The forward march of Fine Gael?

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Today I want to deal with a question raised by WorldbyStorm in the comments below, which is this – how can Fine Gael start to look like a credible alternative government? It’s a tricky one, and I’m tempted to believe that the FG advance in this election is pretty damn near as good as it gets. Much as I don’t have much time for FG, this poses a problem in that for the political system to function you need some kind of serious opposition – unless you’re a diehard Fianna Fáiler who actually believes the one-party state to be a good thing.

Fine Gael, as an opposition, doesn’t begin to look like a government in waiting. The last of its infrequent spells in government came as a result of Labour changing horses in mid-stream. The party, even in coalition with Labour, hasn’t won an election for 25 years, and that was in the extraordinary circumstances of the Year of GUBU, when lots of strange things were happening. The last time Fianna Fáil wasn’t the largest single party was, if memory serves, in the second 1927 election after the O’Higgins assassination. You begin to see the difficulty.

Now, I’ll grant you that at one point in the last campaign the “Alliance for Change” looked like winning in the polls. But, as we all know, that turned out to be snow on the ditch. The enormous seat gain, from 30 to 51, is of course eye-catching, but it doesn’t even recoup FG’s 1997 position and looks spectacular only in comparison to the truly awful 2002 result. What’s more, the gains were overwhelmingly at the expense of the Desocrats and centrist independents, representing what might be termed the natural FG base. All told, the major opposition party is still flatlining at around 25% of the vote and it’s hard to see where more gains could come from.

The obvious place to start would be Dublin. It seems an age ago that FG, under Sir Garret’s leadership, could outpoll FF in Dublin, running at around 42% in the capital, and that’s what got FG up to the 70 or so seats that made government possible. The problem with regaining that vote is that the FitzGerald vote, or its present-day analogue, plumps for Labour or the Greens. If FG made serious inroads there, which would still be difficult for what’s essentially a rural conservative party, it would be at the expense of massive collateral damage to the party’s putative coalition partners. What you’re then left with is the faint hope that FF will suffer a huge slump and that FF defectors will go to FG or Labour and not to, say, PSF or FF gene-pool independents.

It strikes me that the only way you’re going to get some serious opposition is if FG is displaced as the second party. There have been a few times when that looked possible – in 1948, 1992 and again in 2002. The idea of 1948 as Labour’s missed opportunity isn’t my own – I can recall the late Kevin Boland making that argument in the early 1980s – but it comes to mind again as closely paralleling Mick O’Reilly’s arguments of recent years. That means that Labour, or a Labour-Republican axis, would have to eschew the short-term promise of bums on seats in favour of becoming the main opposition in the medium term. But what are the odds of that? For most of the last sixty years successive Labour leaderships have appeared hell-bent on propping up FG, usually at the expense of their own party.

So I would tend to see FG as a dead weight on the body politic, Electric Enda notwithstanding, not being a serious opposition but still having the critical mass to prevent any other party emerging as the main opposition. There are only two ways this looks like changing. One is the remote possibility that the Labour leadership will discover a political backbone. The other, somewhat less remote, is that FG goes through yet another slump, possibly with independents rising again to nibble at the party’s western base (essentially a residue of the old Clann na Talmhan vote) and other parties nibble at the middle-class eastern vote, and the Labour leadership are good enough opportunists to go for an opportunity. Neither appears terribly likely in the near future.

7 Comments

  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 3, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    I think you’re right. FG seems to me to be likely to be stuck as a significant but impotent force for the foreseeable future. No fun for their TDs or Senators. SFA use for the left. But then even if FG is displaced the FF links into the working class are so strong that all they need to do is pitch a bit left to upset the Republican/Left rowing boat. Quite a conundrum.

    On a different question I still find it peculiar that Rabbitte stuck with the Mullingar Accord (was ever so weighty a political agreement ever struck in a more momentous location? as it happens my brother lives there… coincidence? I would think so) after election day allowing the Greens to nip ahead and take the prize of government.

    Long term thinking appears almost anathema to the Labour Party. And even a base opportunism (i.e. trying to get into power in any way, as with say an FF/Lab coalition, appears beyond them. What a strange party they are really.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 4, 2007 at 7:36 am

    I always think of the song about the Man from Mullingar and how 700 peelers couldn’t catch him… my instinct was that Rabbitte was keeping a poker face on the assumption that Bertie would come to him, but he only outsmarted himself. Just a hunch, but it might explain things.

  3. John Carroll said,

    July 4, 2007 at 8:34 am

    It’s a tricky one, and I’m tempted to believe that the FG advance in this election is pretty damn near as good as it gets

    I’m tempted to believe that today marks the end of the rain for July, and the rest of the month will consist of glorious sunshine.

    If your going to attempt an analysis of Fine Gael’s potential future, would it not be useful to try and imagine scenarios which may allow Fine Gael to go beyond ‘around 25%’?

    You aren’t really offering much of a case as to why you think FG will stagnate – more wishful thinking than anything else.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 4, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Of course there are potential scenarios, or rather there’s one scenario with FF slumping and the vote going directly over to FG. The other scenarios are problematic, say if FG rebuild their middle-class vote in Dublin that hits Labour and makes a coalition less likely.

    I was trying to point out that there don’t seem to be any easy ways out of the long-term stagnation around 25%, at least not by FG’s own efforts, or one assumes somebody would have thought of them already. Events of course could turn things around, but there’s no point trying to predict the unpredictable.

  5. John Carroll said,

    July 4, 2007 at 9:46 am

    After 02, this election for FG was about finding its feet again, and re-asserting the party as a potential party of government. While you may argue that the position of the party is no better than in ’97, after ’02 that is one hell of an achievment. Indeed, going through stuff at home a few weeks ago, I cam across a SBP from prior to the ’04 local and Europeans, in which Vincent Browne was arguing FG were going to disappear from the scene. He wasn’t alone in that view.

    Now that FG is back where it was, the question is can FG win another 5 seats to deliver government with Labour and the Greens – or another 10 or so to do it with Labour?

    It isn’t beyond the bounds of possiblty, and means in the great scheme of things only another 1-3% increase in the vote if managed well.

    People are forgetting how close the election was. I am looking to this Dáil and the new FG Parliamentary Party with a great sense of excitment.

  6. ejh said,

    July 4, 2007 at 9:51 am

    I am looking to this Dáil and the new FG Parliamentary Party with a great sense of excitment.

    Blimey.

    Still, I play correspondence chess, so each to their own…

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 4, 2007 at 11:26 am

    The great imponderable here, of course, is the FG-SF option I mentioned a little while back. Now that would make the arithmetic more interesting. The Shinners won’t buy it for the moment, but then “Blueshirtism” isn’t really an issue any more unless you’re either an ideological republican or old enough to remember the 1973-77 government.

    I don’t know. Further gains are possible, I suppose, the more so if candidate management improves. But structurally speaking, I can’t see the two-and-a-half party system making a comeback in the near future.


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