The dishonesty of political science – another reply to Eoin O’Malley

Posted: April 21, 2013 in Elections, Political Science, Politics, Sinn Féin

In the latest installment of our conversation on the Meath East by-election Eoin O’Malley expanded on three of his initial arguments. He prefaced his remarks by accepting that as a political scientist he should be judged as such. So lets put his scientific method to the test.

O’Malley argued that mid-term by-elections should be treated as ‘second order’ contests in which ‘small’ ‘protest’ parties do better. On this basis he concluded that Sinn Féin should have been ‘at least a serious challenger’ in Meath East ‘if not win outright.’

One way of testing his theory is to examine recent by-election contests and the performance of smaller parties.

There have been ten by-elections since 1999.  Five were won by the incumbent party or group. Another two were won by larger opposition parties.

Only three have been won by what O’Malley would consider ‘protest’ candidates and in only one other contest did a smaller party candidate come in second.

Of these four by-elections only two, Kildare North in 2005 and Donegal South West in 2010, saw the sitting Government lose a seat.

So as a general rule there is no evidence to suggest that smaller ‘protest’ parties do better in by-elections than in general elections.

Where smaller parties do win seats, as in Donegal and Kildare, a number of factors need to be in place.

Government unpopularity is important Weak competition from other parties is also helpful. But crucially the candidate must be well known, have contested elections previously and be a holder of political office.

When Catherine Murphy won the Kildare North by-election in 2005 as a left independent and former Workers Party and Democratic Left activist, she was a sitting town and county councillor. She had contested nine previous elections, three Dáil and one European.

When Pearse Doherty won the Donegal South West by-election in 2010 for Sinn Féin he was a sitting Senator and former county councillor. He had contested two previous Dáil elections and a European election.

Doherty was also directly responsible for the by-election being held having successfully won a high court case over the Governments refusal to run the election.

There has not been a single occasion in recent history when an unknown first time candidate from a smaller party has either won or come second in a by-election contest.

The credibility of O’Malley’s ‘second order election’ theory falls apart when tested against electoral reality.

By-elections are nothing like European elections. They are also quite different to general elections. The results are much more dependent on local factors such as the circumstance leading to the election, the presence or absence of established local candidates and the strength of the candidates local organisation.

Clearly it is very unusual for Governments to win by-elections but so too is it for smaller parties to make a breakthrough.

Of the 127 by-elections since the foundation of the state only nine of them have seen smaller parties win seats from larger parties, a success rate of just 7%.

On the basis of empirical evidence from actual electoral history it is clear that O’Malley’s ‘scientific’ reading of the Meath East by-election is not so ‘scientific’ after all. In fact it demonstrates that he lacks even the most basic understanding of southern Irish electoral history.

Having convinced himself that Sinn Féin could have won the by-election he then goers on to explain the party’s failure to do so by reference to Gerry Adams’ unpopularity.

His source is the 2011 Irish National Election Survey. Unfortunately the data he cites is not on the INES web site. But for the purposes of our conversation that is not so important as O’Malley’s claim that Sinn Féin is ‘seriously disliked by sections of the population’ is not in contention.

What is in contention is that this ‘unpopularity’ is the ‘reason’ for the party’s ‘failure’ to do better in Meath East.

The fact that in four of the neighbouring constituencies Sinn Féin took seats in the 2011 general election with between 17% and 26% would suggest that the party can still prove popular despite being ‘seriously disliked by sections of the population.’

The fact that Gerry Adams topped the poll in the Louth constituency in 2011 taking 22% of the vote and securing a quota on the first count would also suggest, contrary to O’Malley’s claims, that he is no barrier to electoral success.

O’Malley’s final comments deal not with Meath East but rather with his ‘description’ of Sinn Féin as a party. It is here that he really loses the plot.

It would take me a whole other article to correct the inaccuracies and misrepresentations in this section of his argument.

What his comments reveal is a glaring inability or refusal to read and understand the ideological foundations on which Sinn Féin as a party is built and the social and economic policies that the party advocates.

I don’t expect Eoin O’Malley to agree with the self-image that I or other Sinn Féin activists ascribe to ourselves. But I do expect him to at least know what this is. Clearly he doesn’t.

I am not a big fan of the discipline of political science. In fact for me ‘political science’ is an oxymoron. There are no objective, independent, neutral positions to be held in political debate.

The function of political scientists is not to observe and analyse the reality of politics. They are political actors, just like the rest of us. But theirs is a dishonest profession as it seeks to conceal their own political motivations and intentions through the mobilisation of a scientific discourse which claims to be neutral but is always the very opposite.

Fortunately in this instance the political scientist in question is not very good at his game. His political motivations and intentions are plain for everyone to see.

  1. In offering this objection to my comments on a TV show, Eoin disproves his point that political science is an oxymoron. What he tries to do, in arguing with my pretty innocuous point that Sinn Féin did poorly in the Meath East bye-election. What he attempted was political science, that it, to analyse political data in a systematic way. Instead of going through the problems with his analysis and how it isn’t as systematic as it should be, I’ll just point him to research done on by-elections in Ireland by Michael Gallagher in which he finds “the pattern of results conforms closely to that observed in other countries. Turnout falls compared with the general election level, support for the government falls, support for minor parties rises, and the number of candidates is increasing over time.”

    In other words Ireland’s bye-elections conform to the second-order election model.

    I’ll point out again that the INES data show that Adams is a polarising figure, and about as popular as Brian Cowen. I’ve no idea why he thinks I’ve manipulated these data for some political point. I was asked as a political scientist whether Adams might be a problem, and I said that on the basis of these data he might be. Apparently questioning the Dear Leader’s greatness is something beyond the Pale for the Provisional movement.

    • Ed says:

      “I’ve no idea why he thinks I’ve manipulated these data for some political point.”

      Of course, there’s no reason at all Eoin, as a political scientist you only offer value-free, objective scientific commentary …

      “Apparently questioning the Dear Leader’s greatness is something beyond the Pale for the Provisional movement.”

      Oh … and there’s this from his earlier post:

      “But what is Sinn Féin? For people like you it’s a radical Marxist party that offers a socially liberal and economically authoritarian alternative to some of the other parties.”

      Hmmm … I would like to see the neutral, objective, scientific standard by which a social-democratic policy agenda becomes an ‘economically authoritarian alternative’. Looks like we are dealing with the highly reputable Thatcher-Friedman scale of ‘authoritarianism’, whereby Allende is more authoritarian than Pinochet and free public health care is an assault on personal freedom.

  2. justin says:

    Hi Eoin

    Off-topic but as a socialist in Sinn Féin can you explain why SF is signing off on neo-liberal policies in the North? This involves endorsing a right wing programme for government, accepting austerity plans from Westminster and coming up with such reactionary wheezes as the lowered rate of corporation tax and turning the north into an ‘enterprise zone’. At the very least, would you admit that, rhetoric aside, any SF leftist In the North is in a rather lonely minority. And on top of all that, SF represents only one section of the people in the North, not the working class but Catholics of all classes.

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