Electorate wants change but what is the alternative

If narcissism is a result of being unloved, it explains the quandary of Fine Gael and Labour, writes Gerard Howlin

Electorate wants change but what is the alternative

The compensating self-regard from some of its most prominent members, for most of its term, was palpable. In the case of Labour, unquestionably the worst damage was done not in government but in opposition. The cynical stoking of anger and a commensurate raising of expectation remains toxic. For Fine Gael, its base is too narrow to carry an election without both a good day for itself and a good day for Labour. The froth on top of the wave is gone, the wave is crashed and the tide is out. The fact that 63% want a change of government is ominous.

It is not, however, necessarily an accurate guide to what will happen on polling day. It only tells you what people are against, not necessarily what they will do.

Narcissists cannot accept criticism. An overwhelming sense of regard is self-compensation for affection either never received or which can never be sated. Too few Fine Gael or Labour TDs, and certainly too few of prominent ministers realised the unprecedented mandate received in 2011 was not because of who they were, it was because of who they were not.

Fianna Fáil was viscerally hated five years ago. A white hot anger drove them from office. It was that tide of anger that brought the current Government in, with an unprecedented majority. The profound misunderstanding of the nature of their mandate, and the true purpose about why they had been chosen has contributed to their current difficulty.

If in difficulty, however, it is all to play for the Government as well as for the opposition. Two things have happened since the Dáil was dissolved on Wednesday morning. Firstly, an onslaught of policy papers and political posturing has been unleashed on an electorate that is just warming up, just beginning to tune in — but critically is still far from making up its mind. Politicians and media have been pawing the ground for months, to get started. People, meanwhile, have been getting on with their lives.

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For now and for some days to come, there is mismatch between the pace and intensity of political debate, and the level of interest from the voting public. As the days go by next week, that mismatch will realign. Canvassers will call to the door, catch you at the train station in the morning, and if you are driving you won’t have much else to listen to on radio. People will tune in and they will filter out the extraneous detail we are now swamped with before arriving at a decision.

The Government’s difficulty, if real, should not be misunderstood. This is not a referendum about whether they are loved. That would be lost. It is a general election about who will govern the country from among the choices available. It is that critical decision that is still in the middle distance, in terms of this campaign. The last election was an extraordinary aberration. If the outcome of this one may be unprecedented, the modalities bear a striking similarity to a more business-as-usual model.

It is probable that if a clear, credible alternative emerged, people would very seriously consider it. But we are not there yet. At the beginning of the campaign, it is the incumbent government who are between the crosshairs. Listening to Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, what I heard was a largely competent, if not entirely convincing, performance. He gave little away to his opponents. In any event, nobody emerges after five years in the taoiseach’s office smelling of roses. The fragrance always becomes a little stale.

An analogy that strikes me now is with the 2007 election. Then there was a very clear, determined mood to be rid of Fianna Fáil. Campaign headquarters was derisively called Meltdown Manor by a media reporting one mishap after another. And it simply got worse as the days went on. My memory is of intense study in the finer points of spread betting, the better to profit from the emerging bear market. In the end, the tide turned. Why? The campaign managed to hold and the ramparts, if battered, were not breeched.

Ultimately, what swung a reluctant, begrudging, cussing electorate back to a still grand old party was not love but fear. Having decided to be rid of Fianna Fáil and having endless opinion polls show this was a seemingly inevitable outcome, a belated intense focus came on Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. He lost a one-to-one debate with Bertie Ahern; and more widely Fine Gael, which didn’t have the talent and seats, was judged not government-ready. The electorate recoiled, bit its lip, and voted Fianna Fáil one more time, begrudgingly.

If the government parties remain under pressure; if successive polls show it falling short of the bare minimum required to form a government with independents, at some time probably still a little away, an intense focus will come to bear on the alternative offering. This will be the decisive moment of their opportunity and greatest peril. An unprecedented aspect of this election is the lack of a clear, or even unclear alternative.

The Government is playing on this for all it is worth. Our decision will boil down to this. Do we want to move on, regardless? Or as in 2007, having decided to move on, will we recoil and retreat to known but unloved incumbents. In 2007 the alternative of Fine Gael and Labour was clearly known but, found wanting. Now the opaque nature of the alternative will either be the Government’s best last weapon or the cover of political fog that allows opposition parties and independents accumulate a mandate, which in the case of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin they swear they will not co-operate to share. In that case, every conceivable alternative is in play.

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