The latest Ipsos/MRBI poll (Tues 1st October) is more bad news for the Labour Party particularly given the ray of hope provided by the Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes poll on Sunday 22 September which pitched the party at 11%. A Sunday Independent Millward Brown poll on the 1st September reporting an 8% poll rating, while making uncomfortable reading, could probably be justifiably be written off, coming as it did at the tail end of the ‘silly season’. However this latest poll is nothing less than a devastating result.
Based on these results, if an election were called tomorrow, the present coalition would return 34% (FG 28 / Lab 6) while Fianna Fáil 22% and Sinn Féin 23% would return 45%. Greens, Independents and Others amount to 23%. These results open up the possibility of either a future FF/Sinn Féin or a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition.
Any evaluation of Labour’s woes must take account of the party’s optics and tone of message. Right from the off, Labour were under scrutiny. Rows about portfolios, Burton side-lined, Quinn re-instated amid cries of ‘Where’s Gilmore?’ In contrast Fine Gael felt mandated, were confident, highly visible and seemed well-equipped for austerity measures. Fine Gael’s demeanour and messaging has found a perfect fit between the organisation and its target market – those senior and upper middle income earners that are gainfully employed, riding the recession and managing. This cohort understand that sacrifices are necessary for a return to certainty. Kite flying about a reduction in taxes has also been cleverly directed at this voter section.
Sinn Féin have also been crystal clear about the voters it wishes to attract – the lower income earners, the unemployed, the carers etc that feel disenfranchised and badly let down, or to use Sinn Féin-speak, betrayed by Labour. They continue their sound-bite mantra taunting Labour as the pro-austerity party supportive of a cosy consensus of cuts. And, of course, once Labour entered Government, it ceded the harder left constituency to Sinn Féin, who have used every opportunity to maximize this weakness. Intellectually challenging? No. Simple, effective and making an impact? Definitely.
And what of Labour’s tone? Ruairi Quinn was criticised for stating that some parents view child benefit as a holiday fund while the same Minister found himself embroiled in a minor controversy over his ministerial car mileage claims to his holiday home in the West of Ireland. Joan Burton has used the phrase ‘lifestyle choice’ to describe certain social welfare recipients but also in the context of women who took leave to have children who may have foregone pension entitlements as a result. Not much empathy exuded here but particularly when you consider that Burton has hung on to her DIT public sector pension and only resigned her senior lecturer’s position in 2011, having spent nearly a decade on leave of absence. However it is Pat Rabbitte who tops the poll in this regard – his retort to breaking election promises with the throwaway – “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?, his remark that you’d have to be a caveman to avoid the new Broadcasting charge, his strange reply to a question on Morning Ireland regarding Denis O’Brien’s attendance at the Global Economic Forum was: ‘I don’t know what kind of test you’d expect the government to cause invitees to the Global Economic Forum to jump through’ and his sneering demeanour when Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin raised the Lowry Tapes issue – all these incidences are examples of poor optics and evidence of a Labour Party that, at times, appears as far away from a left wing party that you could possibly get.
Added to this has been the aggressive dismissal of former colleagues who have accused the leadership of abandoning core Labour Party principles.
In the Shortall case, Labour Ministers and backbenchers closed ranks and supported Reilly’s actions but by standing over Reilly’s alleged ‘Americanisation’ of the Health Service it disregarded what Shortall claimed was Labour’s founding principles. The trend that has emerged in all these instances is a Labour leadership that refuses to address the cause of the issue for fear of going against Fine Gael and risking a dissolution of the coalition. A Haughey-esque ‘power at whatever cost’ scenario has emerged.
Labour’s loss, of course, is now Sinn Féin and the Independents gain.
The Labour Party communications strategy is to dismiss any criticism with well-worn soundbites – ‘we are putting the country ahead of any self-interest’, ‘we did not enter this government to be popular and for short term poll results’ and ‘we must put the country before any self-interest’. Meanwhile behind the scenes there will be a lot more than mild panic.
Labour continue to claim that things would have been a lot worse had they not been in Government and that they are protecting a ‘threshold of decency’. Their problem is two-fold: they promised radical reform and an overhaul of the decision-making processes and, despite these claims, have fallen way short of it. Secondly, many believe that there is absolutely no economic, moral or social case for cutting the income of vulnerable groups or those on minimum incomes, when there is an alternative.
The good news for Labour is that it cannot get much worse. It should also be noted that the Labour vote has always, given a margin of error, hovered around 12%. The aberrations or dramatic vote increases occurred during the 1992 Spring tide and in 2011. Labour attracted a lot of new voters but has now lost them just as quickly.
The question is – has Labour now reached its Black Tuesday tipping point?