What if…Ireland changed its voting system?

There are perennials of Irish political debate, and none more perennial than “We need to get rid of multi-seat constituencies” as the solution to all our political woes. If only we got rid of the “parish pump” competition at local level, we’d get a better standard of TD.

There’s also a growing body in the country who have latched on to the “nobody voted for this coalition government” argument, and are yearning for a British-style election result, where one party (usually) clearly wins regardless of how the actual people of that country actually vote. Nobody may have voted for this government, but they didn’t vote for any other one either.

It’ll never happen, of course. The Irish people have been asked twice before to change the voting system, and have refused for clear reason. PR-STV isn’t going anywhere: in fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to even get the referendum bill past the Oireachtas, never mind win a referendum. The most a government might get away with is reducing the constituency seats to three seaters, which would hurt small parties and give larger parties a seat bonus.

But even that’s risky: FG/Lab tried the infamous “Tullymander” in the 1977 general election, and it rebounded on them spectacularly giving FF the biggest majority in Irish history.

But if it were to happen, what would be the outcome? It depends on the alternative system. The most popular system on the continent, a list system, where people vote for a party and it fills seats based on the share of the vote it gets from a list of candidates, is unlikely to be accepted here. Most Irish voters wants to vote for an individual.

As a result, the most likely options are First Past The Post (FPTP) or STV in single seat constituencies (also known as the Alternative Vote). Either would be a radical change, but both would have side effects which I suspect would not please advocates of change.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the simplest voting system on Earth, a point its British advocates make a lot of noise about. Indeed, during the AV referendum in 2011, one of the main arguments used against the Irish electoral system was that it was too complicated for British voters. FPTP involves making a mark against a single candidate, and the most marks win. It allows a party to win a majority of the seats with a minority of the vote and is most likely to deliver a clear single party government even if a majority of the voters didn’t vote for it.  In 2005 it got Tony Blair a 60 seat majority despite 65% of voters not voting for him. Justin Trudeau got the most seats in the last two Canadian elections despite coming second to the Tories in votes. If you like your voting system to just vomit out results with occasionally a tangential link to how actual voters vote, FPTP is the one for you. It’s used in the UK, India, Canada, parts of the US and within some PR systems.

The Alternative Vote is used in Australia and is basically the same system we use in Ireland in presidential elections and  by-elections. It tends to create a de facto two-party system, as small parties rarely win seats, although their preferences do often decide the outcome, unlike FPTP.

Either system would be far less proportional than PRSTV, but it’s worth bearing in mind the role political culture would play hand in hand with either system. In the 1990s, hoping create a new more decisive political culture, Italy introduced FPTP for 75% of the seats in the lower house, with a 25% party list top-up. Whilst it did lead to some consolidation of parties, it also led to parties doing deals to stand down against each other in specific constituencies.

If Ireland switched to a single-seat system under either FPTP or AV, the number of constituencies would jump from 43 large ones currently to 168 much smaller ones (many the size of council wards), most with a nominal sitting deputy. But it would also open up a huge swathe of constituencies for parties that have no seat in them. For Sinn Fein and (probably) Fine Gael this would suit them, assuming they’d lead in many constituencies and would hope for transfers to get to the very high 50%+1 quota (under AV) or just the most votes under FPTP. For smaller parties, and I’m assuming FF in this (rightly or wrongly) there’d be a choice, be also-rans under FPTP or transfer fodder under AV. But there’d be alternatives too.

Under FPTP, FF, Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats, all with sitting TDs, could form a pact and run a single “Alliance” candidate in each constituency, giving them a chance at least. It wouldn’t be easy: all four parties would have members with problems, but FPTP is unforgiving. Get your shit together or see your votes just be ignored, especially as SF and FG would both be telling those parties voters that they were wasting their votes or helping the other big party by voting for the alliance.

AV would offer a similar challenge, although without the vote wastage of FPTP. Given the need to reach 50% of the vote, it’s not impossible that the two big parties might be willing to do a deal with smaller parties, even standing down in some constituencies or promising Seanad seats in return for transfer endorsements. Both would actively need transfers unlike under FPTP. One issue with AV would be the challenge for SF to get transfers even if it has an impressive first preference lead nationally. It’s not impossible that, as happened to FF in the 2011 election, preferences keeping going against SF to the extent (and angry frustration of SF supporters) that SF loses seats narrowly to other parties despite having, in their eyes, clearly “won” the election in terms of having come first in votes.

Interestingly, both systems could seriously hurt the Alphabet Left who would struggle to reach the vote levels requires to come first or meet the quota.

Either system would make a single party government more likely, although AV would require much greater voter consent. Having said that, the backroom dealing that permeates Irish politics could still result in a tiny number of TDs holding even more power than they do now. After all, even if Kerry or Tipp were transformed into multiple single-seat constituencies, would you absolutely rule out Michael Lowry or the Healy-Raes taking some of them?

What if…the United States held a Constitutional Convention?

The United States constitution is an extraordinary document, if only for the fact of its longevity. It has been the bedrock of the legal order governing that country for over 250 years, and that counts for something. Having said that, one cannot but help notice, as the citizen of a functioning and healthy democracy, that there are those in the US for whom the document and its writers are regarded as more of a fetish than reverence.

The founding fathers themselves knew that consitutions need to be amended and adjusted in line with changes in society, and the obsession with referring to “what they meant”, giving dead men from a quarter millenium ago a veto over the 21st century is simply bizarre. In short, there should be nothing unAmerican about revising and even replacing it.

It’s worth recalling that the America of the late 1700s was a predominantly rural place, and most states had broad similarities. That is simply not the case now: urban and rural Americans live more and more divergent lives that in other places would be almost foreign.

This is not the first time America has been divided, it’s true. But the divisions of the civil war were morally clear. The core cause of the Confederacy was no less evil than that of the Third Reich. The problem with today is that the wide divisions between Americans are not as morally clear cut, but cultural. From guns to abortion to science to healthcare, there are radical differences, and it is worth questioning how a country can proceed with these seemingly intractable issues on the table, steadfast held in place by a constitution designed for a different age.

What if opponents, liberals and conservatives, decided to confront the issue head-on? What if they decided a genuine good faith effort to revise the constitution for the America they lived in? How would it actually work?

For a start, it has to be approached on a simple rule: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This is to prevent any side banking concessions made by the other side without conceding anything themselves. A sort of constitutional Without Prejudice clause.

Secondly, how would the convention be chosen? I would suggestion a convention of 200 delegates: 100 directly elected by statewide PR based on population, and the second 100 nominated by the state legislatures on the basis of two delgates per state. That would give every state a fair say, allow for democratic input and also ensure, using PR, that Democrats from Texas and Republicans from Massachusetts would be included.

Thirdly, the two parties could jointly nominate an agreed panel of liberal and conservative constitutional scholars to meet in camera and prepare, on the basis of 75% agreement, a series of constitutional amendments which they will propose en bloc. By the way, don’t assume that all conservative constitutionalists will oppose any changes . As the National Constitutional Centre in Philadelphia shows here, there are many reforms conservatives would like to consider.

The panel could propose the slate of reforms to the Convention with an understanding that they may only be amended or agreed with 75% of the vote of the Convention.

Would it work? If, as I said, it was approached in good faith, but that is an issue in itself. Large numbers of US politicians and media players are now making lucrative careers and money from perpetuating an environment of division and mistrust, and that may be a hurdle too high to overcome.

Additionally, I can’t help feeling personally that the solution will lie in compromise and enhanced states rights, including the right to restrict (at state level) both abortion and gun ownership. Americans could do a lot worse than look at the European Union as a model. The EU has certain union-wide freedoms which all members must respect, but also wide latitude on cultural issues. For example, neither abortion nor same-sex marriage are union-wide rights, but a ban on the death penalty is, as is transporting guns across state borders. A looser American Union based on a common currency, trade, freedom of movement and defence would easily resemble the United States of the founding fathers…

What if…the United Kingdom went to war against Spain.

Let me be very clear: the reason I’m writing this is basically as a response to a certain type of Daily Mail/Daily Express reader and the “Send in the army/navy!” response that seems to appear regularly in those newspapers. In particular, that France and Spain should be careful that the UK doesn’t decide to give Johnny Foreigner what for.

I do not for one moment think the following is likely. It’s purely a piece of speculative fiction.

Just a bit of fun. But what if a far-right government in Madrid decided to take Gibraltar by force…

The news that Spanish forces had taken Gibraltar reached London within an hour of the crossing. The Royal Marine garrison on the rock put up a solid defence of their positions, slowing the Spanish advance, but as the fighting descended into street combat the decision was taken by the marine commander to surrender to avoid further civilian casualties. The Spanish flag flew over the rock within three hours of hostilities commencing.

The Prime Minister and the general military staff met in Downing Street just before the surrender, and the Chief of the Defence Staff outlined their options.

“Firstly, a Falklands-style task force will not succeed. Even if we could get the force down the Atlantic coast we would face serious air opposition as soon as we closed on Gibraltar. Our carrier group would come under attack from the Spanish Air Force, who fly F35s, F18s and Typhoons and would be flying from bases much closer and with air defence support from the ground. They would target our carriers as a priority and have a serious chance of hitting if not sinking them. The Spanish Navy is smaller and less well-equipped than the Royal Navy but still has submarines and frigates with modern NATO equipment, again focussing on our carriers and amphibious landing craft. We could possibly prevail off the Portuguese coast, assuming Portugal stays neutral, but we would take casualties, and if any of our key ships are sunk the operation fails. If we manage to land a force in Gibraltar, or close to it, we’ll be fighting to hold a beachhead against a modern Spanish army with modern NATO armour and support vehicles, with air superiority over us, and that’s without even considering force sizes and supply lines.”

“What do you mean?” the Prime Minister asked.

“We would put a force of less than ten thousand on the ground. Spain has a professional army of 80,000 plus reserves of about 15,000. They also have 80,000 paramilitary Guardia Civil to draw on. But let’s be honest; if Madrid wanted to equip and arm one million volunteers to fight us they could, as could we if foreign forces landed here. Our supply lines would go back through the Straits of Gibraltar where they’d be harried intensely. In short, we’d be fighting a losing battle from day one.”

“What about landing a force somewhere else? Maybe northern Spain? Capture some town to use as a bargaining chip to trade?” the Foreign Secretary suggested, listing her head slightly towards the official photographer who seemed to magically appear every time she entered a room. For the historical record, she said.

The CDS opened another file.

“We have considered that. It would certainly be logistically easier. Shorter supply lines, and our carriers and the UK mainland could provide better air cover without getting too close to the Spanish coast. But the core problems would remain. Our fleet would be under constant attack, and our assault force would face a Spanish counter attack made up of a bigger but equally professionally trained and NATO standardised force. I need to stress this: we are not dealing with Argentine reservists sent on an adventure here. This will be Spanish professional soldiers, as well equipped as we are, who have trained alongside us in NATO, fighting to retake their own soil. Or at least, in Gibraltar’s case, that is their perception.”

“Are you honestly telling us that this country, despite being the world’s fifth military power, is essentially powerless to do anything?” the Chancellor asked, looking slightly out of place in his branded hoodie.

The CDS shook his head.

“No sir, what I’m saying is that whilst we can inflict serious damage upon the invading force, we simply do not have the resources to fight a sustained conflict against an economically comparable country. Not on their home soil.”

“What about Trident? I mean, we are a nuclear power. Spain is not,” the Home Secretary said, jutting her jaw out to underline the statement.

The CDS looked at the fleet admiral.

“We can’t nuke Madrid.”

“We can threaten to,” the Home Secretary said.

“No one will believe us. We’ll look ridiculous,” the Chancellor said, eager to shut down his rival out Johnny Foreigner bashing him.

“What is the point having all this equipment paid for by the hard-working families in my constituency if…”

“The Home Secretary has a point,” the prime minister’s chief advisor suggested quietly. The room went silent. He was not known as being a fan of the Home Secretary. Not only had he voted Remain, but he still defended it.

“You’re not suggesting I incinerate Madrid, surely? That would be very uncentrist of you,” the PM suggested, running a hand through his unusually tidy hair.

“Tell us about Prompt Global Strike, admiral,” the Chief Advisor said. All heads turned.

The admiral shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“PGS is a part of the Trident programme that allows us to use a Trident D5 missile to deliver a non-nuclear payload to a target globally.”

“Could we use it to destroy a designated target in Spain?”

“In theory, yes, but I must advise caution. PGS is not something we use lightly because no country can tell whether a launched ICBM is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. This will show up on Russian and Chinese early warning systems as an ICBM launch.”

“Ok, I understand that admiral. But let me clarify: do we have, at this moment, the capability to launch a non-nuclear Trident missile at a specific target in Spain, and can the Spanish shoot it down?”

“Each Vanguard submarine currently carries 16 ICBMs. Two of them have conventional warheads. No, Spain cannot shoot it down. Nobody can. ”

The room broke into disarray.

“So if we were to identify a key symbolic or economic target in Spain we could destroy it. Say Madrid airport, or the Cortes or the Royal Palace? We could announce this publicly in advance to allow for them to be cleared of people so there needs to be no casualties, and give a ninety minute warning to launch. We’ll inform the Russians and Chinese beforehand, indeed we’ll even surface the submarine just before the launch so that they can verify it. In fact, we could issue a list of key economic targets, power stations, airports, ports, and tell the Spanish we’ll keep hitting them until they withdraw from Gibraltar. That’s global power.”

“The empire strikes back,” the Home Secretary said, slightly breathlessly.

The admiral interrupted the chief advisor.

“We only have two current PGS capable missiles.”

“Can’t we prepare others? I mean we do have four Vanguards, and only one is needed to maintain deterrence patrol. If we hit, say, ten targets in Spain that would do enough damage. I mean, imagine if someone hit all four London airports, Buckingham Palace, the Stock Exchange, and a couple of power stations and railway terminals. We’d be in chaos.”

“That would take a while, to remove and refit the warheads.”

“In fairness, once we did it the first time, provided we picked the right target, Madrid would know we were serious. We probably would not have to do it again,” the Prime Minister said.

He turned to the admiral.

“I want options on this within the hour.”

That night, the Prime Minister addressed the country, with a special Spanish language edition being transmitted directly to the Spanish media. The ultimatum was clear: if Spanish forces were not withdrawn in total in 24 hours, the UK would hit Adolfo Suarez Madrid airport. The PM carefully explained that although a non-nuclear warhead would be used, and therefore there would be no radioactivity, the power of the warhead combined with the kinetic energy of a direct missile impact would destroy a large part of the airport, and so a 10km evacuation zone should be declared around the target.

The PM was inundated with almost universal condemnation from other NATO leaders. The US President was in contact within 30 minutes of the broadcast.

“Whilst we have great sympathy with the Gibraltar situation, mr Prime Minister, the United States cannot condone the use of ballistic weaponry in this way. We strongly advise that you accept the offer of the European Union to broker a diplomatic solution. The spectacle of a NATO member bombing another is grotesque.”

“I would remind you, mr President, that they invaded our territory!”

“Yes, I understand that, but nevertheless this is upping the ante. It’s bad enough that you have isolated yourselves by withdrawing from Europe, and now this…”

“We were invaded!”

“Yes, I get that. Now look, the EU is proposing a joint authority…”

The PM slammed the phone down in a temper.

The calls with the German and French leaders were not very different: it was obvious all three had agreed a joint NATO line.

“Do you know, I think they’d prefer us to invade Spain and go down to a bloody but honourable defeat,” the PM said, as they gather in a Cabinet Office Briefing Room to watch the launch.

All day, scenes from Madrid showed the airport being evacuated, and now it stood empty, its halls eerily displaying hundreds of cancelled flights. The Spanish Parliament openly debated the idea of Spanish fighters bombing Penzance and Falmouth. One over-eager local government official had tested the air raid siren in Truro and caused mass panic.

Despite officially protesting, both Russia and China had accepted the invitation to send naval officers to inspect the missile before launch, and observe its launch from the submarine. France had not been offered as the Royal Navy feared the French, although officially neutral, might tip off their EU allies as to the location of the UK submarine.

As per the agreement with Russia and China, the submarine surfaced off the coast of Scotland five minutes before launching, giving Russian and Chinese satellites time to verify the launch and ensure the trajectory was not a threat to their countries. It then dived beneath the surface to permit launch of the missile.

Across the world, millions watched as the countdown began, a satellite feed from the submarine being directed by military satellite to global media.

When it reached zero, nothing happened.

The admiral listened intently through headphones as the room sat in silence.

“Those fucking bastards,” he said, before pulling off the headphones.

“The Americans have turned off the guidance software. We can’t launch.”

“What?” The PM asked.

“They are American missiles, and they seem to be able to remotely deactivate the guidance system. The chaps on the submarine have never seen anything like this before.”

“But it’s an independent deterrent. Surely we can launch without US permission?” The Home Secretary asked.

The admiral looked at her.

“We can launch alright, but the targeting won’t be accurate. I can’t guarantee we’ll hit our precise…”

“Oh for fuck’s sake: does it matter which part of the airport we hit?” She said, in exasperation.

“Madam, I can just about guarantee we will hit Spain and then maybe Madrid.”

An aide stepped in, holding a phone.

“The president, sir.” The PM put it to his ear.

“I’m sorry we had to do that. You left us no choice.”

“You bastard. We have followed you fuckers through thick and thin, and now you humiliate us like this.”

“Look, my people are briefing that you delayed at the last minute because I asked you as a personal favour. I’m flying to Brussels on Monday, and Paris and Berlin will be there to sit down with you and Madrid to work this out. We had to do this. Madrid has been talking to the Russians since you announced. There’s talk of Russian ABMs in Spain in return for a Russian naval base in the Med and on the Atlantic coast. The Chinese are sniffing around too. We can’t allow it, it’s as simple as that. Paris and Berlin are with me on this. So is the rest of NATO except for Hungary and Turkey. Hungary and Turkey, man. This is simply too important. See you in Brussels.”

The phone clicked dead.



What if….France used the Single Transferable Vote to elect her President?


Macron 25%

Pecresse 17%

Le Pen 16%

Zemmour 13%

Melenchon 10% 

Jadot 6%

Hidalgo 3%

Others 7%

There is no more dangerous voting system in Europe than France’s 2 ballot presidential election system. In theory, it has an impressive safeguard: unlike the US or UK or many other countries, in France the president has to win over half the actual votes cast by French voters, and as a result gives an impressive and democratic mandate to the winner.

The problem, as the opinion poll above outlines, is what happens when you get into a highly-fractured party system which then lowers, assuming no candidate gets over half the votes on the first round, the threshold for entry. In 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen scraped into the second round with 16% of the vote because although there were considerably more centre left votes cast, they were dispersed among so many parties as to allow for Lionel Jospin’s very narrow defeat. In the 2017 election, greater discipline on the left could have put the far left onto the second ballot. It’s not inconceivable that one could end up with a far-right and far-left candidate facing each other on the second ballot with a minority of the vote between them, as happened in Chile only recently. Sure, that happens in previous elections in France too, but could one honestly say that the majority of voters want that choice, or end up voting for the least worst candidate? That’s the problem with the two ballot system: vote for the “wrong” (that is, underperforming candidate) and your vote is essentially wasted.

But what if France were to use the Single Transferable Vote system that we use to elect presidents in Ireland? Giving French voters the option not only to vote for the party that closely represents their values with their first preference, but also for their vote to continue to matter and not just in a negative second round way as it does now. Would it be biased towards Macron, as the centrist and possibly least unpopular candidate? Possibly, but it would also allow the Le Pen/Zemmour vote to coalesce, and the disjointed centre-left of the Greens and the Socialists. Would the result be radically different? Possibly not, but it would make it harder for two extremists to end up on the final ballot whilst still giving voters the opportunity to vote for what they want more than just against someone else.

That’s the beauty of the Single Transferable Vote: it’s far less likely that a voter can end up wasting their vote. If you fill in every preference your vote will always be useful. STV recognises that political opinions can be shaded, not always 100% for/against.

I can’t predict the outcome, and I’ve done transfers en bloc and pretty crudely, but here’s a bit of fun based on most recent polls. I stop at the final elimination…

Macron 25%   25% 30% 42%

Pecresse 17% 18% 18% elim

Le Pen 16% 17%  17% 27% 33%

Zemmour 13% 15% 15% elim

Melenchon 10% 11% 16% 21%

Jadot 6%     7% 11% elim

Hidalgo 3% 4% elim

Others 7%  elim


What if…we directly elected the Seanad?

There’s been a lot of hype about what an impact Seanad reform would actually have, and most of it is just that. Hype. Whatever reform happens, and I’m doubtful anything of significance will ever happen, one thing almost every party agrees upon is that the Seanad will remain the lesser of the two houses of the Oireachtas. Power will remain in the Dail.

As for the talk of accountability, there is something to this. Occasionally the Seanad throws up a handful of senators (Like Michael McDowell) who are so technically on top of their legislative brief that ministers fear them far more than anyone in the lower nominally more powerful house.

That’s not to say that reform is not worth doing. I voted for Seanad abolition not because I don’t agree with an upper house, but because I simply never believed reform would happen.

But supposing it did happen: what would the outcome be?

The key is the fact that most reforms have proposed non-geographic panels as the basis for reform. There’s no point having a second chamber with yet more super-councillors in it, but a chamber elected on national vocational panels allows for a different type of candidate, that is, ones who tend to be issue rather than geography based. The Labour panel will attract union and employment rights activists. The Industrial and Commercial panel will attract ISME and IBEC people. Yes, many will be what we call “vested interest” representatives but so what? They’ll be elected openly by ordinary voters.

But what’s most interesting will be that the senators will have national constituencies made up of social sections of society, and so will have a greater electoral benefit to focus on policy areas than TDs. I would not be surprised if the Seanad were to become the chamber that gets more media coverage simply because the debates will be of a higher quality. It’s also possible that you’ll see more well-known “celebrity” candidates run for the Seanad on the basis that a national constituency will allow for a more media based/online campaign.

In such circumstances, it’s not impossible that the Seanad would become less party-based as ICTU, ISME, the GAA and the IFA all run their own candidates. Indeed, you’d not be surprised if after a few terms TDs will become quite bitter as they graft away in their constituencies doing local social work whilst senators do the glamourous stuff in the Seanad, where speaking is actually more likely to win them votes, and the media gives them more attention. Especially given that the ejector seat of a Seanad seat after a Dail defeat will no longer be open.  You can understand why so many TDs secretly oppose reform.