Ireland has the worst electoral system ever conceived and abolishing it must be a priority in any discussion of political reform. My own preference is for single seat constituencies with first past the post, or AV. Let me explain why.
PRSTV uniquely produces incoherent outcomes. Our electoral system is the only one that I can think of that actively tells voters that they don’t really have to make a choice on policy matters. If you live in Dublin West, you can vote for Leo Varadkar AND Joe Higgins, 1 and 2. In one election you can vote for more spending and lower taxes and the local hospital and better roads and for a pro-life candidate all on the same ballot paper, and feel aggrieved when you don’t get all of what you want. Give voters one vote and they have to think about what matters most. Give them four or five and you get to reward big spending and tax cuts at the same time. Sound familiar?
PRSTV rewards the nutcase brigade Proponents of PRSTV tell us that a) coalitions are good, b) consensus is good, and c) that PRSTV includes the widest variety of views. That’s nonsense. What it does do is take natural political coalitions and split them into their most extreme components, and then set them at each other’s throats. Look at the US Democratic Party – is it not a coalition? Is the Australian Labor Party not a coalition? Greens and Trade Unionists and social liberals all working together in a permanent coalition to win power and to compromise with each other. Over here, we have one party for the Irish Times reading social liberals, another for the militant trade unionists, another for the Greens, and about twenty for the various marxist-leninists – and all of them more extreme, more radical, and more likely to hold Governments to ransom and produce policy outcomes that alienate the broad centre of the electorate than a broad coalition party of the left would. Don’t believe me? Check the record of the Greens on the left and the PDs on the right.
PRSTV encourages bad policy for electoral gain When everyone has one vote, you know who you can win over and who you cannot. When everyone has two or three votes, suddenly you can win transfers from voters who would never consider you for a number one vote – so you are rewarded for pandering in a way that is much more blatant than in other electoral systems. You cut taxes to please your own base. You negotiate pay rises for the public sector to keep the Trades Union people cheerful and likely to transfer to you. You do something on childcare. You go halfway on the environment. Every group has to get a present for you to win office and keep those marginal seats in the later counts. Your coherence is lost – this is what happened to Fianna Fail, and this is what will happen to FG and Labour. It’s the system. Safe seats are not a bad thing The biggest argument I hear against a change in the system to single seats is that if we look at the UK, our nearest neighbour, the Tories and Labour have had seats so safe that they’ve held them easily for 100 years, and that as a result huge numbers of voters are disenfranchised. First, that in itself is guff – democracy is about the right to register your voice and have a say in the process, and it’s also about having to accept the will of your fellow citizens. If the people of Sunderland South want to vote Labour every single time, that’s their right. Critically though, safe seats do two things – they reward bold thinkers and new ideas, and they allow truly national politicians to focus on truly national issues. In Ireland, the constant need for transfers makes playing it safe an essential element of political discourse if you’re in a Governing party, and there is not a politician in the last thirty years who could focus on doing a national job and not just on the constituency.
PRSTV rewards cute hoor, bring home the bacon, hyper-local politics. A Two party system does not. The new REDC poll suggests that there is something of a realignment underway in Irish politics. There is at the least a chance that Sinn Fein may emerge as the main opposition party – a party of the left – and stand in opposition to Fine Gael on the right, with Labour and Fianna Fail taking up supporting roles. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, is there not an argument for creating a political system that encourages the emergence of two broad, competing power blocks made up of these four parties? A political system that gives people like Jason and I (who agree on so much, yet end up on different sides so often) an incentive to pick a side, work out our differences, and agree a political programme before we enter Government, and not after? We have a fragmented political system that rewards division on the small, irrelevant issues, and inaction on the large issues. It’s a political system that lets voters completely off the hook when it comes to making decisions. If we want good Government and mature political coalitions, let’s choose an electoral system that forces the voters and the politicians to make it happen.
John McGuirk is a PR consultant and former Libertas Communications Director.