As we have seen above, Irish electors have both candidates and parties on their minds when deciding how to cast their votes in a Dáil election. Considering first how voters might choose between the candidates on offer, the INES asked respondents to rate their first choice candidates on two key criteria: how good they would be at working for the local area; and how good they would be at contributing to national debate. What ‘good’ or ‘very good’ means in this context is possibly quite different for each respondent. Nonetheless, it is instructive to compare the same respondent’s evaluation of the same candidate in terms of these two different criteria. Making this comparison of respondents’ evaluations of both the national and the local contributions made by their first choice candidates, about 40 per cent rated these contributions equally, about 36 per cent rated the local contribution as better than the national, while about 24 per cent rated the national contribution as better than the local. There is thus a tendency, though not a massive one, for voters to rate their first choice candidates more in terms of their local than their national contributions. As long suspected by TDs who concentrate heavily on constituency service, Irish voters do seem more likely to value this than to value contributions to national political debate – though we can not be confident that it is this that determines how they cast their votes.
Policy positions of voters
Thus far, at least considering the mythology of elections in modern democracies such as Ireland, the discussion in this chapter has ignored something very important – the role of policy issues in shaping electoral choice. We have got quite far in understanding party choice in Ireland without this, but the fact remains that real elections, on the surface at least, are fought by the political parties in the basis of their policies. Politicians don’t say to voters, out loud anyway, ‘vote for us because you are old’, ‘because you are young’, ‘because you are well-educated’, or ‘because you go to church a lot’. What they do say is ‘vote for us because of all the policies we will enact if you give us the chance to do so.’
There are of course many, many policy issues in which people are interested, or in which they might conceivably be interested if stimulated. But common threads run though many of these. Thus if we consider economic policy we can think of public spending and, within this, of spending on many different types of public service. We can also think of taxation and, within this, of many different types of taxation. We can think of public ownership of the means of production, once more taking many different forms. The list goes on and on. But all of these matters are interrelated, both in theory and in the minds of many voters. If the government wants to spend more on some activity, other things being equal, it needs to cut spending elsewhere, to raise more in taxes, to borrow more, or to tolerate higher levels of inflation. This is not a treatise on the public finances, but the bottom line is that there are common threads running through economic policy. In the same way, when people think about ‘social’ policy on matters such as abortion, divorce or homosexuality, particular sets of beliefs tend to mean that common threads run through this thinking. People associated with various religious denominations, for example, tend to disapprove of all three of these things at the same time, and to have a structure of moral values that reconciles these views. What all of this means is that, despite the huge variety of potential policy issues, we can think of a limited set of ‘policy dimensions’ that give structure to these. Such policy dimensions are a convenient way of summarising what in the real world is an inevitably more complex set of policy preferences within the electorate.
The INES explored voters’ positions on a number of these policy dimensions, and we begin with one very simple one, considered by political scientists over the years to summarise a lot of how people feel about politics. Dating from the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when radical deputies gathered together on the left hand side of the National Assembly, and conservative deputies gathered together on the right, it has been common to summarise policy positions in terms of a single ‘left-right’ dimension putting socio-economic radicalism on the left, and socio-economic conservatism on the right. INES respondents were asked to place themselves at one of eleven points on a left-right dimension, ranging from zero on the far left, to ten on the far right. The dead centre was thus represented by the position 5. The mean self-placements of INES respondents on this dimension, broken down by the party to which they gave their first preference vote, are shown in the first column of table 7.8.
[table 7.8 about here]
The bottom row of the first column of figures in table 7.8 shows that the average Irish voter place him or herself at a position, 6.96, well to the right of centre this dimension. There were, furthermore, smallish but nonetheless significant differences in these self-placements between supporters of different parties. The most right-wing supporters of all (7.45) were those of Fianna Fáil. Somewhat to the left of this and very much at the Irish centre-right average were three other sets of supporters, those of Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and of independent candidates. Well to the left of this average, and the most left-wing set of party supporters, were those of the Greens. Slightly to the right of the Greens, we find supporters of ‘other’ (mostly left-wing) parties and Labour. Also to the left of the Irish average, we find Sinn Féin supporters. Ignoring others and independents, therefore, Irish party supporters were on average ranged from left to right in this classical left-right dimension in the order: Greens, Labour, Sinn Féin, Progressive Democrats, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil (although the differences between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael, and between Labour and Sinn Féin, were too small to be statistically significant.)
The remaining columns in table 7.8 report the self-placements of party supporters on various issue dimensions defined in the same way as the left-right dimension we have already discussed. The first of these – contrasting ‘God definitely does not exist’ with ‘God definitely does exist’ is of course more a dimension describing general religiosity than any specific issue area, but as we shall see it ties together other issue dimensions. The bottom row shows that Irish voters in general are great believers in God, but this column of figures shows that there are distinct differences between groups of party supporters. The most God-fearing voters are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supporters, statistically indistinguishable from one another. The least (though still quite) God-fearing voters support the Greens and Sinn Féin. In between these can be found supporters of the Progressive Democrats and Labour. As might be expected in a predominantly Christian country, voter attitudes on abortion and homosexuality generally follow beliefs in God. Most opposed to abortion are supporters of Fine Gael, closely followed by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. Leaning more distinctly in favour of abortion are supporters of Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens, statistically indistinguishable from one another. Irish voters are slightly more liberal on homosexuality, but arrayed in more or less the same order. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supporters are the most conservative, and supporters of the Greens distinctively the most liberal. Sinn Féin and Labour supporters are also at the liberal end of the party range on homosexuality, with Progressive Democrat supporters also leaning in a more liberal direction on this issue.
Moving from God to Mammon, and the matter of whether public or private enterprises ‘are the best way to provide the services people need’, the bottom row of the table shows that the average Irish voters sits on the fence at the dead centre (5.00) of the policy spectrum. Distinctly to the right of this in favouring private enterprise are supporters of Fine Gael, with Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat supporters indistinguishable from each other and next in line, occupying the dead centre position. The most left-wing on economic policy are Labour supporters, followed by Greens, with Sinn Féin supporters, despite their party’s official claims to be a left-wing alternative, closer to the Progressive Democrats than to the Greens.
Policy on Northern Ireland is of course in many ways the founding issue for Sinn Féin, and table 7.8 shows that Sinn Féin supporters do indeed have a very distinctively ‘pro-United Ireland’ policy stance. Quite a long way away from them on this dimension we find supporters of Fianna Fáil, closely followed by those of Labour and the Greens, with Progressive Democrat supporters the least likely to insist on promoting a united Ireland.
The environment provides the most distinctive public policy profile for the Greens, and Irish voters in general are inclined to support measures to protect the environment, even at the expense of economic growth. Of the major party supporters, those of the Greens are indeed the most pro-environment, with Fianna Fáil supporters the least, though at the same time still at the pro-environment end of the spectrum. Apart from the Greens, however, there are not huge differences between the other parties.
Finally we move to the EU, and we see that Irish voters believe almost as firmly in the EU as they do in God. Differences between party supporters are, however, minor, with Progressive Democrat and Fianna Fáil supporters marginally most favourable to the EU, and Greens and Sinn Féin supporters, reflecting their parties’ policy stances on the Nice referendum campaigns, marginally the least favourable.
So there are some modest policy differences between supporters of the various Irish parties, that largest being the pro-united Ireland position of Sinn Féin supporters and the pro-environment and pro-gay positions of Green Party supporters. In general, Fine Gael supporters are the most conservative on specific issues, followed by those of Fianna Fáil. In general, supporters of Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens are the most liberal, with Sinn Féin supporters tending towards the centre on the economy.
But does any of this make a difference to actual voting behaviour? The easy way to check this is to see whether adding information about voters’ issue positions increases our ability to predict how they vote. This can be done by adding respondent positions on the seven specific issue positions in table 7.8 to the set of socio-economic background characteristics whose independent impact was reported in table 7.7 and considering the independent impact of all background characteristics and issue positions, taken together. There is no need for a new table to report the results of doing this, because the important finding is that knowing the issue positions of voters adds almost nothing to our ability to predict how they voted. For Fianna Fáil voters, of the seven specific issue dimensions discussed, only the EU policy dimension has an independent impact, with those liking the EU somewhat more likely to support Fianna Fáil. For Fine Gael voters, only the debate between public and private provision of services had an independent impact, with Fine Gael support somewhat more likely among voters favouring private provision. Issues had more independent impact for Labour/Green/Sinn Féin supporters, with support for these parties being more likely among those who liked the EU less, who favoured public provision of services, and who favoured a United Ireland, the latter no doubt reflecting Sinn Féin’s distinctive contribution to this pool of voters.9
Overall, what we can conclude from this, whatever about the rhetoric of election campaigns, is that the various pools of party supporters are distinguished from each other much more by their socio-economic background characteristics, and especially their age, urban/rural location and parental partisanship, than by distinctive positions on prominent socio-economic issues. Supporters of different parties do tend to have somewhat different issue positions, but these have little independent effect on voting once the effect of socio-economic background characteristics is controlled for.