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Column: Why is government more damaging to Labour than Fine Gael?

Small parties tend to suffer disproportionately in government – so, in order to survive, Labour needs to realise who its real supporters are, writes Dr Eoin O’Malley.

Eoin O'Malley

WHEN THE RESULTS of the 2011 general election became clear, the immediate question was: could – or would – Fine Gael govern alone? It possibly could have, but it sensibly recognised that given the scale of the cuts it would have to implement the party would be better placed if it did so in a broad-based coalition.

Less attention was given to the decision that Labour had to make. After the standard noise about ‘red-line issues’, the party quickly signed up to an agreement that provided it few guarantees on the main issue: the pace of the cuts beyond the first budget. Instead, the two parties made heroic assumptions about growth in the middle years of the government.

Government has been much more damaging for Labour

Those assumptions may yet turn out to be true. Keeping the agreement vague suited the Labour leadership, as it didn’t have to advertise the losses it was almost certainly going to have to accept once it started governing. This enabled the party pass its decision to enter government with near unanimity.

What is clear is that the decision to enter government has been much more damaging for Labour than Fine Gael, which remains the largest party.

This was predictable enough. Electorally small parties tend to suffer more than their larger partners. It is a general truth that all parties tend to suffer as a result of being in government but, in Ireland at least, small parties suffer proportionately more. So the PDs and Greens might have been expected to have had good subsequent elections had they opted for opposition in 2002 and 2007 respectively. Instead they were effectively wiped out. Democratic Left struggled to make an impact as a distinct party following its time in government from 1994 to 1997.

Even further back in Irish history we can link the demise of Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan with their terms in government.

Small parties tend to ideologically distinct

Why does this happen, and is it a universal truth? It happens for a number of reasons. One is that small parties tend to be ideologically distinct and as government inevitably involves policy compromise, this compromise is brought into stark relief for its supporters.

As policy-focused organisations, small parties have often emerged to fill a gap – a gap which the bigger parties are happy to fill when they realise there’s some electoral support for the position. So Fianna Fáil was able to do fiscal responsibility when the PDs showed there were some votes in it.

For Labour it means that the party is now standing over public sector cuts – something its voters dislike. For Fine Gael supporters reducing the size of the state might be something its supporters would like to do even in good times. It also suits the Fine Gael leadership to have Labour to blame if the cuts aren’t as hard and fast as some of the party’s more extreme members would like. And Fine Gael can borrow some of the Labour rhetoric about caring… thus smothering the need for Labour in some voters minds – similar to how Fine Gael shifted to the left in 1997 making it an acceptable party for left-leaning liberals to support, at Labour’s expense.

Strategic error, patriotism, or vanity?

So why did Labour make such an obvious strategic error? It gave up the opportunity to be the largest party in opposition to a government making seemingly endless cuts. It could reasonably have expected to have neutered Sinn Féin and possibly killed off Fianna Fáil. Labour’s decision was possibly one of some patriotism – it had promised it would act as a brake on what it portrayed as radical Fine Gael ideologues. It must also have had something to do with the age profile of the Labour leadership, who possible knew it was their last opportunity for high office.

What Labour probably really wants to know is what can it do to stop the loss of support.

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However it is not a universal truth that small parties lose support in government – the PDs frequently improved their position in government. The party probably did this by delivering easily identifiable policy victories to its core supporters. In the PDs’ case this was tax cuts, which even though it was not a battle for the party to deliver (as Fianna Fáil was happy to deliver these as well), it was clearly associated with the PDs. These polices had a noticeable and beneficial impact on the PDs’ voters, who rewarded the party with continued support.

Labour needs to realise who its supporters are

Labour needs to identify those issues which its supporters want to secure. I wonder sometimes whether the party knows who its supporters are. Labour supporters are among the most middle class of any parties’ voters. If Ireland has a set of swing voters these tend to be the middle classes. So Labour’s support is pretty soft and footloose. Arguably protecting Ireland’s comparatively very high dole payments is a mistake (both economically and electorally), when the party’s voters will be more affected by the changes to university fees.

The main difference between the Fine Gael and Labour voter was that the Labour voter is more urban and more liberal on social issues. If Labour can make a stand and deliver on the abortion legislation then this might offer some rationale for Labour supporters to cling to when deciding whether to vote for the party at the next election

Dr Eoin O’Malley teaches Irish politics at Dublin City University. He has written on the subject of small parties in government for a new book on minor parties in Ireland. He occasionally tweets as @AnMailleach.

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Eoin O'Malley

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