In the run up to last week's general election in Britain, all the polls said the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck on around 34 percent each and that neither party would get a majority of the seats in Westminster, meaning another coalition government of some sort was inevitable.
The election result, as we now know, was a stunning victory and a majority for the Conservatives. David Cameron is back as prime minister and the Conservative majority has enabled them to form a single party government. So the polls got it completely wrong.
The general view among experts and the media before the election was that the most likely outcome was a deal between Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) which would make Labour leader Ed Miliband prime minister. That view was reported in this column last week, published the day before the British election and written two days earlier.
Despite what the polls were saying, the column then went on to say the following, "There is still a possibility, however, that the Conservatives and Prime Minister David Cameron will do much better than the polls are predicting and with the support of the Liberals, the Northern Ireland Unionists and even one or two members of UKIP (the anti-immigration party) might hold on to power.
"The fact is that over the past few years the Conservatives have turned around the economy after the enormous damage done by the last Labour government which ran up a huge national debt. After Ireland, Britain is now the fastest growing economy in Europe and unemployment there is down to five percent (it's double that here). Many voters in Britain will not want to put that recovery in jeopardy. "Added to that is the real fear that many people in the U.K. have over what might happen if the SNP tail was wagging a Labour government dog and the high-tax/high-spend policies the SNP advocates were implemented across Britain. All of this may mean a small but significant swing behind the Conservatives when Britain votes."
Oh my prophetic soul! Or to put it another way, the old dog for the hard road.
You don't write a weekly column like this for 28 years (and counting) without learning that opinion polls have their limitations. There was indeed "a small but significant swing" to the Conservatives at the last minute. In fact they did even better than I predicted and were able to form a government without coalition partners. Because of their slim majority they may still reach some kind of understanding with the Unionists and/or the Liberals to give them more security in parliamentary votes. But the key point is that despite what all the polls were saying in the days before the election, the Conservatives were re-elected.
There are important lessons for the Irish government in that and particularly for Fine Gael, which has been doing poorly in the polls thanks to the austerity regime they have had to implement over the past few years. The Conservatives faced a similar problem.
After the economic mess left to them by the last Labour government led by Gordon Brown, the Conservatives had to implement a program of cutbacks to get the U.K. budget and debt mountain under control again. This caused a lot of resentment among voters and the opinion polls reflected that.
But there's a big difference between what people say in opinion polls and how they vote when it's crunch time and they are electing the next government.
Worried about letting "Red Ed" Miliband and Labour mess up the economic recovery in Britain, they decided to back Cameron, despite the tough measures he has taken over the past few years. You can blow off steam and express your irritation in an opinion poll, even a few days before the general election, but for most people it's a different matter when you are actually electing a government. The stark reality of the polling booth at that moment cuts through the noise.
Of course the cutbacks and tax changes in the U.K. have not been as severe as here since they did not have a total economic collapse followed by a bailout program like we had in Ireland. But the situations are similar and the same dynamic is likely to happen here.
Despite all the anger at the government about the new property tax, water charges and many other things, a lot of people here will be nervous about putting our recovery at risk by letting Fianna Fail or even worse, Sinn Fein, into power. They may blow off frustration about the government in opinion polls in the meantime, but when it comes to the general election, which is now less than a year away, many more than expected will vote the sensible way and support Fine Gael.
The reason Labor in Britain did badly in this election was because "Red Ed" set out a vision for the future that was too left wing and too vague in terms of what it would cost. That meant that Labour failed to get the votes of the center, all those middle class Labour voters who swept Tony Blair to power and kept him there.
In their eyes "Red Ed" was suspect right from the beginning because of the way he had defeated his Blair-ite brother David for the leadership of the party through the support of the unions, the very thing Labour needed to be getting away from. And nothing he said in the campaign changed that perception.
No one can suggest that Labour here has been too radical. The accusation here is the opposite, that as the junior part of the government Labour has been too conservative and too willing to implement cutbacks that hit ordinary workers hard.
In the same way as the Liberal Democrats took most of the punishment for austerity in the UK, Labour is taking most of the blame here. The polls are now predicting that Labour will suffer badly in the election.
But that may not turn out to be true. It is possible they will recover somewhat before the election is held as their middle class voters give them some of the credit for the recovery and deliberately support them to keep Sinn Fein out. It's not going to be easy for Labour. The bottom line for them is that much of their traditional working class vote has been eaten away by Sinn Fein and the radical left independents who have been promising an easy way out of extra charges and taxes when none really exists. Even so, when the promised payback to state workers starts to come through, that will deliver thousands of votes to Labour and help to shore them up in the election.
The overall lesson to be learned by both Fine Gael and Labour from the Conservative victory in the U.K. is that winning a second term in government after austerity is not impossible despite what the polls have been saying. The most important thing is that they stick to the job and not ruin the record they have earned so painfully as an administration that took the country out of the deepest economic crisis it has ever been in and put us firmly on the road to recovery.
They should not dilute that with irresponsible giveaways and sweeteners to buy votes. In particular, any increases in the public sector pay bill should be in line with what the private sector is getting.
There are interesting parallels also between the SNP and Sinn Fein. It is clear that many middle class voters in England resented the idea that the SNP might force policies on Labour if they were in a coalition government in Britain, and for that reason they voted Conservative to stop this happening. There is likely to be a similar dynamic here, particularly when voters begin to seriously examine Sinn Fein economic policy as the election approaches.
In the U.K., the SNP shot themselves in the foot by so publicly offering to support Miliband if he agreed a deal with them. It was the kiss of death for Labour, driving voters to the Conservatives.
And now the SNP has been left high and dry by the Conservative majority. Any hints from Sinn Fein that they might form a government with Fianna Fail could have the same effect here, pushing people to support Fine Gael, even reluctantly.
Not shooting themselves in the foot, despite all their experience with guns, is going to be hard for Sinn Fein as the battle for all those voters in the center heats up here.