When Fianna Fáil asked me back in 2012 what defeated parties needed to do to put things right, I came up with a 12-step programme. So, has the party followed it – or has it fallen off the wagon?
1) Fully grasp the scale of your defeat: All but the most blinkered realised that the 2011 election wasn’t just a swing of the pendulum but a near-death experience. That’s why the party has avoided tearing itself apart looking for quick-fix solutions which were never there. Things may not be great even now. But never forget they might have turned even nastier.
2) Don’t underestimate your opponents: This was always going to prove hard. If you’re Fianna Fáil, it’s self-evident that the Government is clueless, heartless, and led by a lightweight non-entity. Many voters, however, think that Fine Gael is pretty much the best of a bad bunch at the moment. And whatever they think of Enda Kenny, he just about looks and sounds the part – and he’s not about to risk proving otherwise by going head-to-head with Micheál Martin during the election campaign.
3) Spend money on opinion research: Over the past four years, the leadership has been commissioning qualitative research to supplement public opinion polls. The latter focus on voting intention when what you really need to know as a party is first, what are the questions that people are going to be asking themselves when they vote; second, is there any chance that you can encourage them to ask different (or at least additional) questions; and, third, what can you do to make yourself, rather than your opponents, the answer to those questions?
4) Don’t waste time defending your record: This has occasionally proved difficult: after all, no one likes being trashed and traduced – and the damage done to Labour in the UK by failing to dispute the Tories’ caricature of its 13 years in office shows you can go too far the other way
5) Don’t waste too much time on internal reform: Luckily the party got its organisational changes done and dusted relatively early, and without much trouble – apart, that is from the fuss over quotas for female candidates.
6) Do everything possible, visually and verbally, to signal change: Given Fianna Fáil decided to stick with their leader, then candidate selection was perhaps the most obvious way of doing this, especially since all its TDs were men and Sinn Féin was clearly going to do its best to give the impression it was bringing in fresh, young faces. Given how reluctant established parties can be to do the latter, the imposition of quotas by law, although they’ve caused a lot of unhappiness among those who feel they’ve lost out as a result, has probably done the party a favour.
7) Accept that any policy review should be strategic and symbolic rather than substantive: Fianna Fáil has at least tried to weave together a coherent narrative about a more “enabling” state focused on investing in order to spread opportunity and equip the country for a global future. And for the most part it managed to avoid pumping out policy promises too early, preventing opponents from either pinching them or destroying them while they were still on the ground. The fact that Fianna Fáil is promising an independent audit of its election platform may well be as important as what is in it.
8) Spend time opposing the government tooth and nail but avoid jumping on every passing populist bandwagon: This hasn’t always been easy, not least because there’ve been so many tempting opportunities, on health, on mortgages, on water charges and, more recently on flooding. On the other hand, Fianna Fáil has at least refused to descend, as so many opposition parties in Europe have descended, into narrow-minded nationalism.
9) Don’t be fooled by ‘success’ in second-order elections: Yes, of course Fianna Fáil talked up its performance at the 2014 locals and Europeans: members have to be given a little hope now and then, after all. But, behind closed doors, very few people in Fianna Fáil really believed those elections meant they were primed for a big comeback in 2016.
10) Recognise that the key to that comeback is leadership, not membership:It was never going to be easy for Micheál Martin. He wasn’t a clean-skin, untainted by time spent in government. He doesn’t really do alpha-male. There have been – there always are – people who reckon (sometimes out loud) that they could do a better job. But, unlike many party leaders, he’s not a drag on his party’s poll rating, and he’s not someone who voters simply can’t imagine in the top job.
11) Realise that comebacks take two or three parliamentary terms: Fianna Fáil know this but surely no one expects the party to admit it? If they’re wise, trying to get them to speculate about potential coalitions will draw a similar blank: any talk of teaming up with Fine Gael would suit Sinn Féin; flirting with Sinn Féin would lend it a fatal legitimacy.
12) Remember that parties with venerable traditions rarely disappear:Fianna Fáil hasn’t but, as electorates and party systems fragment, it’s getting more and more difficult everywhere for the giants of old to hold on to the seats and vote-shares they once took for granted.
After its near-death experience in 2011, Fianna Fáil is off life-support and breathing on its own. It now needs to prove that it is up and about. That means keeping the gap between it and Fine Gael as near to single figures as possible, winning 30-odd seats in the Dáil, and ensuring Sinn Féin finishes third. Not much maybe. But enough – at least for now.