Monday, October 04, 2010

Doing the Sums - Did the Tallaght Strategy Really Cost Fine Gael Votes?

Someone who really can do the sumsEnda Kenny is quoted in Saturday’s Irish Times as saying that he is not in favour of a second Tallaght strategy – Alan Dukes’ decision to support the Charlie Haughey minority government of 1987 in its policy of fiscal rectitude – because Fine Gael “suffered at the polls as a consequence” of the first Tallaght strategy.

But is that true? Fine Gael had 50 seats on 27.1% of the vote after the 1987 election. In the 1989 election, Fine Gael won 55 seats on 29.3% of the vote.

So the electorate rewarded Fine Gael in the immediate aftermath of the Tallaght Strategy. The popular vote increased by 2.2% and the Fine Gael seat total increased by five. That’s a positive result.

Fine Gael got hammered in the next election after, 1992, when it lost ten seats and dropped to 24.5% of the popular vote, but they can’t really blame that on the Tallaght Strategy. Fine Gael threw Alan Dukes overboard after they lost the 1990 Presidential election to Mary Robinson and ditched his Tallaght Strategy along with him. John Bruton, Richard’s brother, was in charge by 1992.

Fine Gael got rid of a leader who gained them seats and votes in the 1989 general election for one who lost them seats and votes in the 1992 general election. That is Fine Gael’s Tallaght Strategy legacy. They didn’t know a good thing when they had it.

This is not the only time in this generation that Fine Gael have been unable to interpret their own electoral numbers. If anything, 2002 was the greater psephological disaster.

Michael Noonan endured eight years of odium for the 2002 election result until his recent rehabilitation in the party – and that only came about by accident too - but that interpretation has always been unfair on Noonan. The party’s percentage of the popular vote dropped to 22.5% under Noonan in 2002 but the fall of 5.4 percentage points from their 1997 total resulted in an utterly disproportionate loss of seats.

While Fine Gael only lost ten seats on a 4.8 percentage point drop in support in 1992, the year of the Spring tide, they lost 31, more than three times as many, for a 5.8 percentage point drop in 2002, even though there’s only one percentage point in the difference.

There is a reason for this. The Irish electoral system is unfair. It not nearly as proportional as it claims.

The multi-seat nature of the constituencies means that a small tremor in the popular vote can result in an earthquake when it works its way through the local rivalries and the cute-as-you-like vote sharing and constituency dividing that the nation considers so vital to our national politics.

The corollary of 2002 happened in 2007, when Enda Kenny’s increase of only 4.8 percentage points of the popular vote, from 22.5% to 27.3%, saw Fine Gael increase its seat total by 20, from 31 to 51, an increase in seats gained that was out of proportion to the increase in votes won.

The result of 2007 was just as disproportionate in terms of popular vote versus seats as 2002 had been, but Fine Gael chose to ignore it because it worked their way in 2007. They are paying the consequences of that decision now, as bumbling conspirators again dream of a bloodless decapitation.

But the greater error was Fine Gael’s jettisoning of the Tallaght Strategy twenty years ago. Because they did not suffer from the adoption of the Tallaght Strategy in the first place, Fine Gael gained no advantage in dumping it.

Had they continued, Fine Gael would now be able to claim twenty years of a high moral ground when the standing of politicians has never been lower. And they could have, because the evidence is there as outlined above.

For the main opposition party to be so very poor at doing their own sums or exercising self-knowledge does not bode well for the nation at a time of deep and dark crisis.