May’s elections indicate change
The changed situation was reflected in the local and European elections last May where the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA), which the Socialist Party is part of, saw 14 councillors elected in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Some other lefts and ‘Independents’ (reflecting the disgust at the political establishment) also did well. The main gains, however, were made by Sinn Fein, which went from 54 councillors to 159, and from having no MEPs to getting three out of the country’s total of eleven.
Sinn Fein won over 15% of the vote in the local elections and close to 20% in the European election. Alongside the unpopularity of the government, this put Sinn Fein in pole position to become the biggest party in the country, with the prospect of being part of the next national government.
On 9 October, the day before the Dublin South West By-Election, a poll indicated that Sinn Fein had increased its national support by 4%, up to 24%.
Sinn Fein placed in ’pole position’ to win by-election
The growth of Sinn Fein, as well as the vote it received in the Dublin South West area in May’s elections, caused all commentators to predict a Sinn Fein victory. Paddy Power bookmakers put Sinn Fein candidate Cathal King 1/25 odds on favourite to win.
There are just less than 40,000 houses in Dublin South West. In May’s local elections, the AAA did not stand a candidate in the Terenure / Templeogue area of the constituency, where Sinn Féin won 12%. They also beat the AAA in two other wards in the by-election constituency, by 32% to 22% in Tallaght Central and by 52% to 12% in South Tallaght.
We knew that winning the by-election would be difficult, but we felt that if we were able to make water charges the dominant issue we could feature strongly because of our record and our fighting stance on this issue, in contrast to Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein has not seriously fought any of the unjust taxes or charges of the last twenty years. While the party said that they opposed water charges, it refused to advocate mass non-payment. So, essentially, while Paul Murphy’s campaign always began by attacking the establishment, from the very start of the election we also had to take up Sinn Fein very sharply.
Setting the agenda
The date for the by-election was only fixed for 10 October when the writ was formally moved in the Dail 17 September. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the formal election date announcement. So while election rules meant we could not display posters until then, we launched our campaign with six street stalls on 6 September and our door knocking started on Monday 8 September.
Our first leaflet began dropping through doors in the middle of September. The main headline was, “Scrap Water Charges & Austerity” and on the back under a headline stated, “A movement you can trust”, we set out the case for the AAA and Paul. We also said: “Unfortunately Sinn Fein refused to promise to abolish water charges if in government; rejected the AAA proposal to establish an anti-austerity bloc on South Dublin County Council and instead did a deal with a pro-austerity Labour Party… [Sinn Fein] has 14 TDs and over 150 councillors but has failed to use those positions to wage an active struggle against austerity.” We concluded that a new fighting movement for working class people was needed.
Exposing Sinn Fein’s empty radicalism
This argument, skilfully put to people during our daily street stalls and on all door to door activities, began to ratchet-up the pressure on Sinn Fein. We successfully used the comments on the radio by a leading spokesperson for Sinn Fein (on 11 September), that they would not make the abolition of water charges a precondition on entering the next government, as further proof that they could not be trusted.
Water charges are a huge issue and will cost many working class families more than €500 a year. Bills were due to arrive in January but the actual billing period started from 1 October. Irish Water, the new company established to oversee the charge, began sending out “information” packs to each household in the country.
Emphasising the water charges struggle
At the same time, there was no enthusiasm for the by-election. So on the stalls and on the doors, we did not start discussions with people by mentioning “canvassing” or “by-election” but said that we were from the newly established AAA and were organising against the water charges. This made a real connection with people. In the course of the conversation we would say that Paul Murphy was standing in the by-election and how voters could use this fact to put all the parties, including Sinn Fein, under pressure over water charges.
We also organised public meetings on how to fight the water charges, throughout the constituency. These were attended by 600 people approximately, with an additional 150 attending two street meetings we organised. A special “All you need to know about the water charges” AAA leaflet, with only a brief mention of the by-election was distributed and helped to establish the credentials of the Anti Austerity Alliance as the foremost group fighting on the issue.
Initially, a key message in our election literature was that unlike with the Property Tax introduced the year before, the water charge cannot be deducted from people’s income. We also made this important point on eight, sixty-foot banners that we displayed publicly across the constituency. This meant that people were in a more powerful position, could refuse to pay the charge and make a fight out of it. This realisation, which only our campaign publicised, was essential in giving people confidence.
Sinn Fein forced on the defensive
We understand it was Sinn Fein’s intention to fight the election on the issue of housing, which is also a vital issue that we featured heavily. However, when they went into working class areas, because of our early start they were met with a ‘wall of water’, i.e. people asking them about their position on water charges. Sinn Fein was not able to run the campaign they wanted to, but instead immediately were on the defensive.
Sinn Fein emerged strengthened from the local and European elections, so we knew we had to try to interrupt the electoral drift towards them by using the example of the water charges to sow doubts about them being a different, genuinely anti-austerity party. We pointed out that they are going in the same direction as the Labour Party, whose ‘anti-cuts’ posturing before the last general elections allowed the party to make big gains. In that context, presenting that the AAA was a step towards launching a new movement that would really fight for all working class people was a very important underlying argument in our campaign.
An active campaign, fought on many levels
Each morning of the election campaign, AAA supporters held anti-water charges banners alongside rush hour traffic in key locations and gave out leaflets. This was seen by thousands and got a huge response. We ran daily street stalls and each Saturday we had multiple stalls throughout the whole constituency.
Each night we had three separate canvass centres, organising simultaneous door knocking in the three distinct parts of the constituency. People were meeting our campaign in many different locations and situations and this created a powerful momentum.
When the announcement of the election was made, we had more than twenty poster teams ready to act and they very quickly erected 1,200 large posters. Most of the posters ran the slogan, “Rock the government and the opposition parties to make them: SCRAP WATER CHARGES”.
We were the first campaign to put up many posters and this helped put water charges at the centre of the by-election and also boosted Paul’s profile. After the initial poster run, we used two additional batches of 600 slightly smaller diamond posters, one in the second last week of the campaign and the other in the last week. Throughout the campaign we also erected large billboards and hung up sixty foot and forty foot long banners throughout the constituency.
Make REAL Change
One of our diamond posters pre-emptively parodied a Sinn Fein poster that we knew they would re-issue. Last May, in order to tap into people’s dissatisfaction with Labour in austerity coalition government, Sinn Fein produced an effective diamond poster that simply said, “Make the Change – Vote Sinn Fein”. We knew they would use this poster again but before they could get going we produced our own, “Make the REAL Change – Vote 1 Paul Murphy AAA”. This meant that every one of Sinn Fein’s posters potentially reminded people of our criticism of Sinn Fein.