Elections and the search for a political brand
Like many people in Ireland, I spent yesterday evening observing the outcome of the Fianna Fáil leadership election and watching the new leader, Micheál Martin, give his first press conference. The obvious question to ask at this point is whether his arrival in this position will make a difference to his party’s fortunes. Of course we don’t know, but here are some observations.
First, if you believe that Twitter in any sense reflects directions and shifts in popular opinion, then he is already making a difference. Until yesterday and over the past few weeks, the Twitter world was wholly hostile to Fianna Fáil; the tone in tweets on the party was dismissive, angry, sarcastic. It hasn’t all changed overnight, but yesterday evening the trend was more balanced. If Twitter sometimes sets a tone (as it did for Joan Burton, as covered here the day before), then the tone for Martin might give his party some slight occasion for hope, or at least less fatalism.
Secondly, the tone of his own statements was markedly different from that of his predecessor. Gone was the hostility towards ‘the media’ (which I always thought was a very unwise approach for Brian Cowen to take), gone was the somewhat grumpy aggression, in came a kind of engaging willingness to accept some blame and look forward with optimism.
But it’s very early days, and for now we don’t really yet know what the Micheál Martin ‘brand’ might be – though we shall need to find out quickly if it is to make any difference. In the end, effective politics is all about finding a brand that resonates with the public. American political analysts tend to suggest that political success is based on identifying the correct issues and associating them with popular values. The issues in Ireland right now are easy enough to identify – they are all about economics and the associated social consequences. But what are the values? And how will the values of one party be capable of differentiation from those of another? And how easy will it be to communicate the resulting brands?
It is part of political leadership to communicate this, and Brian Cowen failed because he couldn’t. I would still have serious doubts as to whether Enda Kenny, once placed into the political crossfire of the election campaign, has what it takes either.
However, the odds must still be that the election will produce a decisive outcome that propels us towards a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It is still almost inevitable that Fianna Fáil will spend the next four or five years in opposition. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Sinn Féin or the independents will do as well as some are predicting.
But I don’t think that all this is totally inevitable, or that the precise outcome is predetermined. And that makes it more interesting.
PS. Here is my favourite tweet on yesterday’s events in Fianna Fáil, which I think sums up the position perfectly:
‘Anagrams of Micheal Martin (sans fada): “Miracle Man Hit” Or “Am the Criminal” It could go either way!!’