25 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 4: More mixed-member action

FINAL EPISODE! Last time I suggested that a mixed-member system – where some MPs are elected in constituencies and some by national lists – would be worth introducing in Ireland. Then I mentioned research undertaken for an Oireachtas committee, which found that if the German system (plurality voting in constituencies for half the members, closed national lists for the rest) were introduced here we would end up with Fianna Fáil sweeping the constituency seats and the other parties winning all the list seats. This skewed result did not appeal and the Oireachtas committee recommended against moving to a mixed-member system. So are mixed-member systems that rubbish? Well, no.

There was maybe a certain failure of imagination on the part of the people doing the research for the Oireachtas committee, in that they only seem to have considered an exact replica of the German system*. What would produce less extreme results would be a mixed-member system where half the TDs were elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, the other half by list. The multi-member constituencies would of necessity be very large, but we could reasonably expect that one party would not win all or even most of them. The likelihood is that candidates would still compete for these seats on something like the localist manner we are used to now. The other seats – the party list seats – would allow at least for the possibility that parties could win seats by campaigning on national issues. If there was some kind of hitherto unfulfilled drive for national politics then this would provide some chance that it could find expression.

There are a couple possible issues to this kind of system. One of them is that the STV constituencies would be so big that they would often have to include several counties. The likelihood would be that people from some of the less populous counties would have no constituency TD from their county. This is only a serious problem if you think that every county, no matter how underpopulated, needs to have at least one TD.

Another issue would be that if you have TDs elected in two different ways then one set of TDs might see themselves as having more legitimacy than the others. The constituency TDs, in particular, might scoff at the list TDs on the basis that they, as individuals, had never been chosen by the voters. In practice, though, politicians throw all kinds of brickbats at each other, and another set of insults should be easy enough to shrug off.

The downsides of mixed-member systems are manageable. The advantages are that the constituency elections allows people who like voting for individual TDs to keep doing so, while the list election makes it easier for a less locally oriented politics to emerge. Electing the constituency TDs by STV in multi-member constituencies prevents the unpleasantly skewed outcome a straight import of the German system could produce.

That, then, is my proposed new electoral system for Ireland. There is no great prospect of it being adopted, as I have never heard it suggested by anyone else as an alternative electoral system for Ireland. Even if my wonderful proposal was somehow adopted, we should be realistic about the likelihood of it actually effecting any great change to how politics works. I am highly sceptical of the power of institutional setups alone to transform politics, and experience suggests that the localist impetus in Irish politics is sufficiently strong that under any electoral system it will still dominate. Still, electing some TDs by party at a national level might just concentrate some electors' minds on the fact that elections are about picking people who will form a government.

*maybe I should look at their report and see if this is actually the case.

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