Do we need geographical constituencies?

Michael Gallagher (6th September, 2010)

Concerns are raised from time to time, not just in this country, that geographical representation in parliament creates behaviour among legislators that is not consistent with the national interest. Legislators elected, under whatever electoral system, from geographical constituencies have an obvious incentive to put the interests of their constituents first even when a “rational” decision-making process might require acknowledging that not every local interest should be defended to the death. They might indeed argue that this is not merely a matter of responding to electoral incentives but that protecting and advancing the interests of their constituents is part of their job.

For example, if a country has too many hospitals, in the sense that resources are spread too thinly among them and that the overall health of the nation would be better protected by having fewer but bigger hospitals – as some say is the case in this country – a national policy-maker might conclude that smaller hospitals should be closed and their resources transferred to larger regional hospitals, but the MPs for the constituencies where hospital closures are sought are likely to resist such closures as strongly as they can.

In chapter 9 of his book “The Concept of Constituency: political representation, democratic legitimacy, and institutional design” (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Andrew Rehfeld argues in favour of randomly-constructed rather than geographically-constructed constituencies. Upon reaching voting age, everyone would be randomly allocated to a constituency, to which they would belong for the rest of their life. In the Irish case, for example, leaving aside any other possible changes in Dáil size, electoral system or constituency side, there might be, say, 33 constituencies, each with 5 members elected under PR-STV as at present, each containing approximately 100,000 people. (Though in fact Rehfeld is against any form of PR and believes that each constituency should return only 1 MP.) Each electorate of 100,000 people would be, in effect, a random sample of the population of the entire country, and every small region of the country would be likely to contain members of each of the 33 constituencies. Among other things, this implies that voting behaviour in each constituency would be likely to be very similar. Non-geographical constituencies may seem an outlandish concept but they are commonly used for upper houses, such as Seanad Éireann for example.

Rehfeld suggests that this might not be fully feasible until internet technology and access have advanced to the point where geographically dispersed groups of people, which is what constituencies would now be, can meaningfully discuss matters of common interest – though he expects this to happen sooner than we think.

The argument in favour is that each MP would now have an incentive to pursue policies that are good for the nation as a whole. MPs would, in effect, be operating as if behind the famous Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”, so when it came to upgrading schools, for example, they would have no incentive to try to get particular schools moved up the qualification list, because this would probably cost them more votes than it gained them. Instead, their incentive would be to put in place a decision-making method that sees resources allocated to the school that at any moment is the most deserving in terms of a set of objective criteria. Likewise, no MP would be lobbying to have public or private investment directed at a particular part of the country; instead, it would go wherever makes best sense for the nation as a whole.

There are also difficulties, some of which Rehfeld addresses, though he acknowledges that his scheme is not fully fleshed out. One obvious question is: if education / health / transport services in an area seem to be failing, whom do people contact? Maybe no MP would be contacted on the matter, as none would have much responsibility for the affected area, or maybe every MP in parliament would be contacted as all would have a few constituents in the area. Would this scheme mean that all decisions are made in “the national interest”, or is that concept too contestable to be useful? Might the outcome be not that policy outputs are in everyone’s (ie the broad national) interest but that geographical peripheries and perhaps other minorities, now left without anyone with a responsibility to defend their interests specifically, would lose out systematically to majorities and to the centre?

Is this an idea that could be made to work? If not, does it mean that the benefits of geographical constituencies, with MPs who see their representational role as consisting at least partly of defending and promoting the interests of their own small patch of the country, outweigh the disadvantages?

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19 thoughts on “Do we need geographical constituencies?

  1. I had raised this point in a blog comment (but I’m not sure on which blog, I post too much!) in the last few weeks that in all the talk about national lists and so on, that we have working examples of a non geographically based constituencies already. Those being the NUI and TCD seanad panels. And though the NUI electorate decided to go in another direction last time, I would say that by in large the two panels have tended down the years to elect pretty decent parliamentarians for all that I might not agree with them on a political level.

    The fact that they can’t rely on geographical factors to the same extent as others in the Oireacthas would seem to me to be a factor.

  2. Wow, interesting approach. I hadn’t considered this possibility until reading this post. I guess maybe local government could fill the gap on area specific issues.

    It’s hard not to see some areas losing out if this type of system were brought in – I imagine infrastructural funding in Kerry South might take a bit of a hit.

  3. Interesting idea.
    Would electronic voting be needed to make it work, effectively and efficiently?

    I wonder to what extent the findings of a 1987 poll still holds (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) are still influential. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
    • 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
    • 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the Dáil:
    • 45% said that party policies were important;
    • 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.

    In this case, it is fair to say that “constituency” meant a geographically defined area with known boundaries, DEDs etc. – as we now have.

    My understanding is that this question has not been asked (or at least not reported) since that poll and was not included, in that form, in the INES study published in 2008, if I have understood it correctly, as The Irish Voter. Perhaps I missed it.

    Separating representation from geography might mean that
    1) on one hand, the Dáil would ensure that all areas has similar levels of services, through legislation/allocation of funds to ensure that standards were similar in all parts of the country;
    2) on the other hand (and not necessarily contrary to the first point), a real decentralisation of the delivery of services along the lines of the Danish reponse to the 1970s oil-price shocks.

  4. Proper accountable and transparent local government could easily fill any void caused by non geographical constiuencies. However, that would itself require reform on a such a scale it’s hard to think of the current system coping.

    The actual crux of the problem with bad politics and bad goverance is the mentality of people who do vote and those who don’t. We can all rattle off a list of people who are patently unfit for public office and those at best only fit for local governance but time and time again these people get re-elected – isn’t understand what makes suppodely rational intelligent people cast a vote again and again for people like that not the more important issue to address – as if people chose proper TDs or Councillors a lot of what has gone wrong would not have gone wrong and the system would have actually worked as deceitful people would not have been bending it for dishonest or flawed reasons?

    Will changing the system not just mean the same old failures – except in a new system?

  5. The idea of randomly-constructed national constituencies is an interesting one for all the potential benefits listed. However, implementation might well enhance the importance of “name recognition” over local service since all candidates would be required to run a national campaign. While it might be great sport to watch some current TDs try to reach beyond their local bases, successful candidates would most likely be those who enter the campaign with a high level of national name recognition, or the resources (both personal and financial) to build one. Thus, the randomly-constructed constituency system would favor celebrity candidates (sports stars, television personalities, successful businesspeople, for example).

    Those candidates without personal resources and/or an already-established public presence would become even more reliant on the national political parties and/or national special interests since those organisations would be the only ones able to raise and distribute campaign resources on a nationwide level. Aside from the celebrity candidate, there would be little chance of an independent winning such an election.

    Nationwide campaigning would also increase the role of radio and television, and of national newspapers, in the elections since these media would be the only way to reach a far-flung constituency.

    Following such an election, Dáil Éireann might more closely resemble an episode of celebrity Big Brother, with Eamon Dunphy as Taoiseach and George Hook as the leader of the opposition. To think of it, that might be more interesting to watch, but might not necessarily be an improvement in the quality of governance.

    • Michael, that’s one of the reasons why we have such an overcentralised political system, because we are afraid that the Irish people might elect Eamonn Dunphy. Let them! They’ll only do it once, and you can bet that at the next election they’ll pay more attention. The fact that we have shielded the voters from the consequences of their own decisions is the reason we have so many seemingly insoluble problems, the most obvious being that most voters seem to have no grasp of the connection between paying taxes and the level of public services you get. Say what you will about American voters, they at least accept that someone has to pay for big government.

  6. Whilst it is an idea with a lot of merit, I think if one drives through any Irish county during All Ireland season you’ll get an idea as to how attached Irish people are to their area, and having someone to “speak up” for them, even if it is mostly waffle. The analysis is sound, in that obsession with local issues is pushing big picture issues to the side. If one takes child abuse issues, which the country seems to regard as important, when Colm O’Gorman ran on the issue, Wexford was not willing to “sacrifice” a TD to that issue. The truth is, you are only going to get national issue TDs elected with constituencies far larger (15-20 seats) than what we have now, and the Irish people will rebel against that. Better to keep what we have, and add a national constituency alongside it. Perhaps having two ballot papers, a local and an national one, will let voters think differently about each when they are voting. Secondly, you can’t ignore the need to radically reform local government, by which I mean directly elected Mayors who can direct the county managers and impose taxes. If the people of Kerry want to hand over control of their county to the Healy-Rae family, that’s their business.

    • So what? They’re attached to their county in sporting terms (and admittedly there is evidence to show that people vote on county lines). It doesn’t mean we need to allow this to rule our electoral system. There are equally many people who have Manchester United flags on their houses at certain times of the year; but we wouldn’t think it appropriate to design on our constituencies on the basis of what soccer team people support. In fact the county boundaries often impose unnatural divisions – so the people of south east Clare are closer in terms of their needs to people in Limerick city, but end up voting in an essentially rural constituency.

      This is a great idea. Presumably one of the main reasons for geographic constituencies was administrative efficiency. Given technological changes, administrative efficiency is no longer an obstruction to this proposal. It also solves many of the localist problems that many in favour of electoral system reform object to.

      The problem that there’ll be no one to contact if say a school is failing can be solved by the parties. They will presumably want to have people on the ground in each constituency, and TDs will not all suddenly be from Dublin. The difference will be that it cannot be rewarded directly to individuals rather than parties.

      • Rounding up all the Man U supporters into one place. Hmmm. Let’s not dismiss that idea too hastily!!
        I just think that the local link is too strong to get such a proposal through. The other alternative, and it would be hell to count with STV, would be to abolish all constituencies and replace with a single national constituency. You’d still end up with people wanting to represent their town/county, but you’d also end up with, say, Kerry people in Dublin being able to vote for Kerry based candidates, or Kerry voters voting for candidates in other counties that they like.

      • Jason, I think we’ve discussed this before (or it at least sounds familiar to me) but it’s not the size i.e. numbers who get elected from a constituency that needs to change rather the size of the quota needed to get elected. You can still have quotas of 7/8,000 from a constituency of 20. Sure a few at the tail end will get elected on the basis of broader issues that merely localism but they will be swamped by those others who did appeal to the local factor.

        If you needed 20,000 or 30,000 votes to get elected first time out then pure clientelism simply wouldn’t do it. It is much much harder to visit every household and do the paperwork for every small application problem someone has with larger areas. That is in part why I’d suggested overlapping but larger constituencies. There could be 10 seats for the western seaboard, 10 seats for Munster, 10 seats for a random panel, then someone from Kerry votes three times but the quota is much much larger and they have to think beyond their own locality. It allows for larger quotas without giving us an unworkable parliament of 50 seats

  7. I think that I would have concerns about this in terms of internet access – I don’t that access is necessarily simple – firstly a lot of people don’t have the required skills because for various they never learned them, secondly access is inherently economic as well – ie those with money have better access – Such a scheme might work if the issues of lack of skills and resources are addressed

  8. I don’t think it is a good idea. How likely are we to be able to make an informed voting choice on perspective TD’s in Leitrim for example. Would you have people in Wicklow given a free copy of the leitrim leader every week? And what would the voter turnout be? Less than 10%
    I would imagine.

    We could just legislate so that people would have to go to councilors rather than TDs with their personal issues.
    This is a bad idea.

  9. In the list of priorities for reform of the political system, I would place electoral reform pretty low down. My main concern, incidentally, with our present electoral system is the proliferation of 3 seat constituencies, which favour the larger parties and tend to distort the operation of PR STV. Other than that, I think it works well enough or as good as, or bad as, any comparable system. In any case, I think people are attached to local representation not just because of what they think their local TD will do for them – most people never darken the door of a constituency clinic from one election to the next – but because of a sort of ‘tribal’ identification with their own area. An unintended consequence of the geographical area constituencies might be to increase the power of lobbyists of all shades and flavours and pressure groups and alienate politicians even further from the life experience of ordinary citizens, an outcome that would hardly be desirable. One of the virtues of the current system is that politicians have to relate to the community within their constituency, usually well beyond their own party political support, in order to get elected and I would argue that’s no bad thing. It doesn’t mean they have to be ‘led by the mob’ on every issue. They shouldn’t be anyway, not if they’re any good.

    I think there is a far more serious problem in the way our parliamentary institutions work, or don’t work, at present. The Dail is archaic, the Senate an undemocratic irrelevance, the Whip system stifles any realistic debate, the Committee system more often resembles a game of musical chairs than anything else with Deputies swanning in and out to ask the same foolish questions as those who preceded them in the hopes that they might make it onto Oireacthas Report or some such, and the Executive has far too much control over parliament. The most striking thing about the present crisis is how the political system has failed the people in just about every respect, yet there is no impetus for its radical reform. Why not? Because they all like it just the way it is.

    • But who elected the people who like the system as it is time after time – I see for example O’Dea says he will stand again in Limerick and I bet he gets even more votes next time in view of the fact he had to resign from cabinet.

      The easist way to reform the system is for everyone at the next election to refuse to vote for someone who has already been a TD, past or present, and instead give their number 1 and 2 to whoever are brand new first time candidates. THen if they really can’t find a 3rd decent first time candidate, they can vote for a past or present TD but not if it is someone they have already given a number 1 at any stage before.

      If the system was not abused by those elected, as it has been so shamefully, maybe the system would have a chance of working, with some reform to bring it up to 201, not 1910 standards.

      But the buck stops with the Irish public and the way they vote and who they vote for. It can’t be possible Irish people are too thick to make the link between who they vote for and the mess the country is in.

      Which means they do and we are into NIMBY land where we all know change needs to come but not for us, let someone else’s pensioner parent get less, let someone else on the dole get less, let someone else have more negative equity but not me not me not me.

      Denial is the worst and deepest ingrained trait of Irish people. They’ll go to hell in a handbasket rather than face up to their own responsibilty for the role they have in creating this mess by the choice of people they send to make the rules.

    • @Veronica,

      Sorry for picking up on your comments so tardily, but I couldn’t agree more. And just to add to your convincing conclusion that “they all like it just the way it is”, the existing machanics of the factions and the politics prevent any effective change. A governing party (or combination of parties) hoping for re-election has no incentive (and every disincentive) to introduce reforms that will limit the executive dominance they exercise. And opposition parties within touching distance of power (from which they’ve been excluded for so long) will face the same set of incentives and disincentives should they achieve power.

      And even if the governing parties face an electoral rout (the most likely outcome at the next time of asking) they will still nurse the hope of maintaining some grip on power and will behave the same as if they were confident of re-election. And this hope is being nurtured by the views of some voters who, remembering that, while FF made the previous mess from 1977 to ’81, the FG-Lab Govt. from ’82-’87 didn’t help and FF had to fix things from ’87 on and that FF, again having made the mess, might be the best lot to fix it.

      So for all factions the status quo is the only option.

      The political scientists and the academics like consideration of electoral reform and the composition of legislatures as it provides scope for a variety of number-crunching and research activites. And even if they were to attempt to raise public awareness of the need for major reform of the process of policy formation and implementation and of the process of governance generally – and I accept that some are doing this – there is no way it would be sufficient to break the political logjam.

      These kinds of changes rarely take place outside of the aftermath of major upheavals and I’m certainly not advocating a period of civic strife or upheaval, but I sometimes think we need a 1916 moment without the guns because I believe the current political and economic establishment conveys the same complacency, sense of entitlement and arrogance as its Edwardian predecessor in the early years of the last century.

      • Paul,
        I hope you think again and think very hard about the kind of moment we now need in this Republic. I trust that you will come up with something imaginative that could somehow or other deal with the complacency, sense of entitlement and arrogance that you correctly identify. Yes, we will have defer the kind of gratification that some get from “striking a blow” in favour of a longer march through the institutions and culture which arose from the politics that emerged from the 1916 moment you refer to.

        Over the last 40 years, we have had enough 1916 moments on these islands – enough killing, maiming, destruction and distortion of people’s lives, livelihoods and work to last us for generations.

        What we need now are many moments of the quiet, peristent and definitely not instantly gratifying competence shown by people like John Hume, aided and abetted as he was by many others on and outside this island. Daniel O’Connell also demonstrated something similar in his drive for Catholic Emancipation and in his time, was widely recognised abroad as such.

        Living as we do with the results of this quiet competence, we are also still trawling over the inquiries and investigations arising from the many blows struck and grand gestures made. As someone else said, it is easy enough to get people out into the streets – with or without guns – but what then?

        We know only too well that “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth” leaves us all both blind and without means of re-generation through well-chewed varieties of nourishment.

        I agree we need action, but let it not be action for action’s sake.

  10. @Donal,

    I think you should know me well enough by now that I’m not advocating any form of insurrection – armed or not. When I speak of a ‘1916 moment’ I mean a realisation that what is happening – and is likely to happen – is not in the public or national interest. But it is for the political classes to take the initiative. There is a resurgent progressive-left constituency which promotes a particular political, economic and social narrative and which is almost certain to significantly increase its popular representation at the next time of asking. The two other major ‘catch-all’ parties each display the existence of a populist, but socially conservative, wing and a liberal-centrist wing (broadly similar to the right-of-centre/liberal configurations that govern many EU member-states) that co-habit in each with varying degrees of comfort.

    The obligation is on the politicians in both of these liberal-centrist wings in each of the major parties to break with faction, combine and offer Irish voters a new political, economic and social narrative that will provide them with a clear choice and the opportunity for a distinctive break with the past chronicle of misgovernment.

    I can only make the case for this; it is for these politicians to act.

  11. Pingback: Geographical constituency | Wyrmtungh

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