Ireland uses an unusual electoral system – the Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies (STV). Only two other countries use STV for national elections, and of those one is very small and the other only uses it for the less important of its two parliamentary chambers.
Every so often someone proposes a move from STV to some other electoral system*. Whenever this proposal is mooted, it is argued that STV is a major cause of the political woes afflicting Ireland, so getting rid of it is necessary to improve the political climate. The argument basically works like this. As is, Irish TDs** spend most of their time on local issues – either directly servicing the needs of constituents or bringing home pork for their locality. This is seen as being because STV allows for competition for seats between politicians of the same party. To differentiate themselves from each other, they compete on their ability to service their constituency. Thus, the electoral system leads to the Dáil being full of locally oriented politicians who neglect national issues. Moving to some other electoral system would lead to a situation where parliamentarians are more engaged with national issues; the hope is then that the likes of the current economic crisis would never arise again.
A lot of this thinking is a bit woolly. The idea that it is intra-party competition that drives politicians’ localist orientation is somewhat problematic. It ignores the historical record, with it apparently being the case that politicians engaged in considerable amounts of constituency work before the foundation of the state, when a completely different electoral system was used. It also misses that TDs from parties that only field one candidate in their constituency still engage in plenty of constituency work. It does appear that there is something embedded in Irish political culture that drives politicians towards pork-barrelling and to work as direct service providers for their constituents.
International comparisons are also instructive. People here think of localist politicians as an exclusively Irish phenomenon, but looking further afield suggests differently. MPs in the UK, Canada, and France devote considerable energy to constituency work; none of these countries have electoral systems that not encourage intra-party competition. There are even examples of countries that use closed national lists to elect MPs seeing parliamentarians doing constituency work – despite not having to compete against party colleagues for votes and not even having constituents.
People also tend to forget that there are other electoral systems where candidates compete against members of their own party for the electorate’s favour. I am thinking here of the commonly used open list PR elections, where voters pick one candidate from a party’s list and the party’s seats are then allocated on the basis of which candidates have the most individual votes. In some of these cases, you see politicians engaging in a lot of constituency work, and in some you do not. My suspicion, therefore, is that constituency work is not solely driven by electoral systems, and so moving to another electoral system would not banish localism from Irish politics.
For all that, I think there is a case to be made for electoral reform in Ireland. Join me in part two for a discussion of what direction that reform should take.
*two examples, in articles that are also about other things: How inertia became the iron law of Irish politics & Opposition parties must tell electorate hard truths
**members of the Dáil, the lower and more important House of the Oireachtas