Dermot Desmond’s manifesto for political reform

David Farrell (February 12 2011)

In today’s Irish Times, Dermot Desmond has published a manifesto for political reform. A full (27-page) version of the document is available here. Whatever views one may have about the messenger, there is no doubt about the significance of the proposals, some of which are pretty radical. It is interesting to see the overlap with the political reform proposals we’ve already seen from some of the parties – notably the similarity with Fianna Fáil’s proposal to force government ministers to give up their Dáil seats.

One interesting proposal relates to the electoral system. Desmond makes all the right noises about the need to see electoral reform as, at best, only part of a wider sweep of measures that should be implemented (together with, for instance, local government reform). Unlike those who propose a move to the German mixed-member system, Desmond instead suggests a change in how PR-STV operates. The gist of his proposal is contained in the following extract:

If the objection to PR-STV is that it produces locally oriented TDs one mechanism could be to keep PR-STV but remove any incentive for locally-oriented behaviour, that it to remove the geographical basis for constituencies. While this sounds like an eccentric idea, non-geographic constituencies already exist in Ireland. Constituencies for the Seanad are on the basis of predetermined policy areas not geography. Constituencies would still exist, so Ireland could have 33 five-seat constituencies. Each would currently contain about 100,000 people. Voters would, on reaching voting age, be randomly assigned to a constituency, to which they would belong for the rest of their lives. Each constituency would in effect be a random sample of the whole population, and so each would be similar in its make-up, views and so on.

The reference to the Seanad is a bit flimsy, not least given its tiny electorate. That criticism aside, the proposal does merit some analysis.

Under Desmond’s proposal, the politicians are regionally-anchored – each residing in a 5-seat constituency – but their electorates are nationally dispersed. If I’m a TD in Dublin South, under this new electoral system, what motivation is there for me to engage in constituency work? Because the point is that my electoral fate will be determined by how hard all my fellow party TDs work nationally, and by the vote trends for my party. So, the reform has the supposed desired effect of reducing constituency work, but what it results in is potentially the opposite extreme, a politics focused entirely on the national dimension. This sounds a lot like a national list system (such as applies in Israel and the Netherlands). Is this what we really want for Ireland?

A second problem is that the national dispersion of the electorate is likely to be pretty random: given that the bulk of the migratory flows in Ireland are to (rather than from) Dublin, there is far greater likelihood for Dublin TDs to have greater geographical co-location with their electorates (i.e. in effect the current system) than would be the case, say, west of the Shannon.

Third, how would the system rebalance to avoid malapportionment (i.e. a situation where constituencies are unevenly balanced in terms of electorate size) due to such things are emigration of Irish citizens (would these lose their voting rights?) or more seriously internal migrationary flows and immigration?

Fourth, how on earth would a count be managed with such a dispersed electorate?

21 thoughts on “Dermot Desmond’s manifesto for political reform

  1. Its a bit shocking that someone has to tell you this but I think the point is to get rid of constituency work. Some of us dont need these expensive babysitters you call politicians.

    • The problem is that the trend the world over it TOWARDS greater constituency linkage: what’s driving these reforms is a desire by voters to have better linkage with politicians (i.e. there are thing about our system that is found attractive). So, you need to be careful what you ask for. Imagine living in a political system where there is absolutely no motivation for politicians to have any link with their constituents. Is that really what we want in our political system? I, for one, don’t think so.

      The object of the reform should be to try to temper the excesses of constituency linkage, not get rid of it entirely. That is why many of us are arguing in favour of reforms at local government level and in the interface between the public sector and citizens: i.e. to try and reduce the demands from voters on TDs.

      • Break the linkage and I get national politicians. Present me with a stable financial system and rational legal system on a national level and keep all the other crap for private companies.

      • Recently was up the country at a funeral. And one of the local TDs was in attendance. And looking back, many of the funerals I’ve attended during my life have had TDs in attendance. I wonder in how many countries is this typical. I do think you’ve a point that reformed local government/interface with public services could take some of the present constituency workload off of our TDs. But attending funerals certainly isn’t a task for which any local official could take up the slack! I’d worry that TDs would simply find new ways of interacting with their constituents and keeping in the public eye, that they’d find alternative ways of competing with their constituency colleagues, and would ultimately still spend exactly the same portion of their time doing constituency work.

      • @Finbar. Yes that for me is the nub of the problem with the argument that electoral reform is the solution. Unless the political reform addresses the DEMAND side there is a real risk that nothing will change. Changing the electoral system is likely to do little to change the representative role of TDs. What we need our wider reforms that affect the demands by voters, such as stronger local government and a more responsive public service.

      • I don’t see a problem with TDs attending funerals per se. It is part of our culture to show some solidarity and respect by attending funerals of people in our communities. This means that we often end up attending funerals of those we didn’t actually know, but with whom we had some tangential connection.

        Part of a politicians job is to be a leader. Part of being a leader is to pull people together, or keep them together. Therefore, I can see a legitimacy in a politician attending a funeral.

        Of course, there are cynical politicians who will make a show of attending. (I’m thinking of some Kerry politicians in particular). This is widely recognised for what it is, and these parasitical showboarters are widely derided for their crass insensitivity.

        But – people then go and vote for them. The ways of the mob are many and fickle!

        Where a politician attends, on a discreet and low key basis, then I think that is proper and fitting.

  2. The non-geographical constituency idea is an interesting one (and has been discussed on this site previously I would feel the highly dispersed nature of the constituencies (even allowing for improved information and communications technology) would make this impractical for 33 five seater constituencies. However having a small number (maybe 3 or 4) of very large PR-STV constituencies (maybe 15 seaters) would still be practical. If one wanted to have 45 of our TDs be nationally elected, then having 3 such non-geographical 15 seat PR-STV constituencies might not be a bad way to go. Three times the work for the national media. Instead of having one programme profiling the various candidates, there might now have to be three programmes, one for each constituency. Basically three national elections going on in parallel. But would still be more than feasible. And perhaps a good way of avoiding having to resort to a list system. At least independent candidates wouldn’t be discriminated against in such an electoral system. But hard to see how such a non-geographical system could be practically scaled up to electing a full 166 member Dáil. But could be quite a suitable method for electing some of the Dáil, or a more moderately sized body like a 60 seat Seanad.

      • I agree that constituency work would be basically eliminated for TDs elected via such a method. Not sure all TDs should be elected this way. There’s a place for constituency based TDs too I think. But might not be a bad idea if at least some TDs were elected on such a national basis. Having TDs elected by more than one system could be a bit messy, but wouldn’t worry me unduly to be honest.

        In many ways this would indeed have a similar feel to Israeli or Dutch national list systems. But would have PR-STV’s advantages of not allowing party selectorates too much control and also accommodating independent candidates.

        I really can’t see how malapportionment could be much of a problem if people are assigned to constituencies randomly. That’s the beauty of random selection on such large scales, especially if we’re dealing with constituencies of hundreds of thousands in size. Immigration or emigration is as equally likely to affect any constituency. The sheer sizes would swamp any such noise. For a 500,000 seater constituency, margin of error/standard deviation would be less than 0.2%

        For any nationwide electoral system Dublin voters are more likely to be geographically co-located with their representatives. That’s not a unique feature of this system.

        Managing a count with 33 such constituencies would be a bit of a nightmare (not impossible though). But for a smaller number of constituencies the initial step might be to first sort all ballots into separate constituency piles in a national count centre (maybe with a separate colour for the ballots from each constituency). Surely this would be little more than what is currently done already under national PR elections (e.g. for the president).

      • Re malapportionment. The bigger problem is intertnal migratory flows. I’m randomnly assigned my polling district on my birth in Kilkee co Clare and then move to Dublin in search of work and settle there. As more and more of my fellow Kilkee compatriots do likewise that constituency empties of residents. This creates malapportionment – a problem common to all distrected systems. But in the case of this one, not one that may be easy to solve…

      • @David
        But the constituencies would be non-geographical. So if there were 10 constituencies, then roughly 10% of everyone in Kilkee would be in each constituency. And, if I understand what Desmond is saying correctly, the assigned constituencies would follow people around no matter where they went in Ireland.

  3. t ds in the national parliament spending too much time on local constituency business, is a direct result of the colonial model of governing ireland. in the nineteenth century the railways were laid out as a fan shape centered on dublin. a perfect illustration of the way the colonial administration saw the country. the independent state inherited this outlook.

    if local matters were delegated to local authorities – whether old style, or newly reformed and amalgamated – the problem would solve itself. no one should be permitted to devise a new system until they have shown that they have worked the old one to good effect.

    dermot desmond has raised significant points.

    if we do not decentralise government within ireland, we cannot complain if european government progressively centres on its own paris-brussels-frankfurt-strasbourg core, condemning dublin to the same powerless provincial nonentity to which dublin relegates other irish cities.

  4. Desmond’s suggestions are indeed radical in the extreme…

    Why not look at a mixed additional member system?

    What sort of Ministers is it Dermot wants to have? Ones who primarily look out for business interests? Our system is becoming exclusive enough as it is where only people with expert economic credentials are allowed hold an opinion and have an input in to politics.

    • If it is the case that only economists have a say, then it is the media you have to blame for that.

      Despite the evidence of history, the media continue to trot economists out as if they have the one-true-insight.

      Economists forget that their subject is not a science, that their forecasts are based on assumptions of what will happen. What everyone should remember is that when an economist makes a statement in the media about what will happen it is a guess.

      The best example of the falibility of economists is the failure of the Long Term Capital Management firm in the 90s. It was headed up by a number of so-called “Nobel Prize winning Economists” who thought they had created a formula sophisticated enough to manage all risk – thereby providing them with a route to “long term capital growth”. They forgot their small print, in which their assumptions were buried. Unfortunately, their assumptions turned out to be unreliable, and their business collapsed, precipitating massive losses in the biggest failure between 1929 and this current slump.

      Economists are worth listening to, if we listen properly.

      The forecasts of “Nobel Prize winning Economists” are still guesses, and should be treated as such.

  5. How would anyone campaign for election? How would it work practically? The voters wouldn’t have a clue who you are, and we’d elect a bunch of semi-celebrities. The lines about social media etc in the document are a bit of a joke with no actual understanding of how campaigning works.

    At least with a list, people vote based on the parties overall message. This system seems to just be different for the sake of it.

  6. Hi David,

    I hope you don’t mind me posting a comment.

    When I interviewed a Maltese Minister(As you know Malta uses PR-STV to elect its MPs) about his view on constituency work he answered that MPs should not be ashamed of doing constituency work. Another Minister’s answer was ‘God forbids having a system where MPs are not required to do constituency work’. The constituency workload of Maltese MPs is only slightly less than that of TDs. This is mainly due to Maltese MPs being part-timers.

    One of the reason why turnout in Maltese elections is very high (over 90%) is because the system incentivizes a bond between the electorate and their representatives.

    If the electoral system (In Ireland or Malta) is reformed to one which discourage this bond, it is likely that turnout in elections will fall considerably.

  7. I for one do not want a list system. its more democracy we want not less. it amuses me that those who are calling for this system are all members of what we wee folk call either the establishment or the ruling elites.

  8. The present need for constituency work could just as easily be removed by having single seat constituencies (as in the UK) with TDs (unlike the UK) continuing to be elected by PR/STV. In this way TDs wouldn’t be competing against each other at local level but the elected TD would retain the local connection.

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