In my most recent poll analysis I picked up on some comments from the Taoiseach regarding Sinn Féin’s understanding of the working class, and how the polling among that cohort (or the closest polling analogue for that cohort) doesn’t reflect his views on the matter. Sinn Féin are comfortably ahead of Fianna Fáil, even though historically this was an area where FF were very strong. This got me thinking – what does this look like across all parties? Is there any significance to this? I’ve gone into the numbers and will talk about them below; I don’t know how much it tells, but some of it really does challenges some assumptions, and other parts are, in their own way, quite funny.
There’s a couple of really important caveats to note here before we begin:
- Social class is really really blurry under late capitalism; a mix of social, cultural, historical, geographic and economic signifiers that are going to be subjective from person to person. The ABC1/C2DE middle-class/working-class split (NRS social grades) is theoretically based on employment status and job type, though I believe at least some pollsters ask a self-identification “are you middle class or working class question”.
- Ireland has also historically classified another group separately – farmers as “F”. This isn’t published by RedC at the moment, and while B&A do use it, the samples are frequently miniscule, so I have decided not to use it here.
- Upper-class isn’t included in the social grades, and this is fine – its an insignificant amount of people, it faces massive definitional problems in a modern context, and they presumably all vote for Fine Gael anyway. Actually, that’s not fair; I suspect some of them still vote for Renua.
- Students don’t factor in at all either. That’s something like a quarter of a million people left to identify on the basis of what class they feel like they belong to (although a number of those are certainly doing at least part-time work). While this is certainly not an invalid measure on its own terms, it does not make sense within the employment based NRS framework.
- Underpolling of certain groups is a problem, as is the geographical clustering of certain social class-party preference cross-tabs. We’ll get into that below.
Keeping those caveats in mind, here’s the first view – ABC1s, the middle class:
So, first off, and most obviously, although they are still leading among this group, if I’m Fine Gael, I would hate this so much. Being only marginally ahead of Sinn Féin – about half a percentage point – here is exactly why FG have been slowly tanking in the polls over the last while. And there’s a point to this that is even more concerning for them – where the SF support is coming from.
Comparing the lines of the big three is very revealing – in their surge around the time of the 2020 general election and in the following months, SF pulled support mostly away from Fianna Fáil and Independents. As this was happening, FG surged as well by an even greater amount. But as we got into 2021, something changed. FF and IND started to stabilize and tick up from their low points, and Fine Gael began to drop. This indicates that to at least some extent, SF are pulling support directly from FG. It’s possible that some of this is filtering through other parties (eg some FG voters are moving to FF/IND and offsetting FF/IND voters switching to SF) but the sheer number involved says that this isn’t always the case.
The creation of an SF-FG swing voter is in my view a result of a trend we have seen across other demographics (for example, age cohorts) – that Sinn Féin’s coalition isn’t just an uprising of disaffected outsiders, but is increasingly cutting across demographic cleavages and is more broad than the coverage would tend to indicate.
This should, perhaps, not be a surprise – for example, recent polling by Ireland Thinks shows that 75% of Irish people want house prices to come down. This mathematically must include a good chunk of middle-class people (sadly Ireland Thinks still do not seem to publish cross-tabs), and we know that housing is a priority issue for voters. If Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens have failed to deliver, it is somewhat inevitable that voters will turn to the largest viable alternative, be it out of belief, hope or simply frustration.
Apply the same to other areas where the current and/or last few governments have failed – cost of living, health, climate. If you believe that these are genuine areas of concern for middle-class voters as much as they are for working-class ones, it becomes more understandable, if still a bit jarring given the national discourse, that even relatively well-off voters could switch support from FG to SF.
The C2DE graph is perhaps a bit less surprising, but there’s also some very interesting things to observe. While the rise of Sinn Féin is obvious, it’s also worth noting here who it comes at the expense of. There is some downward pressure on the other left-wing parties, but polls don’t show that they have a ton of support among the working class anyway (something we will come to later). Similar to the middle-class cohort, most of SF’s support has come at the expense of the centre-right and Independents.
It would also be remiss not to mention at this point that Fianna Fáil spent over a year trailing Fine Gael among working class voters and have only very recently inched back ahead – another cause to question the Taoiseach’s assertion that he and his party are the voice of the working class. With that said, there is a strong positive recent trend there – the numbers indicate that FF’s support is not particularly class sensitive. I’ll explain this further down.
Fundamentally, the patterns aren’t overall all that different, but it may be surprising to some to see that it really was only with the 2020 election that Sinn Féin really took over among working-class voters, though they were far more popular than they were with the middle class.
I think this pattern helps explain what we are seeing from Sinn Féin as their current strategy of pulling to the centre. I have mentioned this before repeatedly, and based on the recent RTÉ Primetime debate, housing appears to be the next area where their rhetoric is softening. Whether this is a genuine shift or a marketing strategy remains to be seen, but the fact is that SF are already dominant among working class voters, while the middle-class curve is growing and has more room to expand.
Perhaps that is overly cynical, but I believe it is informing the strategy – there may be an attempt to prioritise the area where there is a greater pool of support up for grabs. How this works out for them is going to be crucial – especially where media narratives are so much more interested in SF’s breakthrough with the middle class.
This piece so far has focused mainly on the bigger parties, but I do want to spend some time as well looking at the lower part of the graph, where the smaller parties are. Four of these parties describe themselves as left-wing (you can fight among yourselves over whether or not this is accurate) and then there’s also Aontú, who are very firmly on the right of the political spectrum (except according to the Catholic Herald, but seriously guys come on).
What’s immediately noticeable, as pointed out above, is that the rise of Sinn Féin hasn’t really had too much of a negative impact on these parties in terms of direct support loss. Yes, they are on average down a few points her and there, but it is nothing like the scope and scale of the impact on the other major players. However, these parties are sensitive to even small losses in support, and SF taking FG/FF votes and running more candidates successfully does still endanger many of their seats even if their own votes hold up.
These numbers do overall look pretty weak, but to go back to a point made at the start, the overall weakness does hide their geographic strength. There is highly clustered, localised support for these parties that isn’t reflected nationally; for example PBP’s support among working-class nationally may be around 2%, but it is safe to say that it is far, far above that in, for example, the west of Dublin. However this does also speak to the challenge facing small parties – making an Ireland-wide movement, particularly outside of Dublin, continues to hold them back.
The C2DE numbers might challenge some assumptions; in spite of their general collapse in support since their ill-fated most recent stint in government, Labour lead the small parties in working-class support nationally, with the only party to have jumped ahead of them in the timeframe shown above being the Green Party. Labour are – not entirely without reason, given how their aforementioned time in government played out – often viewed by others on the left as not really left-wing and class traitors and so on, but their residual working class support remains consistently ahead of that of more radical parties. Make of that what you will; but also bear in mind that they are all very, very far off the bigger parties.
The Green Party itself picked up a good bit here in the enthusiasm surrounding the 2020 GE, but since then has seen working class support crater and continues to drop; while middle-class support also dropped in the aftermath of government formation, it has begun to recover. The Soc Dems have failed to make inroads as well – their support is far more substantial among ABC1s.
I should probably note at this point that my research indicates that PBP are systemically underpolled by a percent or so in Dublin. This is a fairly small amount in general, but a relatively large one for a small party, and does reflect that there are some groups that polling companies do find harder to reach, either social or geographical cohorts. That may be having a degree of impact here, not just for PBP but for others as well, however I don’t think it’s substantial in the overall national balance.
Aontú are just straight-up unpopular.
Finally, to present the data differently, it’s worth briefly looking at the support level by each party:
There’s not much to add here that hasn’t been mentioned prior, but what is interesting is that the overall shape of the curves track relatively closely; reflecting what I mentioned about this not just being a working class phenomenon – the desire for an alternative is broad. SF’s support among the middle class is also at an all time high.
Side-by-side, Fine Gael’s lines look quite different, although the overall shape of each line isn’t massively dissimilar. What is notable is just how dominant they were in late 2020 among the middle classes; at the same time their working class support was relatively steady too. It’s in 2021 that we see the real decline – and one that that is more pronounced among ABC1s than C2DEs.
This illustrates what I mentioned earlier about Fianna Fáil’s support being not particularly class sensitive – the lines track incredibly closely. Conversely to FG, their support among C2DEs has fallen more than it did among ABC1s, though the difference is smaller. And both have been steadily recovering as they continue to threaten to close the polling gap on their government partners.
Not a lot of difference here – support for Independents and Others is significantly below where it was in the pre-election period, and although working class support declined more rapidly, both numbers have settled into a relatively stable state with a similar gap to mid-2019.
As mentioned prior, the government formation process hurt the Green Party – working class support begins to drop post-election and doesn’t really recover. Middle class support was more resilient but declined later as they started life in government – but is very much on the road to recovery, reflected mostly in solid polling in Dublin.
Labour’s social class support tracks pretty closely overall; however despite the aforementioned fact that they lead small parties among C2DEs, they generally have had slightly more support among ABC1s. Both numbers have been recovering following hitting a floor at the end of 2020, however they have been bouncing around this level of support for a long time now. A caveat from here and below: we are dealing with quite small numbers at this stage, and caution should be applied.
The Social Democrats, by contrast, have a fairly clear division – middle class support has been the main base for this party recently, and despite an uptick in the middle of last year, working class support has dropped off – the gap is above the MoE.
This is another one that might challenge some assumptions – taken over the period as whole, PBP have averaged more support among middle class than working class voters. Admittedly there are many caveats with this size of data (and some of the issues mentioned above), but that’s certainly not the base that most of their policies are aimed at.
Finally, Aontú, where I have had to use half-point lines. This data is very problematic from a sample size perspective – Aontú consistently poll within the margin of error, and regularly at 0%, so I wouldn’t draw too much from it (other than that they have, thus far, failed to demonstrate any sign of a breakthrough), but it’s worth including for completion.
As ever, thanks so much for reading – I hope to get more time in future to do pieces like this that aren’t just poll updates but can dive a little more into other areas. If there’s anything you think would be interesting to cover, please feel free to get in touch!
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