for this slogan which I’d imagine has only damaged them. They claim to be offering the people of a Labour-led government for the first time, but the electorate always had that choice; what makes this election any different? To 1992, for example?
Fine Gael’s ambition on the other hand, is single-party government. A lot of work yet needs to be done to achieve this, but as a goal, it is realistic. The Sunday Business Post/Red C poll certainly shows things trending in that direction. The party’s Five Point Plan is well known by now, and in government the party would wish to have the freedom to implement it all. Of course, if the numbers stack such that a coalition is the only option, it will be negotiated based on the parties’ strength, as has been done before. But it would be an unwieldy government, with strongly differing tendencies. So single-party government is the aim, with no wish to compromise on it at all.
My feeling is that the electorate is looking for a new government that is serious about implement a consistent policy platform. Politicians in Labour have settled into thinking of the next government as coalitions as usual. It is true that the most likely government after the election will be the familiar coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, but we not simply rest and assume this will be so. If both Fine Gael and Labour truly believe in our respective manifestos, the differences between them and the importance of achieving as much as we can of our side, representatives of each should talk more openly of doing without the other.
We can’t expect this of Labour, whose fear of any association with those further to their left, whether Sinn Féin or the United Left Alliance, has locked them into negotiating over power in a coalition. Though they will still claim that it is their aim to be the larger party in such a coalition, with a 10 percent gap behind Fine Gael in the latest Sunday Business Poll, this does not have the credibility it might have had last summer.
So what of Fine Gael? I believe we need to firmly be talking of single-party government, and I welcome that Enda Kenny on The Week in Politics (30 Jan) has stated this as the aim and didn’t even get drawn into the idea of coalition. We might like to get the overall majority Noel O’Flynn thought was within our grasp. A next best would be getting over 70 seats, and relying on the support of Independent TDs, who may be quite critical and out-spoken, but who would broadly be closer to Fine Gael economic stance than to Labour’s. It was with the support of similar Independents that Cumann na nGaedheal led government to 1932. But even there the numbers seem difficult.
Micheál Martin has indicated that he might offer support to such a Fine Gael minority government. If Fine Gael don’t get enough seats to be able to depend on Independents, this would be, as far as I see it, a better situation than forming government with Labour. This would be as long as it would be on Fine Gael’s terms. Enda Kenny said that he would not support the Fianna Fáil view of the economy. Labour’s views, however, are that bit further from Fine Gael’s. In the national interest, some agreement, even if only on confidence and supply with no cabinet or other positions for Fianna Fáil, could be in the national interest.
It would also make arithmetic sense. Most governments formed in Ireland have been minimally winning, i.e. the smallest feasibly arrangement of parties over 83. In no election till now would an agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been anywhere near minimally winning, whatever their ideological proximity. Going on current polls, however, this will be the case. Adrian Kavanagh has projected seats of 68 Fine Gael, 40 Labour, 24 Fianna Fáil, 14 Sinn Féin and 20 Others based on the 30 January Sunday Business Post/Red C poll. Helpfully, he also tots up possible government combinations, showing only two combinations breaking 83, Fine Gael with either Labour or with Fianna Fáil.
If Fine Gael are to show that we are serious about getting as much as what is an ambitious series of policies implemented, we must be open to this confidence and supply arrangement, while our aim must be governance independent of any other party.
In the past 150 years, there have been three significant wave elections in Ireland, which featured a significant change in the rank order of political parties since the previous election and a medium- to long-term change in the party system. We are now facing into the fourth.
1874 (and 1885) – Home Rule replaces Liberals
1868: Liberals – 66; Conservatives – 39
1874: Home Rule – 60; Conservatives – 33; Liberals – 10
The first of these was in 1874, when the new Home Rule League emerged as a political force led by Isaac Butt. In the previous few elections, after the demise of the Repeal Movement and the Independent Irish Party, the British Liberals and Conservatives were the only parties active in Ireland. In 1874, most of the Liberal support moved to Home Rulers. It took the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as well as the nature of the close but difficult relationship between the Nationalists and the Liberals, to wipe the Liberals out as an active force in Ireland. Under his leadership in 1885, Home Rulers won 85 seats, with Conservatives winning 18, mainly confined to Ulster and the University of Dublin seats.
1918 – Sinn Féin replaces Home Rule
1910: Nationalist – 72; Unionists – 20; Liberal Unionists – 2; All-for-Ireland League – 6; Independents – 3
1918: Sinn Féin – 73; Unionists – 22; Nationalists – 6; Labour Unionists – 3; Independent Unionist – 1
The Nationalists maintained this dominance until 1918, even if in later years it suffered from factionalization. The rising in 1916 had put focus on Sinn Féin, a party founded in 1905 with an abstentionist policy advocating that Irish MPs should withdraw from Westminster and establish their own assembly in Dublin. They had a poor electoral record till 1917. During the First World War, the Nationalists in Westminster had been fighting against the introduction of conscription in Ireland. They were successful in that till 1917, and when they were finally beaten by the Government, they withdrew from parliament in protest. This was seen as an admission that the Sinn Féin approach was justified. It was then Sinn Féin’s activism that led to conscription being impossible to introduce, and Sinn Féin-backed candidates won a series of bye-elections in 1917 and 1918.
In December 1918 election, Sinn Féin broke through in full force. The Nationalists held only one seat outside of Ulster, William Archer Redmond in Waterford. Having been unopposed in election after election in many parts of the country, their electoral machine was no match against the vibrancy of the young Sinn Féin movement.
Sinn Féin then split in 1922 on the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the four elections after the split, the rank order was the Pro-Treaty side, as Cumann na nGaedheal, followed by the Anti-Treaty side, as Fianna Fáil from 1926, followed by minor parties such as the Farmers’ Party, Labour, the National League and a large number of Independents. Though Cumann na nGaedheal governed alone, it did not have a majority and once Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil, it was dependent on the support of the Farmers and the Independents, which mainly represented business and Protestant interests.
1932 – Fianna Fáil beats Cumann na nGaedheal to top
1927: Cumann na nGaedheal – 62; Fianna Fáil – 57; Labour – 13; Farmers – 6; National league – 2; Irish Workers’ League – 1; Independent – 12
1932:Fianna Fáil – 72; Cumann na nGaedheal – 57; Labour – 7; Farmers – 4; Independent Labour – 2; Ind – 12
Then in 1932, Fianna Fáil won the most seats, and since then we have had a near uniform party system, with Fianna Fáil dominant, Fine Gael some way behind, followed by Labour and sometimes other parties. Only three times has this order been interfered with, when Clann na Talmhan moved ahead of Labour in 1933 and 1944, and the Progressive Democrats did so in 1987, but this did not last more than a single election. Under this party system, parties naturally pivoted around their relationship with Fianna Fáil. As long as Fianna Fáil insisted on ruling alone as a matter of principle, parties with natural differences such as the Fine Gael and Labour found themselves as regular partners in government.
2011 – Fine Gael and Labour set to pass out Fianna Fáil
2007: Fianna Fáil – 78; Fine Gael – 51; Labour – 20; Green Party – 6; Sinn Féin – 4; Progressive Democrats – 2; Independent – 5
2011 Latest Red C poll: Fine Gael 35%; Labour 21%, Fianna Fáil 14%, Sinn Féin 14%, Greens 4%, Others 12%
The polls have near consistently shown Fine Gael as the largest party in the next Dáil and it also looks likely that Labour could win enough to push Fianna Fáil to third place. A lot could change between now and the election, but the demoralising effect of ministerial retirements and the internal battles so close to an election could further depress Fianna Fáil voter turnout, while they remain toxic to transfers. Though it is likely that they will be closer to Labour in the final poll, they will fare poorly on transfers.
However well or poorly Fianna Fáil fare, they will be a very different party from now. Their raison d’être had been linked with their success, their belief that they embodied the Irish nation. Whether they become a small conservative nationalist party or a business and enterprise oriented party will depend very much on who remains.
While it is fair to expect Fine Gael and Labour to form the next government, it will be an unwieldy government, and this may be the last time for a generation where they are seen as natural government partners. Just as Cumann na nGaedheal did in the 1920s, Fine Gael could rely for its Dáil majority on sympathetic Independents. There is even a small possibility of this occurring this year, with Shane Ross having announced his intentions to stand, David McWilliams hinting. Were Declan Ganley to stand and be successful, he might support such a government with the assumption that on European matters Fine Gael would have the support of Labour. But such an arrangement remains yet only a distant possibility.
Just as it took two elections, 1880 and 1885, for the new party system after 1874 to emerge, we will be in a state of flux between parties for a little while yet. This election will be about the electorate giving its verdict on Fianna Fáil. Next time we should see the system that will remain for most of the early part of this century.
Nick Clegg rightly said this morning that it would be preposterous if Labour were to lead the next government if it were the third party in share of votes. What hasn’t been given due focus is that mightn’t even have that theoretical option if the numbers from these polls hold out. To command a majority, a prime minister needs the support of 326 of the 650 MPs in the Commons. Electoral Calculus currently put the Conservatives at 297, Labour at 227 and the Liberal Democrats at 94, whereas Times/Ladbrokes give the Conservatives 315, Labour 224 and the Liberal Democrats 78. They differ significantly in how they predict seats to be shared between the Tories and Lib Dems, but both show that even with Lib Dem support, Labour would not pass 326. Unless they also added the various nationalists, but that really would be pushing it, and the Liberal Democrats would not be so foolish.
The only real question left is whether the Tories will manage to govern alone or whether they will be compelled to rely on Lib Dem support. Labour are as good as irrelevant on those figures.
Of all parties, the Liberal Democrats would be the party in Britain I’d feel closest to. Of course, this is not the 1920s, this is not a three-cornered contest, and there is no immediate prospect of any Liberal Democrat becoming prime minister.
So it is between David Cameron and Gordon Brown for prime minister. I would not always naturally support one of Labour or the Tories over the other. At the moment, I do feel that after thirteen years in which they oversaw the onset of recession, a slow recovery and a deterioration of public finances, the Labour Party do not deserve another five years in office, and certainly not under Gordon Brown. But in any case, this election campaign has not been as exciting as perhaps it could have. Despite the dissatisfaction with the government, there has been no strong public wave behind the opposition, as there was in 1979 and 1997, in part because the expenses scandal hit both large parties in near equal measure.
But there are cultural reasons I’d be cautious to support the Conservatives. I think their decision to leave the Group of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament group of most conservatives and Christian Democrats like Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, was misguided. They confined themselves to an alliance that does not blend well with David Cameron’s attempts to portray the Conservatives as a more modern party, with parties with reservations about homosexuality. I don’t doubt that the Conservatives have changed as a party, on this and other issues, but the votes of their MEPs show the dissonance within the party and how Cameron himself has difficulty maintaining the more progressive image.
Having said that and despite his previous adamant opposition to repeal of Section 28, which forbid promotion of homosexuality in schools, I don’t believe gay people have any serious reason to concern from a Conservative government under David Cameron. I would not consider it the most unlikely thing if legislation to allow gay couples to marry was introduced by the Conservatives. On the most recent gay issue in the campaign, I would actually have to agree with the substance of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling’s comments. I think there is less freedom in the country if a private B&B owner is told he must rent his rooms out to a gay couple against his wishes, even if such an owner shouldn’t be let anywhere near a major party ticket.
As The Economist wrote a few weeks ago, the Conservative approach to social issues is misguided and often presumes the most dire and exaggerated situations. Their marriage incentives seem well intentioned, but the wrong approach; it is true that children generally fare better if their parents are married, but funding married couples, including many who are financially secure, seems a strange waste of resources, and it discriminates against those children who have had the misfortune to be born to parents who have since moved apart. It was a small mistake in the course of the campaign, but the fact that the party got the figure of teenage pregnancies wrong by a factor of ten earlier this year shows how out of touch they can be at times.
On the North, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force banner has come to little, with Ladbrokes currently predicting no Tory or Ulster Unionist candidate to be elected (The Times is using their predictions in each constituency on a great gadget on their site). Their strongest chance is in Strangford, the seat left vacant by Iris Robinson, but even there they give the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt a 50% chance of victory. And in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, both Unionist parties stood aside in favour of an independent, Rodney Connor, ending David Cameron’s hope of a Tory-backed candidate in every constituency. Overall as yet, Ladbrokes predict no change in Northern Ireland. Depending on the balance of the major parties in Westminster, the seats here could be of importance.
In his memoirs, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable talks of trying out the various parties when in Cambridge. Of the Conservatives, he writes, “Whilst there was a liberal veneer, I knew, because I had seen it first-hand, that their activist base depended on the energies and prejudices of bigoted people like my father, whom they were only too happy to use.” This is still true of the Conservatives. They appear more nice and friendly, but there is still the lingering tolerance for groups like the Young Britons’ Foundation, as long as they stay in the background.
A tight Conservative majority would give inordinate power to such fringes of the party, as John Major found after 1992, so I think if they are to have a majority, better it be higher than the four seats currently predicted on the Times site. But I would still look forward more to a hung parliament, where the Liberal Democrats could exert influence in their more sensible social policies and approach toward the European Union. Depending on their strength, they might even manage to secure electoral reform, which Gordon Brown talked of this week, presumably in the hope of their support. Which party should lead, will then depend very much on the division of seats.
Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has represented North Down as an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party since 2001, did not really surprise anyone by not seeking to be reselected as the party’s candidate for the upcoming election. She has been vocal in her opposition to the alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party, under the label Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, from the start. Lady Hermon herself has been much more closely aligned with the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and had never considered herself to be a Tory.
Having now confirmed that she does not intend to stand down, it would make sense for her to officially stand as a candidate for the Labour Party. This would give a refreshing choice to the electorate of North Down, between two parties not primarily defined by their position on the national question. Of course, it would do no good for the long-term chances of a united Ireland for them to get used to thinking in terms of British political parties, but it should be welcome nonetheless.
Politics in North Down has long been exceptional, given that the population is so Unionist that it matters less to them than to others in Northern Ireland, such that they elected the only Green Party MLA in 2007, or that political mavericks have been consistently elected at Westminster. From 1970 to 1995, the constituency was represented by James Kilfedder, one-time auditor of the College Historical Society, and leader of the one-man Ulster Popular Unionist Party. He died in 1995, on the day that the Belfast Telegraph featured an article outing him as gay. He was succeeded by Robert McCartney, leader of the one-man United Kingdom Unionist Party, an anti-devolutionist party briefly supported by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mr McCartney proved that he was no gentleman when he stepped in front of Lady Hermon to speak on the day of the count of the 2001 Westminster election, rather than allowing her give her victory speech.
So North Down politics is not really representative of Northern Ireland, but an election between Lady Hermon for Labour and Ian Parsley, who had stood for the Alliance in the 2009 European election, for the Conservatives, would definitely be one to watch.
Though Prime Time will always have a debate between the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, general elections aren’t always in such terms. The 2007 election was about whether people wanted Bertie Ahern to continue as Taoiseach or for him to be replaced by Enda Kenny, but the 2002 election campaign was about whether Fianna Fáil would govern alone or continue in government with the Progressive Democrats.
The election due by 2012 should not be about creating a united opposition front to defeat Fianna Fáil. Just as it was inevitable that Fine Gael would lose badly in 2002, we can take it for granted that Fianna Fáil will not lead the next government. So the election will be about the respective bargaining powers of Fine Gael and Labour. Speaking particularly as a Fine Gael member, I believe the parties should not spend time before the election trying to present themselves as a credible alternative government. This has been Fianna Fáil’s ploy to date, to highlight the fact that, for example, Fine Gael and Labour had different approaches to the banking crisis. But as separate parties, this is only to be expected.
I see the next election, or what will come afterwards, as somewhat similar to the 2005 German election. Though there won’t be the near parity of seats that occurred with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the German Socialist Party (SPD), the dynamic should be similar. While I would welcome it if the Labour Party were to show greater realism with regard to the public finances, this looks unlikely at the moment.
If we accept that in the Fine Gael-Labour government, Labour will get one of the major economic portfolios, probably Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as one of the big spending departments, either Education or Social Affairs, the overall budgetary position of the government will be towards the median of the two parties’ stated positions on economy. For this reason, I think it important for Fine Gael to push this median to be as economically stringent as politically possible before the government is formed, so that what compromise is inevitable still makes the needed impact in reducing our deficit.
This means that Fine Gael should be forthright in calling for cuts in public sector pay at all levels, along a graded basis and for cuts in welfare, both because the cost of living has gone down and because we simply cannot afford it. This does not mean that the welfare budget shouldn’t be readjusted in favour of those particularly affected by the recession; it should, but the overall welfare budget must decrease. Unless we tackle these areas, which comprise two-thirds of the national budget, what small cuts we would get from measures like the abolition of the Seanad will be of negligible benefit. The 1982-87 government struggled with the economy because of Labour’s overbearing influence, and ended prematurely when Labour withdrew after John Bruton promised a firm budget for 1987. This time round, Fine Gael need to take a tough line from the start.
This means that in Fine Gael we should not focus our energies at the election on criticizing Fianna Fáil for their mismanagement of the economy and foolish choices. We should rather present a clear message of the scale of the problem, and spend the campaign convincing the electorate of the need to scale back the public budget considerably. This is not in itself popular, but as things stand, this can be a winning strategy, as enough of the public know that there is no alternative.