Winners write history, losers live to fight another day
28 February 2011
Now that the votes are cast, the counts held and the victors have climbed down from the shoulders of their supporters, the reflections on GE11 can begin in earnest.
Sometimes, battles are best reviewed from a distance of time. I prefer to survey this scene quickly because winners write history and often the respective parties’ view of the last campaign is quickly coloured by the next battle. That’s why the election count night comments made by politicians frequently provide rare unguarded moments when we hear what they really think about friends and foes!
The currency of all politics is votes and votes win seats. Based on these two criteria, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein and the others/Independents were all winners in GE11. The losers were Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
For Fine Gael, hard work put in over three years on policy development and assiduous research resulted in a credible volume of policy, well packaged and presented. Much of the election was played on the five sided pitch FG designed.
Fine Gael used its human resources to good effect. Enda Kenny did the national set pieces required but spent most of his time where he is happiest and very effective, on the streets meeting people and encouraging his troops. The combination of experienced former Ministers and new hungry talent meant that they were rarely on the back foot in media debates. Many of the positives of the 2007 campaign were built on and the mistakes corrected. Good candidate selection and effective vote management maximised the translation of votes into seats.
The Labour Party has been criticised for its campaign, but unfairly in my view. The cold facts tell us that Labour almost doubled its share of the vote and won more seats than ever before. Some critics make this appear like failure because Labour’s final result was well below the levels of support it received in opinion polls last year. This is a deeply flawed comparison. Opinion polls are just that. They reflect a glimpse of public mood at a given time. Labour had a huge asset in its leader and it sought to exploit that asset. It would have been crazy not to have made Eamon Gilmore the centrepiece of their campaign.
Where I feel Labour did not exploit their appeal was that “One Ireland, Jobs, Fairness, Reform” was not a simple message. A slogan which is a very effective theme to an Annual Conference speech, delivered with coherence and passion, does not necessarily translate into an effective poster. A great slogan for Labour would have been “Labour-Let’s Get Ireland Working”!
It may horrify some to think it, but Sinn Fein’s approach to this campaign at times resembled the Progressive Democrats in their hey day. Portraying themselves as the outsider of the political class, Sinn Fein presented the party as radical while others were made redundant by the IMF/EU deal. Again, they learned valuable lessons from the 2007 campaign and the adroit use of Gerry Adams and Pearse Doherty, their newest TD, helped them punch way above the weight which their economic policy deserved.
Undoubtedly, Fianna Fail faced the greatest communication challenge going into GE 2011. Whether fairly or not, the electorate was waiting in the long grass for them. Much of their ground war was devoted to presenting candidates as the “local” man or woman delivering for the local community. At national level, Michael Martin valiantly sought to reframe the national debate away from the past and on to future economic choices and, more particularly, political reform.
‘Real Plan, Better Future’ captured what the party wanted to talk about and studiously ignored what it want to ignore. It was as good a theme as they could find, especially as the level of preparation for the election seemed way behind their competitors. Alas for Michael Martin there was no audience for lofty ideas about changing the way politics works.
The other losers were the Green Party. When unemployment and taxation are the burning issues for voters, it is very difficult to get an audience for a greener world.
With the campaign over, all party strategists will now review their work and see what lessons they can learn for the next time. Election campaigns are run in a three to four week period but the groundwork for all campaigns is prepared well in advance.
Notwithstanding the results all parties can feel that they gave it their best shot and, in politics, there is always another day. In the short term, while the new Opposition come to terms with the new Dáil arithmetic, the new Government will be focused on the national economic challenges. To quote Mario Cuomo –“you campaign with poetry but you govern in prose”.
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