Ireland: Excellent performance by the Socialist Party in Dublin parliamentary by-election

Labour had a good day in Presidential and by-election polls but it’s all down hill from here

October 27 saw Irish people go to the polls for a presidential election, two referenda and for a parliamentary by election in Dublin West to elect a new member of parliament to replace the late Brian Lenihan, the finance minister in the previous government.

While Labour won both elections, the trends in the elections and the votes on the referenda were not an endorsement of this government. In fact, the results actually show an outline of the massive opposition that the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government will face soon enough.

In Dublin West, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Socialist Party & United Left Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger. Ruth got more than 20% of the first preference votes in her first time standing for the Dail (Irish Parliament). It was a remarkable performance!

Labour’s "rebel" candidate, Patrick Nulty, as he was referred to by some in the media, held off the challenges from Ruth and David McGuinness of Fianna Fail. However, even though Fine Gael and Labour have been in power less than eight months, their combined vote slumped nearly 17 percentage points in Dublin West.

In the presidential election, Labour’s Michael D Higgins was polling well but in the end he was gifted the presidency by the implosion of the independent Sean Gallagher’s campaign as he fumbled and stumbled and was not able to satisfactorily answer accusations that he solicited donations from businessmen for Fianna Fail’s coffers.

The Socialist Party did not participate in the presidential election, a position we believe should be abolished. However, we did support the right of David Norris to stand, in the face of a big establishment campaign in the media against him.

In the absence of a candidate or campaign that called for resistance to austerity-cuts or advocated a consistent left or socialist position, we did not call for a vote for any of the presidential candidates.

Setting the agenda in Dublin West

The Socialist Party was central to the Dublin West by election, running a very vibrant political campaign. We succeeded in making the issues of cuts at Connolly Hospital and in education the main local focus and provoked a major debate on austerity and the alternative to it.

We were able to set the agenda on these and other issues, in part, because our candidate, Ruth Coppinger, was centrally involved in fighting against these cuts. Ruth and Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (member of the Irish Parliament), along with staff at the hospital, had already established the ‘Defend Blanchardstown Hospital Campaign’. The campaign organised protests and debates before and during the campaign.

Ruth Coppinger outside Connolly hospital

Ruth was also instrumental in setting up the SNAPT Campaign (Special Needs Assistants Parents Teachers) to fight against brutal and disgraceful cuts that hit children and young people with special needs.

Ruth was an excellent candidate and even though the national media tried to ignore the by election, Ruth easily won any of the encounters or debates with the other candidates that did take place.

We took the fight to Labour, who were the favourites to win. From the start, we went into the areas where they had their strongest support. We tried to bring out the doubts and opposition that exist to the continuation of the bailouts and the austerity-cuts, despite their promise of “real change” during the February general election.

We believed that if we could switch people directly from Labour to the Socialist Party we could potentially challenge for the seat. While we were able to undermine Labour and begin to catch up with them the by election came before a sufficient number of people had moved decisively against Labour. Many are still hoping against hope that there will be an economic recovery and that Labour will provide some protection from the worst ravages of austerity.

The seriousness of the economic crisis also meant that people did not really see this by election as a forum for protest, as has been the case with previous by elections.

Political campaign had a real impact

The Socialist Party campaign was out of the blocks, with posters and leaflets up in all areas, just as the writ for the election was being moved. We had four different posters and many 8 x 4 ft billboards with different slogans.

Every house got at least three leaflets from us, but most got four. In addition, 10,000 got an extra leaflet on the crisis in mortgage arrears, a particularly important issue in Dublin West. The vast majority of the 40,000 houses in the constituency were canvassed twice by our campaign.

Ruth was the United Left Alliance (ULA) candidate, as well as representing the Socialist Party. A significant layer of ULA activists put in a lot of work and really added to the campaign.

The strong performance is a boost to the ULA and needs to be followed up with new initiatives to establish and build the alliance locally and nationally. (For more information on the ULA see previous articles on socialistworld.net)

A by election is different than a normal contest and this one was doubly different as all the main candidates were relatively inexperienced in Dail elections and did not have very high national profiles. The votes that the different parties got last February, at the last general election, while an indication, could only offer a rough guide, as the most established personalities of the parties were not standing, given that they already were elected.

Ruth flanked by ULA TDs

Not a personal vote but support for a radical alternative

Joe Higgins, from the Socialist Party, got 19.2% of the vote in February and was returned as a TD, having lost out in 2007 after getting 14.9%. It would be extremely difficult for anyone to step into the place of Joe Higgins. The fact that Ruth not only maintained the Socialist Party vote but actually increased it by polling 21.1%, was an incredible result and indicates the momentum our campaign developed.

The first preference votes, in order, were:

Nulty, Labour 8,665 24.3%;

McGuinness, Fianna Fail 7,742 21.7%;

Coppinger, Socialist Party/United Left Alliance 7,542 21.1%;

Loftus, Fine Gael 5,263 14.7%;

Donnelly, Sinn Fein 3,173 8.9%;

O’Gorman, Greens 1,787 5%

Others (7) 1,530 4.3%.

Fianna Fail, ably assisted and promoted by the media, wanted the by election to signal a recovery for them and that the party had a future. McGuinness’s first preference vote was presented as proving just that.

A recovery for Fianna Fail?

The truth was quite different. McGuinness is young and from the constituency and therefore inevitably brought some new support to Fianna Fail. But the vast bulk of the improvement Fianna Fail achieved, from the 16.5% they got in February, came from people directly switching back to them from Fine Gael, the other traditional conservative, capitalist party currently in coalition government. Fine Gael’s vote collapsed by more than 12 percentage points.

As mentioned, the vote for the coalition-government parties combined was down nearly 17%, but the combined vote for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail was also down 6.5% on last February’s general election. This is hardly anything for the establishment to be delirious about.

The particular weakness and lack of credibility of the Fine Gael candidate was probably an important factor in this inter party shift. The reality is that as a result of this by election, Fianna Fail now have no TDs (members of the Irish parliament) at all in Dublin.

The Re-Count

When the results came through for the first count, it was clear that exceptional levels of transfers would have been necessary in order for the Socialist Party to catch up with Labour.

We felt that with the elimination of the Independents and Sinn Fein, Ruth was likely to go ahead of Fianna Fail but that they would then get a significantly bigger transfer from the elimination of Fine Gael and that would give them second place, and our elimination and the resulting transfers would elect Labour.

However, when Fine Gael candidate Loftus’s vote was distributed, Fianna Fail candidate McGuinness was a mere 18 votes ahead of Ruth. While it is difficult to make up 18 votes by identifying counting mistakes, we decided to call a recount in order to the notion of a major Fianna Fail recovery and to see if the gap could be bridged.

The re-count did make up the difference and we caught up with Fianna Fail, with Ruth and McGuinness declared as being on exactly the same vote of 9,873.

We then had to make a decision. Should we take a declaration that there was a dead heat, an equality of votes, even though electoral law would then mean we would be eliminated because we had fewer first preference votes?

Alternatively, should we go for another recount the following day and possibly get ahead of Fianna Fail but also run the considerable risk that they could go ahead and consign us to third place.

We decided that we had already been successful in the recount, pegging Fianna Fail back to a tie and that settling for joint second in terms of votes was the better option. Both candidates were 3,154 votes behind Labour. In the end Fianna Fail finished 6,064 votes behind Labour.

Of course, if it had been clear from our analysis of the Fianna Fail transfers that Ruth Coppinger could have won the seat if their candidate was eliminated, we would have insisted on a full and thorough recount the following day. However, that was not the case.

If the by election took place next year

This by election came before the unpopularity that inevitably awaits this government has fully materialised. While our campaign was very strong, there was a limit to how much we could challenge, at this point.

Even a few months would have made a difference. The budget in December will be brutal and the economy is on the slide. When it becomes clear that austerity is not leading to recovery but to a worse crisis, this Government will become as hated as the previous Fianna Fail government were.

Fianna Fail has been given a boost by the result but they will not be able to lead the opposition that will develop. The opposition will be to austerity-cuts and Fianna Fail started it and still support it. However, the Establishment, using the media etc, want to maintain Fianna Fail as a ‘back-up’ for when the reserves of this administration are used up.

At a certain point, there will be a dramatic and rapid shift away from this government. If that is combined with workers’ and community struggles against the attacks and austerity measures, a major opportunity will be posed to really establish a new mass party to represent working class people and, transform the political situation.

More than just getting votes

Our campaign had more of an impact than even the vote of 21% indicates. The audience we gained, the openness and the positive response that our campaign and programme received, was obvious. The Socialist Party / United Left Alliance spread and deepened its support beyond our traditional strongholds, into the new working class areas and communities built during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom years.

We need to move quickly to follow up this excellent election campaign and result with initiatives to fight on the issues and to build up the membership of the party and the ULA.

On the mortgage arrears crisis, we said:

“End the banker’s control of the arbitration process – for a genuinely independent assessment that reviews cases on the basis of ability to pay.

Banks are already taking a write down on repossessed houses they sell but at the terrible cost to the family who have been kicked out of their home.

Nationalise all the banks and financial institutions but this time under democratic and real public control, so the policies implemented reflect the needs of people and small businesses.

Write down the mortgages, and monthly repayments, of all property bubble mortgages, not just a select few, to reflect their real value so people can keep their homes and to eliminate negative equity.

Don’t pay compensation to the bankers and don’t pay their debts related to the property rip-off. Guarantee ordinary deposits and the workers pension funds. Mortgage portfolios would become an asset to the state and people could have a choice to pay an affordable mortgage or revert to renting the property.”

(Socialist Party By Election leaflet on Mortgage Crisis.)

On austerity, the bailout and the EU, we said:

“Build a united movement of workers and young people across Europe to stop austerity.

Democratic public ownership of the banks and financial system in Ireland and Europe and run them for the benefit of society….Refuse to pay the gambling debts of speculators – refuse to abide by the EU / IMF Deal.

Instead, demand an economic bailout that benefits ordinary people in Ireland and throughout Europe. Unite with the peoples of Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, with whom we share a common misery and a common struggle.

Fight against the capitalist policies of the EU, link up with workers and young people in all the other countries…For a Government based on working class people that implements genuine socialist policies in Ireland gives people the chance of a decent future.

A Europe for the millions not the millionaires – for a socialist Ireland and a socialist Europe.”

(Socialist Party By Election Manifesto.)

Preparing the ground for future shifts in political attitudes

These measures are based on the current problems people face but by necessity challenge the current policies being adopted and the capitalist approach they are based on. We feel that taking such an approach on the issues is the only way to lay the basis for the building of a principled left and socialist movement that really offers a way out in the years ahead.

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