Toward a left majority?

One of the more interesting questions to be asked about this election is: Where did all the Fianna Fáilers go? Not, it seems, to H&M to buy themselves blue shirts. Having crunched the numbers, Harry Browne finds that much of the Fianna Fáil vote went left, a result that gives the lie to talk of a solidly conservative centre-right majority in Ireland.

The title might sound like something from a New Labour think-tank, but bear with me. Really, I’m at something very simple here. The point is not that Ireland is heading for some radical transformation by parliamentary means, or that Joe Higgins is going to be taoiseach. I’m simply doing a little election analysis, of a sort that I haven’t previously seen, to suggest that the data from the general election here in Ireland last week brought some good news from what was literally a new source. Never before have we seen all Fianna Fáil candidates eliminated in a constituency. This time around, it happened seven times while there were still candidates from the left (broadly interpreted, i.e. including Labour and Sinn Fein) as well as Fine Gael remaining in the race. What did the Fianna Fail transfers tell us?

Well, interpretation is a difficult matter in Irish electoral politics. But since we’ve had no shortage of pundits telling us for many years that Ireland is intrinsically a conservative, or centre-right, country; and telling us more recently that Fianna Fáil voters would migrate to Fine Gael this year because of both their conservatism and their alleged love of ‘strong government’ - as in ‘Oooh, I luuuuvvv a big, strong government’ - we can at least see if the results knock some of those interpretations back a few steps.

Earlier this week I wrote a broadly optimistic assessment of the election result on Counterpunch. There, I pointed out that the joint FF-FG share of the first-preference vote was the lowest in the history of the State, at just 53.5%, the first time it’s even dipped below 60% since 1927. Of course this was mostly down to the decline in the FF vote. But the point is that the bulk of that decline, about 24% since 2007, went not to FG (up 9% since 2007) but elsewhere, and in this election ‘elsewhere’ mostly meant to the left. The overall left vote, taking into account that the majority of elected ‘independents’ were leftists, of the United Left Alliance variety and otherwise, has been estimated at over 40%.

So from that you could broadly, if rather crudely, conclude that people who used to vote FF would rather vote for left-wing candidates than vote for FG. This might not be surprising, given the traditional class composition of the FF vote nor the allegedly ‘tribal’ hostility between the two major parties. But remember, we were told those FF folks were innately conservative lovers of strong government. In a small pre-election poll conducted by DIT students in Dublin, the rump of prospective FF voters were among the most hostile to the prospect of a single-party FG government, and also most favourable when asked if they would support a party that would raise taxes to fund a free national health service and free third-level education, i.e. a broadly leftish policy position.

FF is quite correctly described as a right-wing party for its policies and behaviour in government. Its voters, however, are another story. In addition to the crude conclusions we can draw about where previous FF voters migrated this time, we also have the transfer pattern of the remaining 17.4% who continued to vote FF this time. In short: some of those votes did transfer, and where it was possible for them to do so they transferred disproportionately to the left.

In the past we have only been able to look at FF transfers to non-FF candidates in the form of surpluses, or when there was still another FF candidate in the race. Those exist in this 2011 election, but as statistics they are exceptionally ‘noisy’, with regional issues within constituencies playing a major part in them. Some of them show high transfers to the left - for example, in Dun Laoghaire, where Richard Boyd Barrett and Ivana Bacik combined got nearly twice the number of Barry Andrews transfers that Mary Mitchell O’Connor picked up, or in Dublin North where Clare Daly of the Socialist Party whipped the remaining FG candidate on Michael Kennedy’s transfers; others, especially in the West where there seems to have been an Enda-bonus, transfer relatively highly to FG. But for the first time this year we have seven constituencies where the last FF candidates went out and had the whole pile of votes distributed between FG and left-leaning candidates. This is how the votes panned out in those constituencies. In each case except the last, the bruising constituency of Wicklow, more than half the ballots were transferable to one of the remaining candidates.

1. Count 8 in Dublin South West, 4,600 from O’Connor:
Moloney (Lab) 1331
Keane (FG) 1082

2.  Count 8 in Dublin Mid West, 5,513 from Curran
Fitzgerald (FG) 1310
Dowds (Lab) 1415
Keating (FG) 741
O Broin (SF) 492

3. Count 7 in Dublin North Central, 5,348 from Haughey
F McGrath 2875
Ó Muirí (FG) 996

4. Count 7 in Dublin North West, 4,350 from Pat Carey
Ellis (SF) 854
Lyons (Lab) 1169
Breen (FG) 892

5. Count 5 in Meath West, 6,437 from Brady
McHugh (Lab) 1004
Butler (FG) 1047
Tóibín (SF) 957

6. Count 7 in Kerry North West Limerick, 5,678 from McEllistrom
Sheahan (FG) 902
Ferris (SF) 1252
Spring (Lab) 1560

7. Count 17 in Wicklow 7,004 from Fitzgerald
Brady (SF) 760
Donnelly 929
Ferris (Lab) 705
Harris (FG) 491
Timmins (FG) 1138

Wicklow and Dublin Mid West are the only cases where a plurality of votes transferred to FG. In total, about 24,000 votes transferred from the last remaining FF candidates in these constituencies. Of those, 36% went to Fine Gael, 30% to Labour, 18% to the allegedly transfer-repellent SF; plus about 12% to Finian McGrath alone and about 4% to Stephen Donnelly. You can argue among yourselves about how to describe the last two politically, though it would be hard to locate McGrath anywhere other than on the left.

Exact comparisons are dangerous because these are, by and large, left-leaning constituencies - apart from the Blueshirt paradise of Wicklow. Nonetheless, it is possible to state, somewhat crudely since all the FF votes that were transferred weren’t necessarily FF number ones (though certainly most were), that if you took FF out of the picture, these voters were less likely to support FG than the electorate as a whole, and more likely to vote left. You may view this as guidance for the future direction of FF, or alternatively as an indication of what could happen if and when FF vanishes completely. You would be more hard-pressed to argue that it paints a picture of a solid conservative, centre-right majority in the Republic of Ireland.