If you were an evil pair of billionaire brothers who wanted to create a fake democracy, that seemed to check all the boxes but still didn’t quite work, you’d be hard pressed to do better than the Irish local elections.
On the face of it, the system does what it says on the tin. The elections are fair and free, with an electoral system that gives voters a wide choice of candidates. Nor is it hard to get on the ballot, an old blocking trick of one party machines from Chicago to Moscow. Indeed, the recent decision to create very large wards of six and over seats gives greater opportunities for smaller parties and independents. The Lib Dems would give their left testicle for our local electoral system.
Sadly, that’s where the façade begins. Take, for example, the campaigns themselves. Look at the election literature you’re getting through your door. What does it tell you about the candidates that is different from other candidates? The truth is, most candidates could interchange each others’ material.
But what’s worse is that even at local government level, the fundamental question of modern politics still applies: can you spend your money better than society, through the local council, can spend it? It’s a fair question, with fair and reasoned answers on both sides of the argument. But is that the debate we are having? Are candidates furiously debating a rise or fall in the Local Property Tax and the effect on local services. No, they’re not. The message from pretty much every candidate is “More local services? Yay!” and “How do we pay for them? Ssssh!” Look at the posters up, where large numbers of candidates go out of their way to talk about issues over which local councils have no control, whilst avoiding the one thing, the Local Property Tax rate, they can actually control.
Then there’s the question of power. Who is in charge of the councils? Unelected county managers, and here’s the thing. Most party councillors are happy with that. Oh sure, they’ll say they’re not, but given that FF, FG and Labour all nominally support local government reform, and all have been in power since the last local elections, you can judge them by their deeds. Elected mayors? Yeah, right. Most party councillors don’t want power, because with power comes blame for decisions. Much better to take credit for the good stuff, and blame the county manager for the cutbacks.
The awkward truth is that the local elections are essentially there for the political parties, as a means of building up organisations and candidates. Effectively, a taxpayer funded primary election to see what happens if Your Man With The Head is put on a ballot paper. It’s like a political Colditz: the vast majority of them start planning their escape from the council as soon as they get into it. The only difference is that we’re not allowed shoot at them as they escape, which is very unfair.
That’s not to say that councillors don’t serve a useful purpose as local ombudsmen. They do. But one full-time one per ward would be just as useful, and certainly cheaper.