Because leadership matters… SocDems poll bounce is about more than just a new leader

This is my first column in several weeks (apologies for that) and what an eventful few weeks they have been. Rather than trying to unpack all those events, I start with the latest opinion poll and work my way backwards from that… returning to a not unfamiliar theme… Fianna Fáil’s relevance problem.  

It is six or seven weeks since I last sat down to wrote one of these analysis pieces. The delay is odd, as there has been no shortage of domestic political events to write about.

From the breakthrough on the Northern Ireland protocol, to the change of leadership in the Social Democrats, and from Bertie Ahern’s return to full Fianna Fáil membership to at least six major opinion polls including one in the North looking at the political attitudes of those who do not identify as either nationalist or unionist.

Where to start? Perhaps it is easiest to start with the latest Ireland Thinks poll from the Sunday Independent and attempt to work back… though knowing that I won’t address much of that backlog in just one article.

So, what do we learn from this latest poll?

Apart from the Soc Dems and Sinn Féin figures, it is quite consistent with the other five polls (2 x Red C, 1 x Ireland Thinks. 1 x B&A and 1 x Ipsos/MRBI) published since the end of January.

In broad terms, whether you calculate by average or by median, the six polls across the two-month period show the relative party strengths as

  • Sinn Féin 31%,
  • Fine Gael 22%,
  • Fianna Fáil 18%,
  • Greens, Labour, and Social Democrats each on 4% and
  • Other parties and independents combined on 15%.

Not that all six polls are ad idem on individual party’s support. They are in general agreement on the Fine Gael figure. It only ranges from 21 to 23%, across all 6 polls. They are less agreed on the Fianna Fáil figure. It goes from a low of 15% in the January Red C/Business Post poll to a high of 24% in the B&A/Sunday Times poll.

Similarly the figures for Others and Independents when aggregated (some polls include Aontú and PBP in this figure) vary from 10% (B&A) to 19% (RedC in Feb).

The latest Ireland Thinks poll gives Sinn Féin its lowest poll rating since September 2021. Back then both Ireland Thinks and Red C also put it on 29%. Though Sinn Féin’s polling average is a point or two down on where it was a few months ago, it is still presumptive to assert that its support has “peaked too early”.   

Sinn Féin bosses will not lose sleep over this one poll and put the dip down to the Holly Cairns effect. They may be less phlegmatic if what they hope is a temporary Holly Cairns bounce for the Social Democrats becomes a trend.

To their credit, the Social Democrats took every advantage from the smooth leadership changeover. Holly Cairns’ first leaders question session was a triumph. Her well-constructed, hyperbole free contribution prosecuted the case against Fine Gael on housing with greater clarity and focus than Sinn Féin leader has managed in countless highly charged attacks.

By eschewing the inflated rhetoric and personalised attacks favoured by the main opposition party, Cairns spoke calmly and authoritatively for her peers, demonstrating an innate understanding of the housing crisis.

It is an understanding that was also politically astute, particularly in its final lines:

Fine Gael has been in government for almost my entire adult life. The Taoiseach’s party first promised to address what was a housing crisis in 2014. Nine years later, it is an unprecedented housing disaster. Promises have been broken, targets have not been met and lives are being ruined as a result.

Cairns deployed some striking statistics to make her case. She reminded the Taoiseach that:

  • between 2004 and 2019, the share of 25 to 34-year-olds who own their own homes plummeted from 60% to 27% and,
  • rents increased by a staggering 95%, between 2012 and 2022, while prices in the economy increased by just 11%.

If Cairns can keep her party on these well-defined tracks over the coming months and avoid being dragged into culture wars by well-meaning allies, she could see the Social Democrats hold on to some of this poll bounce. She has an opportunity to transform her party into a major political force. One that offers reluctant Sinn Féin voters a viable alternative, and may yet compel the Labour party to re-assess its future options.

What intrigues me most about yesterday’s poll is just how strongly Cairns has impacted the Social Democrats support levels. Is she so personally popular that she can drag the party up in the polls… or, is there more to it?

It is clearly the latter. About two years ago I wondered how it was that an unpopular party (Fianna Fáil) can have a popular leader. I made the point then that it was not all that unusual for a popular figure to experience difficulties converting their personal popularity into increased support for their party. As I said:

Research here, but more especially in the UK, shows that a party leaders’ approval ratings tend to fluctuate far more dramatically than that parties’ vote share.

The Ireland Thinks poll that reported a doubling of support for the Social Democrats, up from 4% to 9% gave Cairns a 43% approval rating. This is good. She is ahead of the Labour party leader (its puts Ivana Bacik on 32%) and the Green party Leader (Eamon Ryan at 22%). But it is not stunning. Cairns is within 2-3 points, either way, of Micheál Martin on 45% and Mary Lou MacDonald on 41% and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on 40%.

So, where does the Soc Dem bounce come from? It is down to Cairns, but relates more strongly to what she represents, than a mere translation of her personal likeability to the party brand. Her selection as leader has given her party a much clearer identity and sharper focus.

Her opening comments have given her party a freshness and vibrancy which its previous co-leaders could not muster. The Social Democrats can now define themselves in their own terms, ones that relate to the real concerns of a generation of voters and not old scores to be settled with others.

And while it is possible that the next few polls will show much of today’s bounce ebbing away, the old Irish proverb tús maith leath na h-oibre  (a good start is half the work) still holds true.

Which brings me to one of my more re-occurring themes: Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin problem.

I do not use the word “problem” to be insulting or nasty. Party loyalists can cite all the friendly newspaper op-eds and commentaries they want telling us that Micheál Martin is the most popular thing about today’s Fianna Fáil, but the harsh reality is that his personal likeability and approval is not translating into increased support for his party. That is not going to change twelve years into his time as leader.

In the early years of his leadership, particularly the period from 2011 to 2016, Martin was assiduous in rebuilding and remaking Fianna Fáil. My own view is that Martin accepted the possibility that he might be the first Fianna Fáil leader not to become Taoiseach. It was a hard fact to face, but once accepted he chose instead to be the leader who saved and revived Fianna Fáil. In my view this enabled him to be bolder and braver and to take reasonable risks as leader – particularly on tackling Fianna Fáil’s problems with social issues.

The 2016 election result was seen as proof that he had achieved this goal. Indeed, look back to the polling post the 2016 election and you see Fianna Fáil topping the polls for a solid 18 months thereafter.

But I also think something else happened around that time. Martin and his kitchen cabinet began to think that not only could Martin become Taoiseach, but it might even be inevitable that he would. All they needed to do was to ensure that the party did not misstep or do anything wrong. A career in senior politics pre the global crash has taught Martin that the surest way to avoid making mistakes was strict minimalism.

The relative boldness and momentum of the first phase of the Martin-era gave way to a dangerous caution. Important projects and initiatives were shelved, not least the plan to make Fianna Fáil a thirty-two county party. This goal was slowly abandoned with Martin’s advisers saying that the party should not be diverting any resources and energy away from the following general election campaign preparations to work on this.   

This desire to do nothing and let things just proceed resulted in Martin’s politically inept December 2018 solo run announcement of an extension to the Confidence and Supply Agreement with Fine Gael. A move that caught most of Martin’s own front bench colleagues unaware and gave Varadkar’s minority government a blank cheque in the year-long run up to the election.

The fact that the Fine Gael leader then squandered Martin’s largesse and delivered a horrendous Fine Gael performance in the election, when it came, from which Martin’s faltering campaign could not benefit, only compounds the Fianna Fáil leader’s error. (I highly recommend reading Prof Gary Murphy’s recent Sunday Times column: Varadkar’s leadership is draining the life and soul from the party)

Though it may have inadvertently resulted in making him Taoiseach, by any impartial measurement the 2020 Fianna Fáil general election campaign was a disaster. The “we’ll under promise, but we’ll over deliver” approach completely misread the public mood.

At the precise moment when centre ground voters wanted big bold changes of policy on housing and health delivery, Martin’s inner circle team of advisers and officials delivered a manifesto that was a mish-mosh of bland incrementalist micro policies. It was bereft of any coherent or overarching narrative. Recall that this was the manifesto into which all resources and energies had to be poured to the detriment of anything else.

While his intention was to offend no one by offering a little something to everyone, the lack of a clear campaign message for change led to episodes like the pension age debacle in the first week, where the party seemed to be remaking key policies on the hoof.

Yet …despite all his political missteps and grave strategic errors in the years leading up to the election… Martin still became Taoiseach.

His personal ambition was fulfilled, even if that came with the price tag of even further blurring the lines between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

I am willing to accept that this was not his intention or plan. I can even understand why his supporters resent people like me questioning his interest in the party’s future,… but they should understand that our criticism is born out of a genuine concern that party is on the cusp of disappearing as a progressive centrist political force.

Fianna Fáil’s persistently poor poll ratings since 2019 have not happened despite Martin, they are a direct consequence of decisions he made as leader. It is as if the very decisions that drove his approval ratings up, also drove his party’s support down.

The bounce that party members were told would come as a consequence of Fianna Fáil entering government with Fine Gael and the Greens has not materialised. While Fine Gael is holding on to the support of the reduced numbers of voters who backed it in 2020, the same cannot be said of Fianna Fáil.

While there have been occasional polls showing the party at its GE2020 level of support – and recall that this was Fianna Fáil’s second worst ever result and a drop from the 2016 result – the majority of the polls taken since GE2020 show support hovering somewhere around 4-5pts below that paltry election 2020 level of 22.2%. 

Of the 92 national newspaper polls published since late February 2020 just 14 show Fianna Fáil at its GE2020 level of support or above (it should be noted that all of these were B&A polls – a polling company that tends to overstate Fianna Fáil support*). Far more worrying, 32 of the 92 polls show Fianna Fáil at 15% or lower (See chart above)

So, while entering government has not helped Fianna Fáil to retain its 2020 level of support – never mind grow it – it has helped grow Micheál Martin’s approval ratings. This is unsurprising as he was a very good Taoiseach, especially when you contrast his approach with Leo Varadkar’s.

The idea that Martin can now turn things around as Tánaiste, as he appears to have advanced in his Cairde Fáil dinner speech last year is fanciful.

Like it or not, the end of the Martin-era is nigh. By the end of this month Martin will have been party leader for longer than Charlie Haughey. If he were to continue to next year’s locals and European elections he would have out lasted Jack Lynch and Bertie Ahern, with only Dev serving longer as leader. To be fair Dev served over 33 years as leader and I doubt even the most dedicated Martin-ites think their man can out-do that.

The point here is not that longevity or survivability is critical. Afterall one of Fianna Fáil’s most consequential leaders, Sean Lemass, was leader for just over seven years.

The point is that Martin has had a full term to fix his party’s problems and that  no party looks to its outgoing leader to set its course and trajectory for the following decade.

That is the next leader’s job. And it is past time that Fianna Fáil started to think and plan for that. Whether it happens this year or next year, it is inevitable that Micheál Martin will move on. Looked at from Martin’s personal viewpoint, the party has about fulfilled its function. It made him Taoiseach and, if the rumours are correct, it may yet make him an EU commissioner.

He now has a duty to the party that has loyally delivered for him to ensure that it has a future.

Martin’s skill as party leader in recent years has been in disassociating his own approval ratings not just from his party’s poll ratings, but from the consequences of his decisions. But that is not the skillset that the party needs at the helm today if it is to have a future.

What it does need is a new leader who is untainted by mistakes of the latter half of the Martin-era but can approach the task with the same vigour, drive and courage that Martin demonstrated in his early years as leader.

A new leader who recognises and accepts that the challenge is more daunting than it was over twelve years ago when Martin first accepted it.

* See “House Effects” here on:

House effects

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