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Column: Lessons from Dublin Bay South

While elected representatives in Ireland have previously sought to censor public opinion polls, they do so under a paternalistic presumption that the public is incapable of adequately deciphering the information, writes Dr Kevin Cunningham.

Kevin Cunningham Ireland Thinks

CAN WE LEARN anything about national politics from by-elections?

Specifically, can we learn anything from Dublin Bay South (DBS) and its recent vote?

Firstly, it’s worth stating how unique DBS is. Its most distinguishing electoral feature is a support for the soft left – the Labour/Social Democrats/Green Party corner performs relatively well. If we include Democratic Left (a party from 1992 to 1999), this grouping has won at least 29% in every election in DBS and its predecessor Dublin South East over the past 40 years. That is typically double what these parties have received nationally.

When looking for lessons in by-elections, one may also point to the cautionary tale of Malcolm Byrne. The Fianna Fáil senator won the Wexford by-election in November 2019 by a comprehensive margin and yet 10 weeks later failed to win any of the five seats on offer there in the General Election. 

However, Ivana Bacik’s victory is interesting in what it disproves rather than what it proves.

One cannot now allege that polarisation of politics between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin is entirely unstoppable. The centre held its own here as both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin parties decreased, if very marginally, their totals in 2020.

Indeed, in recent months their collective polling total has stalled. And perhaps this is another data point in a dynamic seen in other parts of Europe where centre-ground political parties are enjoying something of a renaissance – with the FDP surging in Germany, Les Republicains and the centre-left Socialist party in the French regional elections and the Lib Dems striking an unexpected win in the Chesham & Amersham by-election in the UK. All of these, like Labour, were parties damaged by their decisions in government following the financial crisis.

As an aside, this by-election suggests that – notwithstanding the fact that it is a constituency where Fine Gael are stronger – the decline in support for Fianna Fáil is sharp, and reminiscent of the plight of a minor coalition partner. But with marginally more TDs, the Taoiseach, and both Health and Housing ministerial roles, Fianna Fáil should arguably be viewed as at least the equal partner.

Many will argue that Bacik’s win was not a vote for the Labour Party but for the candidate alone. A small sample poll conducted by Ireland Thinks for The Mail on Sunday shows support for Ivana Bacik was strongly related to her specific candidacy. Far more than other candidate, she received a personal vote (60%) rather than one based on her party (24%) – or indeed one’s support of or protest against the government (16%).

However, although relatively muted, the party did not prevent Bacik from winning the seat in a way that it almost certainly would have a half-decade ago. 

But what was it about Ivana Bacik?

For this, it’s worth remarking on the campaign itself and what it says about the electorate. Elections are often characterised as being beholden to the highest bidder or whoever makes the most grandiose promises but this by election provides a clear example to the contrary.

Unlike her rivals, Bacik didn’t present wide-ranging policy ideas such as the 15-minute city but stood on her track record – emphasising that she had proposed and passed more legislation than any other senator, in addition to her decades-long consistency on significant issues.

The Ireland Thinks poll asked voters why they supported their candidate. Not a single supporter of any candidate mentioned their specific policy proposals, while for Bacik’s supporters it was her hard work and years of service that dominated the answers.

This was undoubtedly an enormous advantage for the Labour candidate when presenting to a more cynical electorate that has heard all the never-to-be-delivered promises many times before. It also proves to prospective politicians that hard work and consistency is rewarded. 

There is no shortage of what-ifs here.

There is some suggestion that a more liberally minded Kate O’Connell might have fared better than James Geoghegan. But that perhaps underestimates the dynamics at play.

Firstly, as Figure 1 shows, Bacik’s vote in the by-election was most strongly correlated with Eamon Ryan’s vote from 2020. It stands to reason that the greatest share
of her gains came from the 14.4% decline in support for the Green Party as opposed to
the 1.5% decline in the Fine Gael vote. This underlines the relative importance of the
aforementioned Labour-Green-Social Democrat block vote in this constituency.

From a regression analysis we can see that once you account for the pattern of
Ryan’s vote, Kate O’Connell’s vote bears little or no relationship to the residual Bacik vote.

This may seem surprising given similarities between the candidates. The pattern of Kate O’Connell’s 11.7% in 2020 was more likely to be an artefact of how Fine Gael carved up the constituency geographically rather than any significant ideological schism within Fine Gael being widely analysed by the public.

Indeed, as Deirdre Conroy discovered, her own very strong bone fides in respect of the
Repeal movement gained her very little in the course of this campaign. Perhaps because it raised the salience of an issue for which she was not the strongest candidate. Or indeed, perhaps because voting wasn’t decided based on it. Issues such as the repeal of the Eighth Amendment or marriage equality, while important, don’t necessarily translate into votes.

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These issues barely register when voters are asked in open-ended text responses what the biggest problem facing the country is. In 2016, just 3% of voters said abortion was the most important issue. That is in sharp contrast to the regular 40% that cite housing as the most important issue in more recent years. This again points to the idea that what makes Bacik’s candidacy so potent here is what her track-record says about her tenacity, rather than any specific policy that the public is looking for.

The other “what if” relates to the role of The Irish Times opinion poll, the only public poll conducted in advance of the election.

It has been argued that it helped to consolidate the prospects of Bacik, especially for the subset of voters eager to support the candidate most likely to beat the government.

It may also be argued that polls contribute to the existence of what we call momentum in political campaigns. This is more evident in personality-driven campaigns such as US primaries or the Irish presidential election.

While there is little evidence of it in partisan contests such as a general election, one cannot entirely rule out a significant role for a small subset of the population. But what of it?

Voters can act on this information in whatever way is most appropriate.

Voters can, of course, pull back from a candidate if they realise that the candidate might actually get elected. While elected representatives in Ireland have previously sought to censor public opinion polls, they do so under a paternalistic presumption that the public is incapable of adequately deciphering the information.

As discussed above in respect of the policy pronouncements of political parties, the public is actually very capable of deciphering such information.

Instead public opinion polls are a vital tool for the public to influence a political discourse that can otherwise be dominated by the wishes of the interest groups and lobbyists with the deepest pockets.

Dr Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer at TU Dublin and managing director of Ireland Thinks.

About the author:

Kevin Cunningham  / Ireland Thinks

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