Politics the big loser in Meath East by-election

Posted: April 5, 2013 in Elections, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin

What really happened in the Meath East by-election? Are we witnessing a return to dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? Or is something else taking place?

Superficially it looked like a good day for both centre right parties. Fine Gael toped the poll and held the seat despite two years of punishing austerity. Fianna Fáil came a close second suggesting public forgiveness for their role in the economic crash.

The traditional two and a half party configuration that has long dominated southern politics appears to have returned, though with Sinn Féin replacing Labour as the half party.

Labour’s fall from grace was made all the more embarrassing by the ‘surprise’ result for an unknown independent pushing them into fifth place.

So, the pundits agreed, March 27th was a great day for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, an OK day for Sinn Féin, a surprising day for Direct Democracy Ireland and a day to forget for Labour.

But on closer inspection, the numbers tell a more complicated story, for those bothered to take the time to look.

The turnout, at a paltry 38%, was one of the lowest in recent history. Two out of every five people who voted in 2011 stayed at home.

While by-elections usually have lower turnouts than general elections the Meath East result was exceptionally low.

There have been thirteen by-elections in the last fifteen years with an average turnout of 49%. Meath East was a massive 12 points below this average.

The only contest to record a lower turnout was Dublin South Central in 1999 in which only 28% of voters went to the polls. There was also only one other by-election during this period that did not reach the 40% mark, Kildare North in 2005.

While all parties lost votes as a result of the low turnout, Labour and Fine Gael were worst affected.

In real terms Labour lost 88% of their 2011 general election vote. Fine Gael lost 46% of theirs.

This hemorrhaging of votes from the Government parties did not result in a real increase in the vote for opposition parties. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin just about held their 2011 vote while the total support for independents fell significantly.

The main opposition parties’ gains in percentage terms were a result of the low turnout rather than voters shifting allegiances.

As for the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael again the numbers suggest a more complicated picture The combined vote for the two centre right parties has fallen from 29,864 in 2007 to 17,358 in the by-election. Only 27% of eligible voters now support Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

So what are the real stories behind the results of the Meath East by-election?

For Fine Gael it is the shedding of almost half of their general election vote. They may have held the seat but this does not indicate public support for austerity or for their performance in government.

For Labour it is that once again they have failed to learn the lessons from their own history. Participation in centre right coalitions costs votes, lots of them, as has the litany of broken promises.

For Fianna Fáil it is the absence of any actual revival. The party got their core vote out but there is no evidence of former voters forgiving Fianna Fáil for their role in the economic crisis and returning to them in the polls.

For Sinn Féin it is that despite the massive disillusionment with the political mainstream, this growing section of the public are not convinced that the party offers a credible alternative.

And for the independents it is that nothing much has changed since the general election. Despite the media hype this is no Beppe Grillo moment. Ben Gilroy’s 6.4% looks more impressive than it actually is and not much different from the 5.8% for independent candidate John Bonner in 2011.

The big story of the 2012 Meath East by-election is that our political system is in crisis. Six out of every ten voters were too angry, too disaffected or too disconnected to vote. They simply didn’t see the point.

In the short term Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will benefit from this. But this will only serve to deepen the crisis.

The challenge for those of us who profess to offer a real alternative to the centre right consensus is to convince enough of those who have opted out of the electoral process that we have a credible alternative.

Only then will we be able to convert their apathy and anger into a real force for change.

  1. Joe Reilly says:

    The turn out in the 06 by election was 41.6 No one has address the awful weather condition pertaining on the day, particularly in the south of the constituency

  2. […] Politics the big loser in Meath East by-election. […]

  3. What is the history in terms of people staying at home from by-elections because of weather? There may not be much to compare it with. Good analysis overall, in the blog.

  4. The big story surely is the Left – in the middle of this crisis of capitalism – is nowhere – and the ULA – to be the basis for a new mass party of the Left – at 0% in the last Opinion Poll ?

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