With negotiations completed, a programme for government drafted, and ministries agreed, Fine Gael and Labour have formed a new coalition government in the south. Boasting a combined seat tally of 113, the new administration has a commanding majority.
Last weekend Labour party delegates attending an extraordinary conference at UCD voted on whether to go into government with Fine Gael, with the result coming in at around 95 percent in favour. However, the Irish Times reported that more than 35 speakers spoke for and against coalition in equal numbers. This would suggest that, despite the resounding result of the conference vote, either those speaking in favour of going into government were highly persuasive, or many members are concerned about the prospect of working with Fine Gael but have decided to give it a chance anyway.
So, should Labour be worried about what will become of them when the next election comes around? It’s true that both they and Fine Gael have a tough programme of work ahead and will have to make some difficult choices, many of which are likely to be unpopular. Labour will be concerned that they in particular could take the brunt of the flak from the public as a result given that perhaps people expect Fine Gael to make cuts but may be less open to the idea of Eamon Gilmore’s party being involved. Labour veteran Brendan Howlin taking up the post of Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform also puts the party right at the centre of the maelstrom.
Looking back over the performances of coalition parties dating back to the 1992 General Election shows a mixed bag for both senior and junior partners at the polls after their term of office had drawn to a close. Figures show that coalition parties have both increased and lost votes.
However, it could be argued that the standing of the junior partners has traditionally displayed greater volatility, and with Labour having been burnt already in 1997 (despite arguably having been midwife at the birth of the Celtic Tiger during their time in office), many party members may well be concerned that their current historically high number of seats could be under threat if coalition government doesn’t go well this time around. In the same election of 1992, for instance, senior coalition partner Fine Gael actually saw its number of seats increase by one fifth.
Likewise, while the Progressive Democrats doubled their number of seats in 2002 after having been in government with Fianna Fáil, they subsequently lost three quarters of those seats in 2007 and folded not long afterwards. Fianna Fáil’s seat number fell by less than four percent in 2007 despite having been at the helm of the government with the PDs.
In the 2011 election, while senior coalition partner Fianna Fáil catastrophically saw its seat number drop by around three quarters, junior partner the Green Party lost all of its seats.
So what lies ahead for Labour? There is a number of possibilities. One potential outcome is that while the centre-right Fine Gael party gets away with making tough decisions, Labour could take the hit if it is perceived to have failed to act as the ‘conscience’ within government. We can already see this phenomenon manifesting itself in the UK with the Lib Dems finding themselves in a spot of bother. The Tories have avoided the same level of censure as has befallen the junior coalition party there on issues such as tuition fees and at the recent by-election, perhaps given that people always expected Cameron’s party to wield the knife but may have assumed a ‘softer’ approach by Clegg and Co and are now disappointed at the latter’s apparently ineffectiveness in government.
Another possibility is that Labour consolidates its current position and remains roughly where it is in terms of seats. This will largely depend of whether Fianna Fáil can rebuild and how Sinn Féin manages to capitalise on the bounce it received in the recent election.
A third outcome could be that Labour builds on its current historical high and expands further across the state into areas where is has traditionally been absent. This has been the party’s biggest problem hitherto, but it currently has the strongest platform in its history from which to build a sustainable and comprehensive infrastructure, one which could well lead to the true arrival of a Left-Right dynamic between the main government and opposition parties after the next General Election- a first for Dáil Éireann.
It’s a bit early to be talking about elections in the Republic, but with things changed utterly, there is everything to play for and everything to lose in the new landscape at Leinster House.
For info, here are the full figures quoted above:
1992 FF 68 (-9) -11.6% PD 10 (+4) +75%
1997 FG 54 (+9) +20% Lab 17 (-16) -48% DL 4%
2002 FF 81 (+4) +5.19% PD 8 (+4) +100%
2007 FF 78 (-3) -3.7% PD 2 (-6) -75%
2011 FF 20 (-58) -74.35% Greens 0 (-6) -100%