Avoiding hubris

“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”

(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)

Congratulations first to Michael D. Higgins, who will be deemed elected as Ireland’s ninth president this afternoon. As someone who has spent a political career with a broad view of Irish culture and society, I’m confident he will serve us well. Congratulations also to Patrick Nulty, who won the bye-election, a man very far from my own politics, though one who will be a strong contributor in the Dáil and an interesting dynamic in this coalition. It was the first time since July 1982 that a candidate from a government party won a bye-election.

Yesterday’s election results were undeniably a bad day for Fine Gael. Gay Mitchell’s fourth place finish at 6.4% was by a good stretch the lowest the party has polled to date in any national election, with the 17% Austin Currie received in the 1990 presidential bid the next worst. In Dublin West, Eithne Loftus also finished fourth, though with a more respectable 15%. I would commiserate both candidates, and indeed all candidates in these elections. Particularly in the case of the presidential campaign, it was a very public and difficult campaign for them.

While the result for the party could have been devastating in 1990, when Currie’s performance led to the resignation of Alan Dukes as party leader, or had this occurred any time before the February election, where Fine Gael won 36% of the vote, becoming the largest party in terms of both votes and seats for the first time. That the party could win the most number of Dáil seats in its history and then poll its lowest result, requires a more complex relationship and response.

I think some within the party misinterpreted the results of the February general election. It was a vote of support for a manifesto promising reform and competent government, and for the strong team of prospective ministers. But having come so recently to the party, the general election results did not mean that 36% of the electorate were now dependable Fine Gael voters. There was no good reason to assume on the basis of this result that it was now Fine Gael’s turn to be the dominant party for 79 years. In the selection of the presidential candidate, some within the party seemed to work on the assumption that having got into a habit of voting Fine Gael earlier this year, people would naturally come out and vote for the Fine Gael candidate for president, putting the party on a starting platform at that level and with that lead on a first count, transfers would inevitably put them over the line. As it was Fine Gael’s best chance to date to win the presidency (and next to 1966, it almost certainly was), many within the party felt it natural that it should be someone who had served the party well and loyally through many years. Gay Mitchell was electorally successful at the time when Fine Gael’s popularity was low, one of three TDs to retain their seats in Dublin in 2002. He had a strong electoral track record till then, not losing a single public poll, though he had come fourth in the leadership contest after the 2002 election.

It was the party convention that selected him, with a broad base of the parliamentary party, councillor and the national executive. And Mitchell was encouraged to seek the party’s nomination by a number of TDs, as well as by former party leader and Taoiseach, John Bruton.

But many of the things which Gay Mitchell used publicly to present himself as a the best candidate to the Fine Gael Presidential Convention were things that made him a less appealing candidate to the electorate at large. He appealed to the fact that he had been a party member from the age of 16, whereas another of the candidates had only joined that week. While a reference to a mere 100 days as a party member might have dissuaded other party members, it means little to the public at large, the overwhelming number of them are not members of Fine Gael, and would not consider joining, even if they would vote for us. We have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that either personalities or policies are good or bad because of their relationship to different parties. This is perhaps most true of the office of president, given that office-holders are expected to sever formal links with their party, but it is true more generally

The problem with focusing so much on an appeal to party members brings to mind the problem with a focus on Buy Irish as a means of economic development; just as a country’s industry will not become rich relying on its compatriots, but by being good enough that others will buy them too, someone cannot win a 50%+1 election relying on their own party’s base. Statements during the campaign that Mitchell would be a good choice because he would be able to work closely with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach probably fell entirely on deaf ears because of people’s perception of the nature of the role of president.

Mitchell’s appeal to Christian democracy held sway within certain sections of Fine Gael, but it immediately turned off large sections of the wider public. This is something we should certainly take heed from. While the airing of particular points of view in the Christian democratic tradition did not affect the party that much in February, without being part of a broader package of economic competence and reform to balance it, it did have an effect.

The most important thing I think we should get from this, to avoid the hubris of thinking that at 36% in the election, and still at around that figure in opinion polls, that the public at large support us because we are Fine Gael, rather than because of what we proposed and are doing in government. In contrasting the results between February and October, and indeed from the party’s electoral history since 1933, I don’t think it is even fair to consider yesterday’s vote the core Fine Gael support. This should not in any respect affect Enda Kenny’s strength as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. And because we are still doing well in polls, and because I believe the country will be in better place in 2016, I would not really hold to the “despair” in the epithet above.

There is a similar lesson from the 30th Amendment Bill, the proposal to allow for Oireachtas Inquiries, and in this case, Labour also fell foul of the trap of hubris. We don’t yet know if it will be defeated, but it seems more likely than not. During the general election campaign, both parties promised citizens’ engagement with the reform of the Constitution and the political process. We are delivering on this, with the Constitutional Convention in the new year. But these Amendments could easily have been part of that, and I think it should now be considered bad practice in most instances, outside of very technical amendments like that on Local Government in 1999, to schedule referendums on the same day as other elections.

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  1. 29 October, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I think you’re right to be cautious here about people not supporting Fine Gael because it’s Fine Gael, but I’m not sure you go far enough.

    I’m really not convinced that Fine Gael’s electoral success in the general election had much at all to do with what the party proposed or offered. I think it had far more to do with the fact that most Irish people are non-ideological centrists. Older ones are a little bit conservative and younger ones are a little bit liberal, but on balance they’re centrists.

    Fianna Fail had shown itself to be exhausted and corrupt, and was specifically guilty of something that had effectively sunk the country. Where else were the people who’d voted for it most likely to go?

    In terms of the election result, I think it comes down to candidates rather than ideology, in the main. Most candidates were — or seemed to be — bad ones. I was once a YFG member, and I’ve almost always voted FG and even I’ve always thought Mitchell came across as a wally and someone I’d not want as president.

    Higgins, on the other hand, has long seemed someone of gravitas; irrespective of his actual views, he’s an established political figure who has long come across as a serious person, and with his views not having come under a media microscope*, he seemed a traditional senior political figure and the only candidate who looked like a credible head of state.

    * And I’m not saying they’re objectionable, just that they weren’t looked at.

  2. 30 October, 2011 at 12:01 am

    The efforts of a small leadership cabal to foist Pat Cox on the party were reprehensible: the same cabal needed to nothing at all to get Gay Mitchell to self immolate, as it turned out they did a little more than that. I found it particularly illustrative of what we were in for when the first I knew of Mitchell’s canvass in Kilkenny was from twitter- I was director of Elections here in 09. This was not disorganisation: this was very well organised.
    This is an appalling result for Fine Gael.
    There are people foolish enough to believe FG won the last General Election. Fianna Fail melted down, & we ended up in coalition. That is not winning.
    Higgins got the presidency but Sinn Fein won this election.. Democracy in Ireland has a stark choice: revive Fianna Fail or elect Sinn Fein.
    The constitutional convention is a great galloping trojan horse designed to replace Bunreacht with a constitution more amenable to the one group in government that agree across the coalition parties- the New Atheists who regard religion as superstition & teaching it to children as child abuse. What we have seen so far of their efforts, two terrible, badly worded cuckoos eggs bodes very badly for the future.
    Typically the efforts to identify the causes of Mitchell’s failure have started not with his venomous attacks on other candidates ( a campaign modal the leadership cabal were more than willing to encourage) or his dour presentation or utter failure to identify a vision of the presidency but with the one thing he never properly articulated at all, Christian Democracy.
    This takes either a complete blindness to political realities or a a reality warping agenda.
    My expiriences of Fine Gael campaigns tell me there is plenty of both available in the party.

    • William
      1 November, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      Paddy, to be honest, day after the results, I didn’t want to get too personalised in my criticism of Gay. But his attacks on the other candidates, and the way other senior party figures rowed in with him, came across as unprofessional, and certainly unpresidential.

      Gay did talk about Christian democracy when he sought the nomination from the party, and in the few weeks after securing it. Then he stopped. He was called up on this by Sean O’Rourke towards the end of the campaign, who seemed to guess, rightly I’d imagine, that he’d been told to drop that. It may not have been the biggest thing to have hurt him in the campaign, but I’d be fairly certain it had some impact. Among people I know (and I’ll throw my hands up and suggest that they might not be entirely representative of the wider public), his views on marriage put him in the lower half of their preferences. This included people who were gay or straight, atheists or practising Catholics, and those who would otherwise be Fine Gael voters, even some who had voted for him in 2009, but felt these sorts of values matter because of how the president represents the nation. For most people, Christian democracy does not mean simply that someone is mindful of their religious values while in office, it invokes the closer relations between government and bishops most people are glad has diminished, as seen in the reaction to Enda Kenny’s speech in July. It may only account for a few percent of what the party might otherwise have got, but it was something. And of course it’s the kind of thing I would notice. We all have our biases.

  3. David Dancey
    1 November, 2011 at 10:55 am

    What about the anti-incumbency factor? Fine Gael are widely viewed as being the dominant political force in Ireland after the last election, although, as previous commenters have noted, the situation is probably more complex. Given that both the by-election and the presidential election were second-order elections could it be that the electorate decided to shoot across Fine Gael’s bows (Remember General, thou art mortal) and remind them of the electorates fickle nature?

    This obviously does not explain the scale of the defeat but I’m convinced that any Fine Gael candidate would have faced a tougher struggle than normal.

    Given that recent electoral history has shown that being the junior party in a coalition is the touch of death and seeing some of their recent approval ratings, perhaps the biggest surprise of the two elections is the success of Labour.

    • William
      1 November, 2011 at 2:35 pm

      There’s probably something to this, but there are two points I’d make to it. One is the opinion polls, which still have Fine Gael at the 36% we received in February, if not higher. Of course, who knows how people would actually vote in another general elections, but we have a control variable here as a comparison, with Labour also in government. Labour have conversely lost support in opinion polls based on a hypothetical general election. That the more popular party would do quite so poorly, where the less popular party did well, means there was more to this than incumbency.

  4. David Dancey
    6 November, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Yeah, I doubt that the anti-incumbency factor could explain the sheer scope of the performance. Definitely some lessons to be learned.

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