Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Do we know what change looks like, and if we do, is it what we really, really want?

Posted by Jason O on Feb 16, 2020 in Irish Politics

I have in my gut a festering fear about Irish democracy. It’s a simple one, and it’s that many, possibly most Irish voters are hard-wired to be permanently discontent with their government. That our politicians are forever failing our voters because our voters don’t actually know what it is that would make them actually satisfied, or even partially satisfied, with their government.

Yes, I know how patronising it sounds. It’s not an indictment of voter intelligence, by the way. It’s a mixture of the consumer society we live in, where The Next Thing is always what we crave, and the permeation of our political system by marketing techniques that promise an emotional satisfaction that politicians simply cannot deliver.

Some politicians, that is. The decent ones who are genuinely trying to do their best for the society they represent. There are politicans who do emotionally satisfy their followers, of course. President Trump does, so does President Erdogan, and Prime Minister Orban. Partially by delivery, but primarily by keeping alive the fear of The Other that keeps their supporters always emotionally aroused. Protecting one from Them always delivers an emotional satisfaction of sorts

Irish politicians are perpetually over-promising, campaigning on such vague pledged outcomes that they can never deliver in the minds of many of their voters. Fine Gael (and Labour) from 2011-2020 turned the economy around, created thousands of jobs and through those jobs (something often forgotten) created the tax revenue that funds billions and billions in social welfare, housing and healthcare. Both were punished at the subsequent ballots for lying, which both did on water and property taxes, and also for not meeting the emotional promises they made.

Ah, but what about housing and healthcare? We all know that they are the defining issues, and they have failed to deliver. That’s correct. A&E on a Saturday night feels like a different country, not the rich Ireland of Silicon Quay or Terminal 2 sweeping new motorways but a failing country where nothing seems to work.

That’s the crux of the question though. We are being told that this was a change election, but was it? President Macron in France is currently suffering unpopularity from the reality that French voters have paradoxically demanded change without change. Is it possible that the fear from most Irish governing parties up to this point is that Irish voters are not much different from their French counterparts. Yes, they say they want change, right up to the moment you attempt to implement it, and then they turn on you. Change yes, but not THAT change.

They demand radical changes to Healthcare, but will they side with a reforming government against public sector unions and their families who oppose change except in an increased pay-packet?

Will they support a reforming government building much needed new housing actually on their street?

That’s the problem right there. Irish ministers of all political colours have proven themselves incapable of actually rallying voters to them when they attempt unpopular but unnecessary change. Why is that?

One reason is certainly a combination of lack of belief and imagination that they can actually deliver. Ministers who promise that closing small rural hospitals will be accompanied by air ambulances to rapidly transport patients then look like guppy fish when asked where are the actual air ambulances?

Our leaders need to take risks and show a bit of imagination. Want to close a small rural hospital? Grand. Before you do it, land a dozen brand new fully-crewed fully-operational shiny air ambulances in the old hospital car park, and offer the locals a lift there and then to the replacement regional hospital. Then maybe they might believe you.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are at a combined 42% in first preference support, which is what FF alone got in 2007. It’s fair to say the days of caution and inertia, of fearing to displease anybody and therefore please nobody are coming to a close. It’s time to take risks for change.

 
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How to use your ballot most effectively.

One of the great mysteries of the age is that we have exported Aonghus McAnally’s “The Lyrics Board” (remember that?) to more countries than we have our electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote. 

It’s a funny one, because STV is probably the most empowering voting system on the planet. It’s fair in that it is reasonably proportional, it lets geographic areas have a clear representative, and it allows voters to personally choose their representatives. 

It also allows voters to vote the way human beings actually vote, as opposed to the weird “My party is perfect, your party should be executed for crimes against decency” approach many party hacks seem to sign up to. 

STV lets voters really like those guys, hate those other guys and meh the rest.

It also has a built-in feature that almost no other voting system has. It permits you to vote for your favorite candidate and stick the electoral knife Agatha Christie deep into the back of that one candidate you really really want to keep out.     

It is by far the best voting system in the world to watch as a spectator support. Indeed, I’m surprised RTE don’t release an election count highlight DVD after every election. 

The first count result is not always the absolute decider of all the winners, and transfers allow for last minute Millenium Falcon On Its Side Speeding Through Closing Blast Doors drama comebacks. If the CNN were covering our elections, we’d have theme music for everything from the first count to transfers to the final seat, and a Wolf Blitzer (Politics nerds will get this reference) hologram live from the count centre in Laois-Offaly. 

If you’re a sadist, it’s the political system designed to taunt and dangle false hope in front of politicians who thought their seat was safe/lost and are now mocked often down to the last count. If you asked Schrodinger to design a voting system, he’d come up with this.  

It’s a voting system Dante would have loved, save for the fact that Lucifer would probably look at Irish politics and thinks “Eh, no thanks lads, even I have to look at myself in the mirror occasionally. Also: is that RHI scheme thing still open? Actually, how did those DUP canvassers even find our front door?”    

I bring it up because every time there is an election I get a flurry of messages, online and personally, from friends, relatives and readers asking how to vote. 

Most political cronies I know are the same. 

It’s an indictment, by the way, as to how badly civics was taught (or not) in our schools, and also the failure of FG and Labour to deliver the much-promised electoral commission tasked with running and educating all things election. I never saw a copy of the constitution until I found one by accident in a local newsagent, and bought it, which is also an indictment of my sadly un-misspent youth.  

People do know how to vote, but it’s the subtleties of the Single Transferable Vote that give rise to all sorts of myths and questions. Here’s a few of them. 

  1. Cast your first preference for the person you really want. This sounds so obvious, but it’s true. Don’t try to second guess other voters. Yes, parties try to get people to vote tactically, and if your party winning an extra seat is your primary goal then vote tactically. But remember, in the great majority of constituencies the people who come first to fifth, depending on how many seats are in the constituency, tend to fill the seats in the end. First preferences matter the most, because they are the only vote that will definitely be counted.
  2. You decide where your vote goes, not the parties. A clear preference must be visible to the returning officer before he transfers a vote. Your ballot paper is written permission from you to the returning officer who to transfer to and who not to.  
  3. Your preferences cannot affect your later preferences. This is another perennial that seems to have emerged from the mists of psephology. When a lower preference has been reached (2,3,4 etc) it means that the candidate beforehand has been either elected or eliminated for having the least votes available, and so is out of competition for preferences. 
  4. Do not write anything other than numbers on your ballot paper, as anything else may be taken as a sign of political intimidation: that you have been bullied into voting for a certain candidate and have put a mark on the ballot to prove to count observers that you have done what you promised.  
  5. If you want to really try to stop an individual getting elected, give a preference to every other candidate. This means that your vote is available to help any candidate fighting your most hated candidate. The more preferences you leave blank means the less help your vote can potentially be to other candidates. If there is a group of candidates you hate equally, leave them all blank. It means that none of them can help stop any other of them.
  6. No, spoiled or blank ballots do not “automatically go to the government”. I hear this every year, and I have no idea where it comes from.    

We, the people of Malta, and Australia are the only people lucky enough to use STV in national elections. It has its flaws: it makes TDs get a version of the bends if they’re out of their constituency longer than 12 hours, and obsess about the effect of fairies on municipal road planning, but as voter choice goes, it’s hard to beat. 

Copyright © 2020 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.