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Why the UK general election could tell us a lot about our own

There are some remarkable similarities between British and Irish politics as voters in the UK prepare to vote on 7 May, writes Seamus Conboy.

Séamus Conboy

THERE ARE A few political anoraks around Ireland watching the Westminster election campaign like normal people watch the Premiership. But for most Irish people it means nothing.

A quick look at the campaign shows a lot of similarities between British and Irish politics. With an election in Ireland at most a year away, what can voters here expect to learn from what’s happening across the water?

Will austerity seal the fate of the Lib Dems and Irish Labour alike? Will ‘camera-shy’ Prime Ministers be punished for avoiding debate? Can a new party really make a breakthrough?

These are the issues to keep an eye on over the next four weeks:

Can the Prime Minister get away with dodging debates?

Last month Prime Minister David Cameron was branded a coward after refusing to debate Labour leader Ed Miliband head-to-head. The compromise eventually reached – three different debate formats, all avoiding pitting the main party leaders against each other – has left fans of political bloodsport thoroughly disappointed.

Belgium World War One Source: Virginia Mayo

Similarly, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has somewhat unfairly won a reputation for avoiding live interviews and being wrapped in cotton wool by overprotective advisors.

The rationale is simple. As incumbent, the Prime Minister can rise above the debate, and remain ‘Prime-Ministerial’. Both Cameron and Kenny have spent years at the head of Government, providing leadership at national and international level on our TV screens every evening. They know there is much to be lost and little to be gained in a live televised debate.

They know that to lower themselves to head-to-head debate will give credibility to their opponents. After four years jostling for position as leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams will be champing at the bit for a head-to-head or three-way debate with the Taoiseach.

David Cameron certainly didn’t win the first two election ‘debates’, but more importantly he didn’t lose. His rivals couldn’t land a killer blow. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, but the Taoiseach (and his advisors) will be watching closely.

How does the junior coalition partner in an ‘austerity government’ fare at the polls?

Like Labour in Ireland, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with a right-wing party at the peak of austerity in Europe. Both were forced to concede ground on election promises in forming a Government – caving on student fees marks a striking parallel. Both have been hammered in opinion polls and at local and European elections. And both have faced harbingers of doom within their parties and without.

But despite all this, electoral wipeout is not going to happen for either party.

General Election 2015 campaign - April 8th Source: Steve Parsons

Time is nearly up for Deputy PM Nick Clegg to sell the Lib Dems’ achievements in Government. But despite poor polling, a return to Government is not impossible.

Tánaiste Joan Burton has the advantages of a growing economy, falling unemployment and a potential give-away (or maybe ‘give-back’) budget in October. Most importantly, she still has time to sell her message and win voters around. Any successful showing by the Lib Dems will boost Labour’s morale.

Can a fresh (female) face take nationalism to the next level?

Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon is considered the big winner of the campaign so far. Her positioning as the “authentic voice of the left across Britain” can’t have gone unnoticed by Mary-Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin. The SNP now stands ready to wipe Labour off the map in Scotland, something Sinn Féin would love to replicate in Ireland.

Known as ‘Nats’ by the Westminster elite, Sinn Féin and the SNP have a lot in common. Both Nationalist parties have an overriding focus on national independence, a cult-like following, and powerful election machines.

Both parties measure their leaders’ terms in office in decades not years. Alex Salmond stepped down last year after 20 years at the helm, making way for Sturgeon. Gerry Adams is now in his 32nd year as Uachtarán Shinn Féin.

Easter Rising Commemorations Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Most political observers regard Adams’ abdication and replacement by Mary-Lou McDonald as a question of when not if. The party knows that to break the next ceiling electorally, they need to break with the past.

If the “Sturgeon surge” continues, the case for Sinn Féin’s popular Deputy Leader to lead the party into the next election may get stronger.

Can a new party really make a breakthrough?

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made a lot of the early running in the campaign, attracting Tory defectors, winning by-elections and framing the debate around the EU and immigration.

But a big electoral breakthrough next month is probably still out of reach for UKIP. The Westminster electoral system, First-Past-The-Post, creates a very high barrier to entry for smaller parties. Nothing short of topping the poll will do.

General Election 2015 campaign - April 7th UKIP leader Nigel Farage Source: Joe Giddens

Ireland’s proportional representation system and multi-seat constituencies will be much kinder to ReNua and other new groups. Strong candidates like Lucinda Creighton and Shane Ross will have a much easier time securing their own seats than some of UKIP’s leading lights.

UKIP have been very successful in shaping the election debate and defining the issues, something ReNua would love to replicate. But they must also learn from UKIP’s experience and avoid the pitfalls of running untested candidates who turn out to be liabilities.

And can a party leader survive a poor showing on polling day?

The election result is hard to call, but one thing is certain – neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband will be leader of the opposition in the next parliament. One will be Prime Minister, the other will resign as party leader before he’s pushed.

In Ireland, none of the current crop of party leaders can expect to sit too comfortably in their seats if they fail to deliver at the polls.

Both Cameron and Kenny are well aware of the pretenders eying up their thrones, and Milliband knows a large chunk of his party considers him a liability. Just how quickly their rivals will strike remains to be seen.

Séamus Conboy is Director of Client Campaigns at Red Flag, an International Strategic Communications and Public Affairs agency headquartered in Dublin, with offices in London, Paris and Brussels. He tweets @SeamusConboy

Read: What you need to know about the election that no one can predict

Read: David Cameron is under fire for eating a hot dog with a knife and fork

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