What the next election should be about
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.