Labour faces perfect storm

A series of opinion polls published in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s elections were a source of further bad news for the government parties, whose support levels had already slumped significantly in the years after the 2011 General Elections.

Labour faces perfect storm

This week’s RTÉ Poll of Polls produced an average of party support levels across the most recent opinion polls, leaving Fine Gael at 24%; Fianna Fáil at 22%; Sinn Féin at 22%; the Labour Party at 7%; and the Independents and Others (including parties/groupings such as the Green Party, People Before Profit Alliance, Workers and Unemployed Action Group) at 26%.

What might these support figures mean in terms of potential Dáil seats?

Although the Irish Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) electoral system is a proportional system, the proportion of seats won by parties does not measure up exactly to their actual share of the first preference votes, mainly because geography impacts here: first preference votes need to be filtered through the system of Irish electoral constituencies (and also reflects the different numbers of seats apportioned to these constituencies).

My constituency-level analysis — which attempts to take account of this concern — of the RTÉ Poll of Poll figures estimates that party seat levels in Dáil Éireann, should such national support trends be exactly replicated in an actual general election, would stand as follows: Fine Gael 45, Fianna Fáil 38, Sinn Féin 32, Labour 2, Independents and Others 41.

In the context of a 158-seat Dáil Éireann (after the next general election), such a scenario would significantly limit the number of viable coalition options.

A Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil alliance would be the only viable two-party coalition option in this context. A Fine Gael-Sinn Féin alliance would only require the support of two other Dáil deputies to muster a sufficient number of seats for a Dáil majority, but such an alliance looks unlikely in the present context. There is also potential for a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin government if such an alliance could draw the support of at least nine other Dáil deputies.

Given the improved support levels for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin relative to 2011, the analysis suggests these parties are in line to make significant seat gains at the next Dáil election, especially given that the eight fewer seats in the next Dáil has been factored into this analysis.

The same applies even more so in the case of the Independents and Others grouping, but this grouping is a very broad church and includes a wide range of parties, groups and individuals with very different ideological perspectives. This group includes the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance and a range of left-of-centre independents, but also includes politicians located in the centre-right of the political spectrum, including a number of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael-gene pool independents (including the Reform Alliance grouping) as well as other independents such as Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly.

Fine Gael, by contrast, would seem poised to lose a significant number of Dáil seats based on current opinion poll figures.

The Dáil seat level estimate for Labour, however, is even starker and may not appear readily credible especially given that the party won 12 seats in 1987 on just 6.5% of the national vote. But these estimates highlight the degree to which the PR-STV system is proportional, but only to a limited extent. Swings to, or from, a party in terms of their national vote share often translate into even more dramatic changes in relation to their representation levels, as seen with Fine Gael in both 2002 and 2007 and Fianna Fáil in 2011.

These estimates show that the Labour Party, as their support levels decline, is facing a “perfect storm” due to a combination of electoral geography and changed competition level effects. Labour was not helped by the boundary changes made by the 2012 Constituency Commission and by the overall reduction in Dáil seat numbers (from 166 to 158). Analysis of these changes suggests that Labour would lose four Dáil seats directly as a result of them, even though Fianna Fáil seems likely to make seat gains due to these changes.

But Labour’s main problem relates to the increased level of competition it faces from left-wing parties/groupings and independent candidates, with my post-2011 constituency-level analyses suggesting that they would be in serious trouble if their national support levels fell below the 10% level nationally.

When party support levels fell to around the 10% level at the 1997, 2002 and 2007 General Elections, Labour candidates were helped by transfers from lower placed candidates from the smaller left-wing parties and groupings.

But recent opinion poll trends would leave Labour Party candidates in a number of constituencies polling below candidates from parties such as Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party or the People Before Profit Alliance, as well as left-leaning independents.

Instead of being in a position to possibly benefit from vote transfers (which themselves would be likely to dry up as Labour support falls in any case), on present opinion poll figures a large number of Labour candidates would now be eliminated before the final count in their constituencies and would instead be providing the transfers to see candidates from other left-of-centre political groupings over the line.

* Dr Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in political geography in NUI Maynooth.

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