Welfare race: Staunton has strong lead, even as many voters are undecided

The election is not a sure thing, but Morris has significant ground to make up

Last year’s Sabbatical elections were the first since 2017 in which the welfare & equality race was contested by more than a single candidate. The continuation of this trend in 2022 highlights the increased emphasis the pandemic has put on welfare, equality, and wellbeing. This year’s candidates are vying to lead the recovery from a “collective trauma” while not leaving behind the accessibility and equality advantages that the pandemic saw introduced.

Trinity News’ polling data indicates that Chloe Staunton possesses a comfortable lead over her opponent Cúnla Morris, although among an as-yet undecided electorate. 68.2% of decided voters gave her their first preference, while Morris lags behind on 27.1%.

However, this represents just barely over half of students polled, with 47.4% remaining unsure of how they will cast their vote, one of the highest proportions of undecided voters in any sabbatical race this year. This leaves open a path for Morris to secure victory by winning over the undecided contingent, though without a major upset in the race this will be a challenging feat in the final days of campaigning. They would need to convince the staggering majority of that bloc of voters. The desire to reopen nominations (RON) is unlikely to play as significant a role in this race as in others, with only 4.6% intending to vote this way.

Staunton more than double’s Morris numbers among almost every voter group bar students from the faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science (EMS). Here, the margin is much closer at 45.6% to Staunton’s 49.1%. It is unclear what is driving this statistic, Morris themself being a student of Irish in the faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, but it emerges strikingly nonetheless among a reasonably large sample of 124 EMS students.

Male and female voters are about equally likely to vote for Morris, though the same is not true of Staunton; she sees a six point drop in support among men compared to women, with 8% of men preferring RON to either candidate. Among non-binary/genderfluid students, Morris scores slightly better than elsewhere, though the appetite to reopen nominations among this cohort matches that of male voters.

A final result of note is a tendency of voters who are more satisfied with the status quo to cast their vote for Morris, while supporters of Staunton tended to be more ambivalent or slightly frustrated with College and the SU. Among voters who intend to vote for Morris, 43.7% feel represented by the SU, while 56.3% are either indifferent or disagree that the Union represents them. Among Staunton’s voters this latter proportion is a much higher 62.8%, while those who do feel represented make up 37.2% of her support. This is slightly unexpected given that Staunton has said that she “couldn’t fault” previous welfare officers, and is very much a union “insider” herself. This result also holds true for voters’ attitudes towards College, with Staunton leading among students who feel that exam provisions were handled poorly, while a higher proportion those who favour Morris feel that exams were managed “quite well”. This may indicate that dissatisfied students believe that Staunton’s familiarity with the inner-workings of both organisations better positions her to make concrete change from the inside.

Indeed, in terms of relevant experience, Staunton likely had an edge from the outset. While Morris has long been engaged in student welfare advocacy, having been an ordinary committee member on the LGBT+ Rights Committee, the Disability Committee, and the Welfare Committee, as well as a class rep twice throughout their years in Trinity, Staunton’s broad CV is nonetheless the more extensive one. Within the Union she has sat on three committees this year alone, is the incumbent Disabilities Officer, and has been BESS class rep for two years. Alongside her experience with S2S and the Inclusive Curriculum Project, this has likely made her a very credible candidate in the eyes of voters.

As in recent years, accessibility was a recurring theme in every race. At Equality Hustings, the candidates were grilled on their plans to make campus a more accessible place. Morris pointed out that as well as House Six, the GMB should also be made accessible, while a question posed by Cumann Gaelach prompted discussion from both candidates on making Seomra na Gaeilge accessible to all. Both candidates gave clear and confident answers to accessibility questions, though Staunton’s ability to reference her casework as Disabilities Officer possibly gave her answers added credibility.

Morris potentially stood to gain from placing emphasis on the equality side of the role in their campaign, but failed to do so. As an advocate for the Irish language and member of the LGBT+ community, both very salient topics at Equality hustings, Morris arguably had the advantage over their opponent whose CV was rather more welfare-oriented. Despite this, it was Staunton who stressed the importance of equality in tandem with welfare throughout her campaign, while the word “equality” was entirely absent from Morris’ campaign literature, a point which was picked up on at Equality Hustings. This has likely been a factor in Staunton’s significant lead, attracting voters for whom equality, inclusivity, and minority rights are a priority; in Staunton’s view, “it’s all fine and well caring, but if you’re not striving to be more equal, inclusive and diverse, you’re not going to get much done.”

In contrast to last year’s race, both candidates are students from Ireland. Staunton’s manifesto nonetheless maintained a commitment to lobby for fee certainty and fee reductions for international students, a key element of both candidates’ platforms in 2021, while Morris’ campaign has made no reference to such issues. In January, Trinity was named 12th most international university in the world, with international students making up around 28% of the student body. Morris’ failure to address the unique challenges which face international students has potentially given Staunton the edge among a sizable cohort of voters, who face costly and unpredictably fluctuating annual fees. As well as this, Morris’ keen emphasis on Irish language issues, although encouraged and welcomed by many, has the potential to be an unfamiliar issue to as many voters as it has attracted among Trinity’s diverse student population.

Recent events in College have brought increased focus on mental health supports and student counselling resources. Over 1,700 students have signed a petition calling for increased funding for welfare services in Trinity, and attention has been drawn to the waiting times and backlogs on both union and college resources, particularly the student counselling service (SCS). If this is what students want, Morris potentially stands to gain. At Equality Hustings they reiterated their manifesto promise to “push for more funding in SCS.” Speaking to Trinity News, Morris said: “Through acquiring more funding and improving the quality of therapy available, I think we will see a huge improvement in student mental health.”

The candidates diverge in their views on this point; for her part, Staunton does not see increased funding being a realistic option for SCS. Speaking to Trinity News before the campaign period, she said: “Unfortunately, if I could I would fund more counsellors, but I personally cannot. I think it’s important to kind of loop in with the service and work on that.” Rather her manifesto recommends working with existing frameworks, “through creating practical and constructive campaigns and working closely with the counselling service.” Following the momentum generated by this petition, it remains to be seen whether voters will agree with Staunton’s assessment, or bank on Morris’ more optimistic ambitions.

A priority for many voters will be addressing sexual harassment and violence, which has become a topic of increased discussion in Ireland in recent months. Staunton has pointed to a need to improve the reporting structures that are in place, so that students feel comfortable and are able to report incidents when they need to. She also plans to broaden and improve the consent training that is given to students to tackle the problem of rape and sexual assault. Morris’ manifesto does not make specific reference to such issues, but they have addressed them during their campaign. In an interview with Trinity News, Morris said: “It all comes down to education at the end of the day and I will heavily collaborate with the gender equality officer, the president and the Equality Committee to make sure that it is discussed on a union-wide level.” The poll, which puts Staunton 45 points ahead of Morris among female voters, may indicate that women prefer the concrete steps on this issue outlined by the former, over just fostering discussion.

With almost half of voters as yet undecided, the race is far from over for Morris, though they have only until Thursday to convince the electorate that they are the right candidate for the role. Likewise, those who wish to see Staunton win the officership mustn’t get too comfortable with her lead and make sure to cast their vote. Last year’s ents race saw a surprise victory for Greg Arrowsmith despite polling having indicated a likely victory for his opponent Antonia Brady, so it is certainly all to play for. Both candidates will be pushing until the end to prove themselves as the ideal advocate for accessibility, inclusion, and equality, key themes of this year’s elections across the board.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is the current Social Media and Managing Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as News Editor, Assistant News Editor and copyeditor.