Campaigns built on sand can often sink (Why the Yes side lost the Seanad Referendum)
It is an oft-quoted cliché that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them. The defeated Seanad referendum is a further example of this but, as it turned out, it was lost by the Government some time ago.
Let me explain.
Well out from the referendum – at least a year or so – it was clear that two simple realities would underpin it:
1. Low Turnout: It was an ‘off-year referendum’ (meaning that it was not being held at the same time as general, local or European elections). As a result, turnout would be low. If the Yes side was in any doubt about this, the November 2012 Children’s Referendum turnout of 33.5% should have acted as a reminder that ‘non pocket book issues’ often fail to grab voters’ attention.
2. Trust in Government would be running low: Introducing two tough Budgets and a raft of unpopular cuts would, naturally, affect the Government’s popularity. As public unpopularity with the Government grows, trust in their proposals takes a hit.
The second fact was particularly pertinent. As Sunday Business Post Political Editor Pat Leahy stated in his recently published book on the Government’s first two years in power (“The Price of Power”), the Fine Gael/Labour coalition had begun to resemble the previous Fianna Fail/Green Government in the minds of some voters and that the ‘broken promises’ charge against the Government was beginning to stick. Trust in the Government and its proposals was beginning to wane. It would be expected that any No campaign would target this (and it did very effectively).
The Yes side would need to provide reassurance to voters and counter the inevitable attack from their opponents that ‘this is just the Government out to screw you again, you can’t trust them’. Importantly, it needed to do this a long, long way out from polling day in order to provide the campaign with a firm foundation when the real canvassing started (about a month out from polling day).
Fine Gael itself was particularly adept at this. The Party’s famous ‘5 Point Plan’ in the 2011 general election is regarded as a particularly successful campaign. What is rarely commented on is the fact that none of the policies put forward in the ‘5 Point Plan’ were new. They had been released well in advance, sometimes years before, and by the time the election rolled around arguments regarding their specifics had been hammered out, and the media accepted the policies ‘as is’ with little questioning of them during the campaign.
With regard to the Seanad referendum, a foundation for all the Yes campaigns would have been provided by producing a political reform package six months to a year out from October 2013 (polling time). This would have painted a vivid picture of what the political system would look like without a Seanad. It would have dealt with issues such as changes in Committee structures and responsibilities, Dail business and the publication of legislation.
In and of itself, this package would not have come close to winning the following referendum. However, it would have blunted the attacks that were bound to come from opponents, as well as providing a base for the ‘real Yes campaign’ when it began. Any question regarding perceived diminution of Ireland’s democracy in the September/October campaigning would have been answered long in advance.
As it turned out, no reform package was published until four weeks from polling day and by then it was too late.
I believe that the Yes side, particularly, Fine Gael, ran a very good political campaign for the last three weeks. The focus on costs to the Exchequer is one that generally resonates with voters and the Party maintained ‘message discipline’ (i.e. not going off on irrelevant tangents). It also was the most effective on the ground, holding new and colourful events each day. Media often sniffs at these, but each day journalists had a reason to go talk to Fine Gael personnel about why it was pushing a Yes vote.
The problem was that the campaign was on shaky ground. As soon as the No side started to push its ‘Power Grab’ message (read: ‘you can’t trust this Government’), there was nowhere for the Government to go. Its message on €20 million savings was strong, just not strong enough to overcome the feeling amongst some voters that there was something amiss. The Taoiseach’s decision not to debate on RTE PrimeTime has been over-hyped – during the General Election, when Enda Kenny didn’t debate on the Vincent Browne Show, Fine Gael’s opinion poll ratings went way up – but it played into the Nos ‘trust’ argument.
A political reform package that had been debated months beforehand would have provided some security for voters that the Seanad abolition was indeed part of a bigger reform programme and any attack from opponents would have been diluted as a result. Without it, the campaign was built on sand and campaigns built on sand often sink.
Mike Miley, Client Director is a former Fine Gael Press Officer