It’s a question that won’t get much play, you’d think, given the likelihood of a week of media hoopla about young women in leadership and inspirational change and the passing of the torch to a new generation and how Holly Cairns is the face of a new Ireland and so on and so on. But it’s a question of some relevance. These were the results in the new party leader’s constituency at the most recent election:
(Image courtesy the Irish Times)
There were three seats up for grabs: Cairns managed to nab the last one, a significant political achievement. But there was some luck, too: She grabbed that seat thanks to managing to be ahead of the Sinn Fein candidate on the last count but one, having come only fifth on first preference vote. There’s a strong argument to be made that she won that seat on the basis of Fine Gael mismanaging its vote and running one too many candidates.
At the next election, it might be assumed, Fine Gael will not repeat the error. Of the three available seats, a betting person might expect that Michael Collins will be comfortably re-elected, should he choose to run. In addition, even with a fall in their national vote, a Fianna Fáil seat looks certain. Fine Gael managed more than 8,000 votes at the last election, and did not take a seat, while Cairns got elected with just over half that many first preferences. If the constituency has three seats, then the new leader of the Social Democrats will likely struggle to retain hers.
But John, the political nerds reading this are screaming, there will probably be four seats next time.
That is possible: For those who don’t follow these things, the Oireachtas is soon to consider a report requiring the number of TDs to increase at the next election because of our growing population. This may well (though it is not anything close to certain) result in an extra seat for South West Cork. If it does, Cairns is obviously in better shape.
But even then, it will be a fight: Sinn Fein did not seriously contest the constituency last time out, and we can expect them to seriously contest every constituency at the next election. Their target will be, at minimum, one seat everywhere. And polls suggest they have the votes, at present, to accomplish that.
What’s more, look again at the last election: Sinn Fein votes were what elected Cairns, in the end. She simply would not be a TD today had she not been the second preference of a very big chunk of Sinn Fein voters. That means that at the next election, whether it is in a four seat constituency or a three seat constituency, Cairns will need to be well ahead of the Sinn Fein candidate to hold her seat.
I for one, friends, am not convinced. When many of the voters who elected you actually stated a preference for another party, and that party is growing in support, then it might be time to worry.
The other factor here is that traditionally, the second election is the hardest one for any successful politician: Your first election, you have the advantage of being something of a novelty – a “fresh voice” and so on. By your third or fourth election, you have been around so long that you are well established, with a network of supporters, and likely feel like part of the local furniture.
No, it’s the second election that is dangerous: You have been there five years – long enough to have alienated a few supporters, but not really long enough to have built up a massive client vote of people who owe you their planning permission or their medical card. You are not a fresh voice any more. It’s very easy, if you are not careful, to be “one and done”.
Whether any of this applies to Cairns, we do not know – she may shock us all and top the poll, and lead the SocDems to 15% or more in the polls.
What we do know though is that she will have to pay a lot of attention to just getting herself re-elected, let alone saving the seats of her colleagues or dragging new candidates across the line. The more time she spends in Cork, the less effective she will be nationally. The more time she spends everywhere else, the less likely she is to be re-elected in Cork.
It’s an interesting conundrum, and one wonders whether the Soc Dems have really thought it through.