Previously published in The Irish Independent.
As a former Progressive Democrat I’m familiar with the propensity of Irish voters to give smaller government parties an almighty kicking. As a result, I must admit to having a certain sympathy for the reluctance of the Greens and Labour Party to act as the left testicle of the spectacle that is the mating act between the two bull elephants of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
I’ve somewhat less sympathy for the Social Democrats who give the impression of becoming the fresh pesto and ciabatta wing of the Alphabet Left, happy to adopt many political yoga positions but not so hot on getting into the mucking in and compromise of actually making governing decisions.
All three parties face a reality that must be acknowledged.
Small parties tend to have more ideological voters with much more elaborate expectations and are therefore more prone to disappointment. It’s not unique to Ireland: the Liberal Democrats suffered the same in the UK after five years of coalition, with actual achievements counting for nothing when a section of your electorate who bizarrely support proportional representation nevertheless get miffed when you enter coalition.
The big mistake small parties often make is to assume that their voters will reward them for solid policy delivery, a lesson Labour learnt to its cost in 1997. Despite having delivered a balanced budget, a growing economy, lower unemployment, increases in public spending and welfare, tax reductions for the low paid and nearly the entire social liberal agenda, half their voters deserted them and with that half their seats evaporated. The Greens in 2011 and Labour again in 2016 suffered repeat fates, this time both parties being taken to the edge of annihilation.
The awkward fact is that losing votes is inevitable for small parties in government, and instead those parties should start thinking about minimising those losses.
One of the big secrets about our Single Transferable Voting system is that it can magnify how voters feel about your party. If you are popular, you can often end up with a seat bonus in excess of what your first preference merits as your party is transfer friendly and allows your candidates hold on until final counts, scraping in without reaching the quota.
That’s if you’re popular.
If the feeling of the country is agin’ you, STV can be like giving the average voter a roll of pennies to hold in their hand before they start giving you digs, giving their blows extra weight. Not only is your first preference down, but other parties’ preferences are flying around to add to your opponents and keep you out. As the Greens experienced in 2011, you can lose every seat despite being proportionately entitled to some.
With that horrific experience in mind, and aware that they have the two bigger parties in a position of leverage, the small party entering government should be demanding certain things to give them a better chance of surviving the inevitable drop in vote support.
For a start, they should insist on making Dail constituencies more proportional, which means making them bigger than five seaters. We’ve had nine seaters in the past, and it would give them a better chance of survival if their polls collapse by at least ensuring their party vote isn’t dissipated between constituencies but corralled into larger constituencies where they might just help save a seat. The enlargement of local council wards for the 2014 local elections saved a load of Labour seats when the party’s vote fell sharply.
Or they could do something really radical. The constitution means that we must have STV in geographical constituencies, and that really can’t be changed. But what about moving the voters instead? What about giving voters the option of registering to vote by post in whatever constituency they wish? That way, small parties could have a small number of target constituencies and basically ask their voters to come to them.
This particular idea seems to send FF and FG supporters into apoplexy, but not for any real reason. Every voter would still have a single vote, and so what if you as a voter decide that a TD on the far side of the country represents your values more? It’s your vote, and if someone in leafy (we only have leaves in nice areas, apparently) south Dublin decides that Mattie McGrath is the man for them, so be it. It’s their vote.
Secondly, they need to get real about local government reform, Aside from elected mayors, which could help deplete the opposition of leading candidates by banning sitting mayors from running for the Oireachtas, they could take advantage of the fact that the electoral system for local government is not outlined in the constitution, and go for something more radical.
Instead of electing them by STV wards, you could elect say 25 of them in single seat wards as full-time full-paid “super councillors” to ensure local area voices, and the balance by a proportional list system, which would allow for the smaller parties to pool their citywide vote together and hopefully take some seats. It would also allow for city-wide issues like cycling and homelessness to come to the fore as the cyclist/homeless vote would be able to vote as a bloc as opposed to being dissipated across wards.
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff.
This can be all done by legislation, and could be part of the price for coalition, with the small party insisting on the cabinet responsibility to implement it. It’s happened before: small parties have managed to impose reform on bigger parties, as the PDs did on Fianna Fail by banning the dual mandate.
It requires small parties to be as ruthless in protecting their own interests as FF and FG are in defending the status quo to suit themselves.
In short, Eamonn Ryan needs to find his inner Frank Underwood.
I suspect Alan Kelly might have less difficulty.