There’s understandably been grave concern in Fine Gael over the last week at the direction of the General Election campaign. Their party is third in the polls. Their star feminist candidate called the Taoiseach autistic. Their best photoshoot involved Simon Coveney eating a sausage roll. Nobody cares about Brexit. Sinn Fein are on the march. It’s been a difficult time.
But Fine Gaelers across the country can relax. They have a new plan:
FG campaign source says they're going to go after Micheál Martin "hard" in the days ahead.
Key messaging themes will be about "one man band" nature of FF's campaign and trying to convince middle class Green voter to vote FG because "FF/SF won't prioritise climate action.#ge2020
— Richard Chambers (@newschambers) February 3, 2020
There will be reams of words written after this election campaign about the disaster that was the Fine Gael election campaign. As is usually the case, those words will focus on the personalities and the human drama, the blow up rows in head office, the sense that “Leo just didn’t connect on the doorstep”. Most of those words will be useless.
As a veteran of several losing campaigns, as well as the occasional rare victory, it’s worth noting that personalities are rarely the problem. When you lose an election contest, it’s usually because you start from a different place from where the voters are. For example, in the abortion referendum of 2018, it’s very easy to write thousands of words about the genius of the yes side and the alleged mis-steps of the no campaign. Some of those words will even be true, because all campaigns make mistakes. But the fundamental truth of that campaign is that on an issue of conscience like abortion, the no campaign was unable, through no real fault of its own, to start from the same place as the electorate, with the same assumptions about the issue as the voters had. The voters had decided that there was some need for change. A campaign made up of people who believe that abortion is wrong was never going to able to meet them where they were, which was essentially “it’s time for some abortion, but not too much”. The yes side simply had an easier time, structurally, by being able to base their campaign on the idea that what was being proposed was neither too little, nor too much, but just the right amount of legal abortion. In our own campaign, we on the NO side recognised the mood of the voters too late, and in any case, because of what we believed, would never have been able to satisfy the desire for change. In some ways, we’d lost before we even begun.
Fine Gael faces a similar structural problem, in that it is fundamentally unable to come to terms with the needs of the electorate, and how the voters are thinking. The voters, to put it plainly, do not care about the things Fine Gael cares about. The Taoiseach’s campaign was supposed to be about Brexit, social progress, and modernising Ireland into a progressive European nation. The message was supposed to be, as explained in their “a future to look forward to” slogan, that under Fine Gael Ireland was becoming a more confident, outward looking, progressive country. Much of this was to be built around the Taoiseach’s personal attributes, because he embodies so many of the ideals of progressivism in his own person, being a gay son of immigrants who has gone on a personal journey on so many issues.
A party that thinks, apparently genuinely, that Climate Change is the top issue to focus on in the last week of a general election is a party that has either done no research, or more likely, genuinely believes that the country is a fundamentally different one to what it actually is. Sinn Fein are surging in the polls at least in part because of a commitment to ease the burden of the carbon tax, but Fine Gael is betting the farm on climate action being a vote winner. There is mass dissatisfaction with health and housing, but Fine Gael is campaigning on the idea that Eoghan Murphy and Simon Harris being replaced by no-name Fianna Fáilers is an unacceptable risk.
In an election where voters really want change, Fine Gael can’t even bring itself to argue for a different kind of change, or the idea that change is dangerous. Instead it is doubling down on the idea that the status quo is working, and that the electorate should be grateful for it. The Taoiseach will go no further than to occasionally allow, when talking about various issues, that the Government’s progress “is not enough”. But what if the voters fundamentally think it’s the wrong kind of progress? What if they don’t want “more” of it?
In truth, there’s not much a Government can do when the electorate decides it wants change. But there are some things it can do. There has been much quiet talk in pundit-land in this election about the potential for a late swing back to Fine Gael, as happened (in reverse) in the 2007 election. At that time, Fianna Fáil had been in office for 10 years, and were beginning to be unpopular. What did that party do?
Bertie Ahern declared himself a socialist. He went down on a pilgrimage to inchydony beach in Cork, and came back, he said, a changed man. There was a big cabinet reshuffle, and Charlie McCreevy was quietly excommunicated from polite society. “We can change”, Fianna Fáil said, “and we’ll be better”. They combined that with a relentless attack on the Fine Gael/Labour alternative. When confronted with the choice between FF change and opposition change, the voters took the safe option.
Fine Gael has run an entirely different campaign, insisting instead that no change is necessary, and that none will be forthcoming. Why has this happened?
Mainly, you feel, it’s because of genuine detachment. In Fine Gael, there’s a real sense of pride in the Ireland they are creating. They take hugely disproportionate interest in things most voters don’t care about. 66% of us may have voted for marriage and abortion changes, but in Fine Gael, there’s a genuine belief that those are two things that are of supreme, rather than incidental, importance. But referendums do not make us happy, and changes that we cannot feel directly have little long term impact. The party is most proud of things most of us don’t care about – it is fanatically pro-European, whereas most voters are practically pro-European. It is fanatically progressive, when most voters are simply passively progressive. It is fanatically environmentalist, when most voters like the idea of environmentalism in the abstract.
With this Government, it’s almost as if Governing is a chore that distracts them from their most important job, which is preaching. The Minister for Health has spent five years trying to improve our character as a people, ignoring our health as a people. The Minister for Children has spent four years focused on the feelings of adults, rather than the welfare of little ones. The Taoiseach spent the weekend writing articles for Italian newspapers about Brexit, rather than articles for local papers about education or homelessness. The Minister for Justice presides over the fight against a criminal empire, but seemed more passionate about defending the Royal Irish Constabulary than he ever has about defending and equipping the Gardai.
They live in a different country to the one that they’re governing. They don’t agree with the voters that there’s any need for change. They’re on a totally different page of Ireland’s book than you, or I, or anyone else. You can’t win an election when you don’t understand the voters, or know where they’re coming from.