14 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 2

In part 1, I discussed proposals periodically made to change Ireland's electoral system. The proposers of such change hope that by doing so they can orient Ireland's politics away from localism. The potential for intra-party competition in the current system is typically seen as causing our localist politics, so advocates of change typically propose electoral systems where politicians will not have to compete with their own party colleagues. I suggested that a lot of this thinking is a bit woolly, in particular claiming that these people overstate the extent to which electoral systems drive politics.

For all that, a case can still be made for electoral reform. Even if our electoral system does not cause localist politics, it could be said to assist it; STV provides a fertile ground for localism and does not encourage politicians to take a more national view. A new electoral system would not conjure a more agreeable politics into being, but it could provide space for it to emerge. This assumes there is a latent drive towards "good" politics currently being blocked by the electoral system.

When thinking about what kind of electoral system to move to, you need to first think about what is wrong with the one we have at present. People typically see the opportunities it offers for intra-party competition as driving clientelism in Irish politics. I think this is over-stated. One feature of the current electoral system that is, I think, more relevant is that we vote for people in constituencies – if you elect people by locality then it should not be too surprising if they spend a lot of their time trying to look after the locality. If you have an electoral system that elects people at a national level then there is more scope for a nationally based politics.

So, what electoral system might encourage a more nationally oriented politics? Other systems based on geographical constituencies are not going to break the link to localism; that stops me from advocating anything like the alternative vote, plurality voting (the crazy Westminster system), that funny two-round voting thing they have in France, and so on. Then there are the various types of list system that are used for proportional representation in other countries. If you want to challenge the localist orientation of Irish politics then you will want national rather than regional lists.

Even so, list systems remain problematic. You can have closed lists (where the order in which people are elected from a list is determined by the party) or open lists (where people on a list are elected on the basis of which individuals on it have the most votes*). I suspect that a move to closed lists for Dáil elections would be unacceptable in Ireland – people are too rooted to the idea of voting for an individual candidate rather than a party. The problem with open lists is that by retaining the element of competition between individuals, they allow for politicians to continue differentiating themselves on local issues. This might not happen in a country like Finland, where open lists are used for parliamentary elections, but in a country like Ireland with a strong local tradition politicians might well continue to look for votes from people a particular geographical area.

That leaves us in a bit of a pickle – I have suggested that a change in electoral systems would be desirable, but have then raised problems with any of the electoral systems we could consider moving to. Come back next time as I attempt to resolve this conundrum.

*I am somewhat simplifying how open lists work, or how they can work – there are open list systems that give the voters astonishing abilities to reorder, split, and combine lists.


Anonymous said...

You're a master of the cliff hanger, the suspense is killing me. When will part 3 appear? Angela

ian said...

It won't be long.