Ruth Coppinger & Seanad election – strong vote for socialist ideas

By Oisín Kelly 

Ruth Coppinger obtained a strong vote in the National University of Ireland (NUI) Seanad election with 9.5% of the first preference vote coming in fourth place. This reflects the support and respect for socialist ideas that exists in many different sections of society’.

On the first count Ruth obtained 3,615 first preference votes (9.5%). Throughout the counts she attracted transfers resulting in the final count being 6,219 votes. In previous elections this vote would have been enough to win a seat, unfortunately this was not sufficient this time with the sitting senators being re-elected.

Socialist appeal

Our election campaign was clearly socialist in character with the election literature making a clear argument for socialist change

“Ruth is a socialist and member of the Socialist Party. Economic inequality is unprecedented as production for profit devours our share of wages, public services, human rights and the future of the planet. In Ireland, just 17 billionaires now have €41 billion in wealth. If these problems are to be resolved, the key economic resources should be publicly owned and democratically used for social need not private profit.”

We made a clear orientation to workers and young people struggling with issues such as low pay, unaffordable housing and expensive childcare. There were particular references in the main election literature to the position public sector workers, teachers and nurses in particular, who are faced with two-tier pay and precariousness; for the declaration of a housing emergency; separation of church and state; action against gender violence; and radical measures on climate change such as making public transport free, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and banning imported fracked gas.

Active campaign

The election campaign was an active one with campus meetings in Maynooth, UCD and NUI Galway. Ruth attended protests on housing by students in Maynooth, Galway and UCD and was invited to a meeting of UCD postgraduates who were seeking to end the precariousness and low pay that is now rampant in our colleges.

Ruth was endorsed by her ASTI branch, South Dublin No 2 branch, and her record as a branch secretary was outlined in her election literature. The campaign featured endorsements from ambulance workers, animal right activists, teachers, nurses, academics, pro-choice activists and artists.

When the Covid19 pandemic broke out halfway through the campaign, Ruth highlighted cases such as the eviction of a pregnant doctor and numerous abuses of health and safety of workers, initiating  a Workers SpeakOut group on Facebook and online public meetings.

Despite the dispersed nature of the electorate our campaign canvassed some voters by calling to their doors. There was a strong support for Ruth’s candidature in the canvass, particularly among newer first-time voters.

The main election leaflet was posted to all 112,216 voters. An initiative was also taken to send the Irish language version of the leaflet to Irish speakers in Dublin. This leaflet was also used in Galway and colleges. Additional material was also used in canvassing.

Socialists effective in parliament

At a campus meeting in Maynooth the point was made by Sinéad Kennedy, abortion rights campaigner and academic in Maynooth University, that it was when socialists got into parliament, we began to see movement on issues such as repeal of the 8th Amendment. Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil all opposed and voted against repeal of the 8th Amendment. Sinn Féin would not support repeal either. It was TDs such as Ruth Coppinger who put forward two repeal the 8th Bills and also highlighted the reality of the use of abortion pills.

Ruth’s record as a TD has been exemplary in how socialists use parliament. Not only on repeal of the 8th Amendment, but also on issues such as gender-based violence and sexual consent. When the Belfast rape trial in 2018 resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict and there was strong opposition to how the victim was treated it was Ruth Coppinger who played a leading role in organising a protest march but also displaying a thong in the Dáil to illustrate how this is done in courts to rape victims.

As a TD she aided and assisted workers taking strike action such as ambulance workers seeking union recognition, teachers and nurses seeking an end to two-tier pay and cuts to their services, and retail workers in Tesco and Lloyd’s Pharmacy. 

When it came to legislation Ruth put forward Bills that linked in with active campaigns and movements, for example the Bill to ban fur farming, the Sex Education Bill and the Employment Equality Bill. This is the record that was put to the fore in the Seanad election.

Conservative incumbents

Unlike other candidates Ruth made clear criticism of the role played by two sitting conservative senators. Very evident from social media and canvassing was the strong frustration many had with Senator Rónán Mullen holding a national platform and being able to outline extremely conservative views at odds with social progress we’ve seen in recent years. Other candidates, including some who placed themselves on the left, made little or no criticism of Senators Mullen and McDowell. It would appear Seanad elections till now had been genteel affairs.

Our campaign made criticism of Senator Mullen’s views on mental health, LGBT+ rights and women’s equality. Senator Michael McDowell was the Minister who introduced the removal of citizenship rights from Irish born children of migrant parents and he developed the inhumane Direct Provision system. Our campaign criticised their records and made the point that the most effective way of challenging them was to elect a candidate who has a strong record effectively standing against their views.

Complications of the election

The strong result should also be seen in the context of difficulties inherent in the NUI Seanad constituency. The election campaign is conducted by post with ballots sent to 112,216 NUI graduates (UCD, UCC, Maynooth, NUIG, RCSI, NCAD and others) who are registered to vote. It is estimated there are 600,000 eligible NUI graduates, however there is low registration with sitting senators working on registering their support base over a period of years. There is no supplementary register and registration happens once a year meaning many newer graduates are unable to vote even if they wish to.

Nonetheless, it is by far the biggest Seanad electorate where it is possible to make a direct appeal to voters. There had been a campaign by students’ unions and pro-choice campaigners in recent years to register more people to counter Rónán Mullen with registered voters rising from just below 100,000 to 112,216.

There are also practical difficulties in the election which mitigates against a strong turnout from younger voters. Ballots are sent by registered post meaning many people at work during the day having to call to a postal depot to collect their ballot or make arrangements for ballots to be re-issued if not delivered. We found that younger graduates lived in precarious private rented accommodation and may no longer be living at their address or they would have ballots sent to their parents’ home which added a level of complexity, especially as the covid-19 restrictions came into place.

The covid-19 pandemic further complicated the election campaign. As a challenger for the seat we were disadvantaged by the cancellation of fundraising events and meetings in the final weeks. The media and social media were understandably absorbed with the pandemic making it harder for the Seanad election to get the attention needed to increase turnout and challenge sitting senators. 

The turnout was up very slightly at 38,118, up from 36,293 in 2016. This was going to make it difficult to win a seat as sitting senators tend to mobilise their support and for change to happen a broader section of the electorate would have had to vote.

Seanad as an institution.

Socialists run in elections not as an endorsement of the institution, but to hold power to account, and as a platform to build support for socialist ideas and assist the building of grassroots movements of working-class people and communities. Ruth Coppinger demonstrated this approach as a TD, as had Joe Higgins and currently Mick Barry.

The Seanad is a conservative institution and was designed as such. The Socialist Party correctly campaigned for a ‘Yes’ to abolition of the Seanad in the 2013 referendum. The Seanad was narrowly retained with 52% vote in 2013 and largely due to distrust of Fine Gael/Labour at the time. In the 2013 referendum we outlined that while the Seanad is designed as a conservative body, it can still have progressive, radical and socialist voices elected on occasion.

Conservative opponents of Ruth Coppinger were critical of her being in favour of abolition and running in this election. Socialists have run for elected office with a limited or restricted franchise in the past. In Dáil elections approximately one-quarter of Ruth’s Dublin West constituency did not have a vote in February due to citizenship restrictions. Socialists, including James Connolly, have run for councils when there was a property-based franchise. Socialists also ran in Stormont elections in the 20th century when there was gerrymandering, and in parliamentary elections prior to 1918 when women were excluded.

In this election campaign we made the point that if the Seanad is to exist and make laws then there should be an equal vote for all living in the State; many who say they want ‘Seanad reform’ are not calling for this and limit their demand to expanding university voting to other graduates.

 Fighting for socialist change

The Seanad election demonstrated the support that exists in all parts of the working class for socialist ideas and socialist change. Increasingly those with third level degrees are not immune from low pay and precarity. They also look at the future capitalism offers for them and their children on housing, health, employment, climate and social progress and wish to see an alternative society built. Obtaining a strong vote despite such a restricted electorate indicates there is a strong potential to further build support for left and socialist ideas.

Ruth will remain a voice for workers and women in particular and will continue to build the socialist movement whether inside or outside parliament.