Labour had a good day, but it’s downhill from here
Excellent performance by the Socialist Party / United Left Alliance in Dublin West
October 27 saw people go to the polls for the Presidential Election, the two referenda and for the By Election in Dublin West to elect a new TD to replace the late Brian Lenihan.
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 they will face soon enough.
In Dublin West, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Ruth Coppinger’s campaign (Socialist Party / United Left Alliance) and getting more than 20% of the first preference vote, in her first time standing for the Dail, was a really remarkable performance.
Labour “rebel” 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, Michael D Higgins was polling well but in the end he was gifted the Presidency by the implosion of Sean Gallagher’s campaign as he fumbled and stumbled and wasn’t able to satisfactorily answer accusations that he solicited donations from businessmen for Fianna Fail’s coffers.
The Socialist Party didn’t participate in the Presidential Election (a position we believe should be abolished), save for supporting the right to stand and therefore the nomination of David Norris.
In the absence of a candidate/campaign that called for resistance to austerity 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
Of course the Socialist Party was central to the Dublin West By-Election, running a very vibrant political campaign. We succeeded in making cuts to Connolly Hospital and to education the main local issues 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 them. Ruth and Joe Higgins TD, along with staff at the hospital, had already established the Defend Blanchardstown Hospital Campaign and the campaign organised protests and debates before and during the campaign.
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. From the off 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, despite their promise of real change in February.
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 them, this time, the By-Election came a bit early, before sufficient numbers had moved decisively against Labour. Many are still hoping against hope that there will be a recovery and that Labour will form some protection from the worst ravages of austerity.
The seriousness of the economic crisis also meant that people didn’t really see this By-Election as a forum to 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 first with posters and leaflets out and 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 a number of 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 candidate, as well as representing the Socialist Party and 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.
A By-Election is different than a normal contest and this was doubly different as all the main candidates were relatively inexperienced in Dail elections and didn’t have very high, national profiles. The votes that the different parties got in February, while an indication, could only offer a rough guide when the most established personalities of the parties were not standing, given that they already were elected.
Not a personal vote but support for a radical alternative
Joe Higgins 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 and that the party had a future. McGuinness’s first preference vote was being pushed as proving precisely that.
A recovery for Fianna Fail?
The truth was quite different. McGuinness is young and from the area 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. Fine Gael’s vote collapsed by more than 12 percentage points.
As mentioned, the vote for the Government parties combined was down nearly 17%, but the combined vote for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail was also down 6.5% on February. 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 at all in Dublin.
When the figures came through for the first count, it was clear that exceptional levels of transfers would have been necessary in order to catch Labour.
We felt with the elimination of the Independents and Sinn Fein that 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 Loftus’s vote was distributed, 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 cut across the spin about a major Fianna Fail recovery and to see if the gap could be bridged.
After hours of a re-count we did make up the difference and caught 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 pure and simple?
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, had it been clear from our analysis of the Fianna Fail transfers that Ruth Coppinger could have won the seat if he was eliminated, we would have insisted on a full and really thorough recount the following day. However, that wasn’t the case.
If the By-Election took place next year
This By-Election came before the unpopularity that inevitably awaits this Government had 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 side, and when it becomes clear that austerity isn’t leading to recovery but to a worse crisis, this Government will become as hated as Fianna Fail 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 and they are the ones who 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, a major opportunity will be posed to really establish a new mass party to represent ordinary 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 ear 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.
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.
Despite some ups and downs in voting intentions and the dramatic collapse of Sean Gallagher at the finishing line, the presidential election campaign was a non event, a superficial personality context, absent of real or meaningful debate on the crisis or issues confronting ordinary people.
Labour’s nominee, Michael D Higgins, did make some criticisms of the system and of austerity and the bailouts and on one occasion referred to people’s anger, saying the policy of trying to revive an economic model that had clearly failed, was pointless. However, such comments were drowned out by the abstract, meaningless language and clichés of not just Higgins, but of all the candidates.
In the end Higgins won very comfortably getting 39.6 % of the first preference vote; Sean Gallagher (“Independent” businessman who had recently resigned from Fianna Fail) got 28.5%; Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness got 13.7%; Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell a disastrous 6.4%; David Norris got 6.2%; Dana got 2.9% and lastly Mary Davis got 2.75%.
Both elections were disasters for Fine Gael and contrasted to their strong performances in most polls since the general election. Both candidates jarred with the public but what this really shows is that the support for Fine Gael in the general election isn’t strong or deep.
Sinn Fein did well, but clearly hoped to do better. Given the weakness of the contenders, they possibly even thought they could win on a good day. However, the result shows that Sinn Fein still struggles to tap the mood and generalise their support. Fundamentally their programme and acceptance of capitalism limits their ability to pose as a radical alternative.
People seeking an alternative
Voting volatility was the main feature in the presidential election. Before people settled on Higgins they sought on two occasions to elevate other candidates outside of the political establishment.
David Norris’s campaign collapsed initially under the pressure of a rotten campaign of character assassination and his own bad decisions, resulting in his withdrawal on 2 August.
He didn’t resurrect his own campaign it was resurrected for him by the desire of people for an alternative as expressed in a number of polls where people indicted that they wanted him back in the race. When he re-entered and eventually secured the nomination and the campaign started in earnest, his lack of a programme relevant to the crisis meant he fell away.
Then Sean Gallagher, whose strong links with Fianna Fail weren’t well known, was the main beneficiary of Norris’s demise. Gallagher’s focus on jobs meant he was touching, more than the other candidates, on a key and relevant issue.
He stormed to the front according to opinion polls with two weeks to go. (Red C gave him 39%). Two polls the following weekend confirmed him as the front runner and firm favourite with 40 and 39 % respectively of first preferences.
However, his inability to deal with the issues of soliciting business donations for Fianna Fail during the Front Line TV debate linked him definitively with the establishment and the money for favours culture. That was a very important factor causing that support to literally disappear over night.
In the end those votes shifted behind Michael D Higgins, who was polling well in any case, not only because he was seen as a capable pair of hands but because he retains a certain name as a radical voice.
Future shifts in attitudes
A Higgins Presidency will not challenge the neo liberal capitalist approach of the Government. Michael D Higgins gave up fighting capitalism many years ago. While his ministerial portfolio was Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht, he bears responsibility for the anti working class policies imposed overall by the Government cabinets he sat comfortably in between 1993 and 1997.
That Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left Government was hated by working class people and in the following general election Labour’s vote was halved, even Higgins struggled to get elected as his vote collapsed from just under 18% to 10% in 1997.
However, Michael D Higgins is not an establishment politician in the exact same way that most others are. Given the times we are entering and the extent of the crisis, it can’t be completely ruled out that he may reflect some of the popular moods and opposition to austerity and retain public approval longer than Fine Gael and Labour.
A decisive shift away from this Government is inevitable at a certain point. They and the media are doing whatever they can to spin the notion that an economic recovery is underway based on their adherence to the EU/IMF bailout and austerity. Reality will also burst that bubble over the months ahead and with it, the base of this Government.
The passing of the 29th constitutional amendment to allow for the reduction in the pay of judges was to be expected. But the defeat of the referendum about giving the houses of parliament full powers of investigation illustrated an underlining distrust of the main parties and the political system itself.
Demands and programme
The issues of today and the attacks that will be launched against working class people do not just come from the capitalist class in Ireland but also from the dominant big business interests and the EU elite.
These go to the very heart of how capitalism operates and necessitate a programme that is both concrete and socialist.
Not only did the Socialist Party increase its base of support in the Dublin West By Election. We also initiated a debate about the issues and on the radical measures necessary to overcome the crisis.
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.