The polls are saying it all. Under both Kenny and Cowen, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail will stand a chance of being the main party of government at the next election. Another major factor contributing to Labour and Gilmore's popularity is that neither FF nor FG, as ever, are any different policy-wise - if anything Fine Gael would be harsher and more corporate leaning even than Fianna Fail. (All those ex PDs they flirt with and who see the party as their natural home should be a salutory warning to the electorate.)
But neither man is willing to 'do the right thing'. In Cowen's case it's much more plausible that he his in fact doing the right thing by the party by staying, since a leadership election at this stage could only damage FF's already dire prospects. Romantic talk of Brian Lenihan taking over is, well, just that. Firstly, he is simply not well enough to lead the country and secondly his aggressive, defiant media performances would soon grate on people - his shortcomings would become very evident very quickly. Lenihan is not the man of popular good will that his many besotted media-commentators are making out: he is the causer of savage, undeserved and unrelenting misery for a huge number of Irish people. Cowen is acting as a conduit for resentment about these things at the moment - his time as Minister for Finance and atrocious media performances are deflecting attention from what Lenihan is actually doing. As pointed out by other media commentators, Lenihan pays only lip service to the consequences of his scorched earth economic policies on the less well off, whether in the public or private sector. Beyond rather patronisingly conceding that their anger is fully justified, he has nothing to say.
In Kenny's case, it's much clearer that personal ambition is his main focus. The big prize is so near and yet so far. But clearly, the voters simply do not rate him no matter how unfair or otherwise that might be. He simply cannot, does not, inspire people or have the charisma to make people listen to him. Not that charisma on its own is worth a damn. At a time when Fianna Fail don't even trouble to put a goalee in the goal, Kenny has managed to score only a few goals, dribbled somewhat weakly into the net. The enmity that has erupted between FG and Labour is a disaster - the one opportunity that Fianna Fail have had in ages to make headway in the opinion polls and sure enough, their fortunes have begun to recover, however slightly. FG also suffer from a damaging superiority complex: no matter what the polls are telling them - their attitude toward Labour is that the latter's success is merely an aberration and that they can be the only rightful senior party in any coalition with Labour. This arrogance must be extremely provoking to the Labour Party and it's hardly surprising in some ways that Labour chose to remind FG that their willingness to co-operate with them should not be taken for granted, when the pairing fiasco unfolded.
Labour has two big problems electorally which the present poll results are disguising: firstly, since Dick Spring they have abandoned and offended their natural voter base in sufficient numbers to no longer be at all sure that many of them will vote for them because they are seen as being no different to Fianna Fail or Fine Gael among that group, except cosmetically. Secondly, despite the high poll figures, the traditional FF/FG voter almost always balks at voting Labour when it comes to putting the tick down beside a Labour candidate in the polling booth. In other words, Labour spend most of their energy courting the good opinion of people who are never really going to like or trust them, while going out of their way to distance themselves from those who once did. This reality emerges again and again for Labour. So, in their own way, they too fail to capitalise on the present situation among those voters who would once have been stalwart supporters. Also, their disdain for Sinn Fein is a two-finger salute to all the voters who fervently wish that they would stop clowning around with parties of the right and extreme right and get back to what they are supposed to be about: labour.
Fintan O' Toole wrote earlier this week about how Eamon Gilmore had been proved right in refusing to support the bank guarantee as so recklessly agreed by Brians Lenihan and Cowen, despite the howls of outraged right-wing tantrums directed at him at the time. O' Toole called for the party to show the same sort of mettel in other aspects of policy as well. He suggested, though these are not his words, that our present circumstances were such that exactly this sort assertive, confident challenge was a strategy that people were crying out for - a radical alternative to a failed orthodoxy. But it seems Labour isn't listening. As with Kenny, they see that prize within their grasp and the party's grandees - Rabbitte etc are firmly committed to the path that has been steered over the last two decades. But Labour shouldn't kid themselves that it's the party itself (other than Gilmore personally) that is attracting popularity: it's only a temporary and very unreliable groundswell of antipathy towards Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.