Thursday, 25 February 2016

Election 2016 - Rating the parties' campaign performances

The more things change, the more they stay the same
As the election campaign ambles to its graceless denouement, it's hard not to feel deflated about the state of Ireland's political parties. That might sound a bit dramatic but given the wretched election campaign we were forced to endure I feel it is justified. We enjoyed very few substantive debates on policy throughout this campaign, not once did I get the sense that any of the parties that could lead the next government have truly learned from the mistakes of the past and the smaller parties are yet to put forward a viable alternative which is palatable to the Irish public. It's no surprise then that we're headed for a hung Dáil. Anyway, let's forget about all that silly nonsense about the future of our country and the prospects for redistributing the effects of the recovery in a fair fashion. Let's focus on what's important - arbitrary ratings for the campaign performances of each political party!

Fine Gael - 4/10

Oh, where did it all go wrong? The Blueshirts came into 2016 in high spirits after a boomy end to a boomy year. Unemployment was at its lowest level since the recession began, consumer spending was at its highest level since the recession began and incomes were steadily rising. Fine Gael's ascension to the throne of Ireland's undisputed no.1 party looked ominous. But it's all gone pear-shaped. The problem for Fine Gael is threefold; 1. They seriously underestimated the level of anger still prevalent among the population regarding the harsh years of austerity. After the annus horribilis that was 2014, they must have felt they weathered the storm but it was not to be. 2. They vastly overestimated the strength of their campaign's central message "Keep the recovery going". They also vastly overestimated the strength of having their members repeating it ad nauseam. 3. They have an uncharismatic and unpopular leader who dropped numerous clangers throughout the campaign (from the "economic jargon comment in week one to last weekend's infamous "whingers" remark) and who failed to impose himself on any of the televised TV debates.

But hey, it's not all bad. They'll still be Ireland's biggest party come the end of this election but it won't be as emphatic as they would have liked and to retain power they may have to do the unthinkable and rely on the support of a newly resurgent Fianna Fáil. What will that entail? How will it affect Enda's stewardship of the party? From seeming so impervious and unassailable just two months ago there's probably a slightly more uneasy feeling permeating the minds of Blueshirts heading into Friday.

Fianna Fáil - 7/10

Whenever I see Micheál Martin on the TV now, the tune to the Imperial March starts playing in my head. They're back boy, oh they're back. It's hard to see how though. I mean, beyond Martin's obvious oratory strengths which always serve him so well in televised debates, it's very difficult to see what Fianna Fáil have offered up that is so alluring to Irish voters. The main message in their campaign is that there is a 'fairer way'. It's understanding why that appeals to people as it taps in to how so many people feel about our economic recovery; they know things are looking up but they can't see it in their lives and they're not sure if the wrongs of austerity have been righted just yet. But Fianna Fáil have not articulated in any meaningful way how they're going to make this recovery any 'fairer'. We'll create slightly more jobs than Fine Gael, we'll cut USC to a slightly lesser extent, we'll employ slightly more gardaí and teachers, we'll build slightly more social housing. That's the gist of it. There's no grand economic plan which operates as a proper alternative to the government's current strategies; just a few tweaks and vague rhetoric about doing things 'fairer'. I guess I shouldn't be surprised about this, nor should I be surprised that thousands of Irish people will be willing to welcome them back with open arms. Twas ever thus. 

Whatever about the paucity of creativity in their political and economic ideas, they'll be all kinds of delighted with how the campaign has gone. Particularly given how weak they seemed in opposition at times (Remember when it seemed like every old FF hack from Bertie to Mary O'Rourke would take a pop at Martin's 'weak' leadership on a weekly basis?). The only downside to such a strong showing is now it looks like the only viable option we'll have for a stable government will be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in some combination. Will they enter into coalition with the auld enemy or support a FG minority government or will they refuse to countenance such a prospect and plunge this country into another election with all the 'instability' that entails? We wait with baited breath. 

Labour - 4/10

To be honest, it's very difficult to rate Labour's campaign performance because they were so utterly damned heading into this election that they could have had Joan Burton slap a disabled child in the face with an expired medical card live on TV and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Their message was that they added 'balance' to the coalition government. If not for them Fine Gael would have feasted on the first born of every family in Ireland and euthanised every pensioner. In fairness to Labour, history might be a bit more kind to them. The last government introduced some pretty heinous measures from cuts in the respite grant to cuts in rent supplement to cuts in child benefit (all of which came through Joan Burton's department). But the few (very few) redeeming qualities of this government were largely down to Labour. They were responsible for the increases in the minimum wage, collective bargaining legislation and the marriage equality referendum. Still, all that counts for very little now. 

They were always going to be up against it but the way they've marketed themselves and conducted themselves throughout this campaign has left a lot to be desired. Too much  emphasis on clinging to Fine Gael's coattails in the remote hope of being in the next government and too little emphasis on crafting their own identity and ideas. Listening to Joan Burton urging her voters to give their second preference to Fine Gael at the leader's debate must have really been the final nail in the coffin for some. Labour feel hard done by but they've done so little to help themselves it's difficult to pity them too much. Listening to them badger on about keeping 'two-thirds of their pre-election promises' (where they pulled that figure from I have no idea) tells me they haven't yet fully faced up to their failures in government. Many of the core promises, from protecting child benefit to abolishing student fees were not kept and that's what stings for so many people. Red is a fitting colour for a party who are going to be bloodied come Friday.  

Sinn Féin - 5/10

Oh, how Sinn Féin must wish this election could have taken place at the end of 2014. Whatever about Gerry Adam's continued ramblings about the significance of the centenary year of the Rising, they'd have faired a lot better 18 months ago. Back then, the opinion polls had them pegged as Ireland's most popular party with the anger and dissent generated by the anti-water charges protest propelling them to the fore. But that progress has ground to a halt and Sinn Fein's support seems to have stagnated in recent months. The election campaign has been stop-start and Gerry's form was erratic throughout. He did OK in the debates but his infamous interview with Sean O'Rourke halfway through week two of the campaign brought him under justifiable fire. His lack of proficiency in maths was already well established but him seeming to think that people who earn over €100,000 pay a 7% rate of tax was alarming. It was him misspeaking, of course, but it did not sound very good

The thing is, the campaign actually got off to a very good start for Sinn Féin when they managed to call the government out on their miscalculations regarding the fiscal space. But talk of the fiscal space was swept aside after the two fatal gangland shootings in Dublin a few days apart early on in the campaign. This allowed the government parties and establishment press to round on Sinn Féin in an attempt to brazenly peg their past and their stated ambition to abolish the Special Criminal Court as reasons for the upsurge in gangland violence. Indeed, even the most ardent anti-Shinner would have to admit some of the coverage they've received from the media has bordered on the atrociously bias. From the Irish Indpendent's continued witch-hunt against all things Shinner to Cathal MacCoille's needlessly provocative tone when interviewing Adams on Morning Ireland earlier this week, they haven't had it easy. As always, Sinn Féin are prisonsers of their past and if they don't perform well in this election (anything less than seats in the mid 20s would have to be considered a failure) there'll be questions asked about the viability of retaining Gerry Adams as their leader given what an easy target him and his past are for opposition leaders

Social Democrats - 7/10

Okay, here's me laying all my cards out on the table. The Social Democrats are my party of choice for election 2016. Their policies are grounded in reality and fairness, their rhetoric is largely restrained and even-balanced and their admission that they will not cut taxes because they do not want to erode the tax base is both sensible and the antithesis to the annoying populism of other parties. They've performed admirably at times during this campaign, Stephen Donnelly's performance at the Leader's Debate in UL being a particular highlight. The one downside for many people is there refusal to rule out going into coalition with any party, even Fine Gael. This doesn't bother me too much as it's a welcome escape from the usual half-truths and denials we've become used to when it comes to parties discussing their coalition options. They'll be happy with a solid campaign put down that they will be able to build upon in the future.

Renua - 5/10

Again, I will lay all my cards out on the table. Renua are my least favourite party in election 2016. They represent everything I cannot abide; economic and social conservatism. Having said all that, I do admire Lucinda Creighton. No, really. She strikes me as genuine in her beliefs and her judgements. While I wholeheartedly disagree with her on practically everything, she does seem to me to be a politician of good moral character. And she's performed well throughout the campaign. She's a very capable speaker and is very rarely unnerved or intimidated. The problem Renua have is they have only one Lucinda Creighton and very few other individuals worth gravitating towards. She'll more than likely remain the only Renua TD in Dáil Éireann. Which is just as well because if their flat income tax and three strike crimes policies ever see the light of day I will be on the first plane out of here.

The Green Party- 6/10

Ah, the Greens. They try their best, you know? They've been characterised on social media as Irish politics answer to the hapless and luckless Simpsons character Gil and it's not far off. They have a candidate in every constituency in the country which is quite a feat given how utterly annihilated they were in 2011. And they have some genuinely interesting candidates such as Cork South-Central's Lorna Bogue and Clare's Fergal Smith. But, unfortunately for the Greens, they haven't a snowball's chance of coming winning any seat, bar their leader Eamon Ryan in Dublin Bay South. Which is a real shame considering the disgraceful lack of attention paid to climate change and its adverse impacts during the duration of this campaign. 

Anti Austerity Alliance - People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) - 4/10

The alphabet soup, as they have derogatorily come to be known, have endured a so-so campaign. It's as you'd expect. They'll do well in a few urban constituencies, their stalwarts like Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd-Barrett will be re-elected and they'll do little else. Far from the 'radical breakthrough' they've been talking about for so long. It's a shame because while there are certain individuals within the movement I have time for the movement itself has not kept up with the times and is as guilty as anyone else of mindless populism. The campaign they're running is the exact same as they would have run a year ago or even two years ago. It smacks of a lack of ambition and beyond soundbites about 'taxing the rich' it's hard to see the viable left wing alternative that so many people (including myself) yearn to see.

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