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Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fáil and declining party loyalty

Today’s poll reveals the dramatic impact that a Leo Varadkar leadership of Fine Gael has on the party system.

While such a change doesn’t affect support for other parties in a meaningful way, it dramatically alters the balance of power between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Almost one-third of Fianna Fáil voters state that they would shift their allegiance to Fine Gael under a Leo Varadkar leadership. The ‘Leo Varadkar switchers’ are characterised by age, class and education. An overall 7% swing rises to 11% among 35 to 44 year olds, 14% among 25 to 34 year olds and 18% among 18 to 24 year olds. It rises to 11% among middle class voters and 10% among those with a university level degree.

But what else can we learn from this? Declining party identification and party loyalty has been a feature of Irish politics in recent decades. Although Fianna Fáil is often regarded as being slightly more conservative on social issues or slightly more left-wing on economic issues, for many outside Leinster House these nuances have never been clear. Our recent polls on housing, welfare policy, abortion, and other policy areas indicate that supporters of the two parties remain relatively indistinguishable. Other rationalities of the ‘civil-war’ are also under threat. Our private poling indicates that significantly fewer voters are ascribing family traditions as the reason for their voting preferences. In its place, competency, track record and of course leadership are carrying much more weight, particularly among supporters of the two parties.

This startling finding has significant ramifications for party strategy. While a continued drip of independent support back into Fianna Fáil appears to have facilitated the opening up of a gap between the party and Fine Gael, this gap may only motivates Fine Gael to change its leader and in that scenario, as according to this poll Fianna Fáil would lose its advantage. Strategically Fianna Fáil could seek to call a snap-election although finding a reasonable context in which to do so is a difficult proposition. Furthermore, on financial grounds, it’s not what any individual TD wishes to occur.

Overall, the relative weaknesses of party loyalty between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael indicates that unless Fianna Fáil seeks to define the difference between between itself and Fine Gael – perhaps by distinctively moving to the left of Fine Gael on economic issues - then at some point, and perhaps not in the very near future, one of the two parties will eventually subsume the other.

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