Today's IPSOS/MRBI poll for the Irish Times confirms other polls from the weekend. Sean Gallagher's lead is significant. What is perhaps more interesting is the voter distribution. More Fine Gael candidates are voting for Sean Gallagher than for Gay Mitchell. This is by no means due to the party's dislike for their man - though some would have preferred Mairead McGuinness or Pat Cox, and Mitchell has some difficulty beyond the Pale. It is instead due to a vapid core in centrist politics in Ireland, a reactionary rather than ideological imperative, a case of following to where power is likely to be rather than achieving legitimate power through genuine leadership.
In many respects this is not unique to Ireland. American politics is defined by high rhetoric and vague promises, where the candidate's desperate search for substance characterises each election. Notwithstanding her own absence of real ideas, Sarah Palin's coruscating critique on the Obama administration "How's that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya?" summed up American politics very well. India, the world's largest democracy, has effectively disenfranchised its educated elite, as they represent such a minority. Whether this is a threat to democracy there remains to be seen - and perhaps, though this is not the subject of this article, it explains why the influence of corporations and private industry is increasing both in Indian and other democracies.
Jim Hacker of Yes Minister once said of his electors "...I am their leader; I must follow them." In essence, this characterises where Irish politics has come. Fianna Fáil in particular were the first to deny legitimate policy discussion and debate, and moved instead to soundbyte politics, handshaking and baby-kissing en route to inoffensive election victories during the Celtic Tiger era. There were no substantive discussions, and when there were, no one was listening.
People simply didn't care about politics, but - crucially - they did care about identity. People cared about who they were, and, by extension, who represented them. People cared, and do care, about people who are "like me". Sean Gallagher doesn't quite have the polish of a Gay Mitchell, or even a Martin McGuinness. Whatever you think of their politics, Mitchell is a career politician in a perfect suit, and McGuinness is a slightly scary career military general. Neither of those guys are "like me". Michael D Higgins is an intellectual, an artist, and a visionary - again, he's not "like me". Seán Gallagher's a decent skin, who's got some sort of education, with some modestly successful business ventures, and a tie that doesn't always fit right. And just "like me" he's not quite perfect. Just as "we" are a little fat, a little short, a little ugly, a little dim, he is a little blind. He's patently not perfect. And that, for "me", *is* perfect. Bertie Ahern fit that mold as well, the slightly dodgy former Taoiseach. As Eddie Hobbs put it once, we Irish 'like our politicians just a little bit bent.'
The problem for Fianna Fáil was that once the tide went out in terms of the economy, there was no ideological anchor to hold its vote. In essence, if the contest becomes one of personality, populism, and likeability, then in bad times people will turn to any other option that seems credible, presuming that the incumbent "lot" caused the problem. Fine Gael, in order to seize power, turned itself into a copy of Fianna Fáil in order to be seen as that credible alternative, then waited for the crash. The election in 2007 came about six to twelve months too early. Had the pain of the imminent recession taken hold, Fine Gael would likely have taken power at that stage - as it happened, they came very close - within a half dozen seats or so - of taking power with Labour.
Speaking of Labour, let's think about them for a minute. When the economy did well, they did OK. When the economy did badly, they did OK. Very little deviation. Their vote has improved this time, but they are still not achieving anywhere near the levels needed for a significant breakthrough. On the other hand, they are less likely to suffer a dramatic fall in support should things not work out. This is because Labour have more of an ideological anchor that can hold their vote. Noel Whelan has argued that there is no such thing as a "core Fianna Fáil vote", this atavistic group of people who would vote for Beelzebub himself were he in Fianna Fáil. I agree. But Labour, on the other hand, have an ideological core that is more difficult for certain people to move away from. Whether this means, more generally, that people are less idealistic, or ideologically driven, I don't know. They are certainly less ideological than political parties and their activists, and certainly less than political journalists and columnists, who tend to analyse based on substance and policy rather than genuine politics.
So parties who are successful create for themselves an image of populism, of "we're just like you", and succeed or fail on that basis. Fine Gael voters are not, really, Fine Gael voters, but rather they are voters who voted Fine Gael in the last election or would be likely to vote Fine Gael were there a general election tomorrow. They don't belong to Fine Gael in that way. In this straight fight between seven personalities, Gallagher better represents the man on the street: the ordinary, the worker, the grafter, and the slightly imperfect. Gay Mitchell is too perfect; Michael D is too smart; and Martin McGuinness is too, well, foreign (in a non-nationalist way, he just seems to be from somewhere else...up there, I suppose you'd call it; one suspects he will poll much better the further north you go, not just because they can relate better to him in terms of the Peace Process, but because they can better relate to him culturally - he seems more normal up there).
In the words of Christy Moore, Sean Gallagher is "...an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand; he's had to work for everything he owns." And that's why he'll win.