Early in the campaign I happened on a radio story in which the intrepid reporter was following a sitting TD on his election canvass. Everywhere the politician went he met with a positive reaction from his constituents. The basis of the whole story was that this was a politician in tune with his electorate, a popular constituency worker. As I switched off he was visiting a farm and kissing a chicken. No, this is not a typo; it wasn’t the proverbial child being kissed – the candidate kissed a chicken.
The second radio episode I heard a few days later was a report about one voter who had taken it upon himself to print posters and purchase local newspaper ads warning candidates not to bother knocking on his door looking for votes. Before my reform-inclined juices could start flowing, I learned to my dismay that the reason for this voter’s anger was not that there was too much contact by politicians, but rather that there wasn’t enough. He was annoyed that none of the politicians had knocked on his door since the last election.
We can all come up with our own examples of the phenomenon of excessive localism that defines Irish politics – probably best personified by the image of TDs chasing funeral hearses. There is no shortage of newspaper columns and posts on blogs like this calling for an end to this style of politics. All are agreed on the problem: where there is disagreement is over the proposed solutions.
Last Wednesday we launched our political reform scorecard. The room was peppered with prominent journalists lining up to hear the results of our analysis of the parties’ political reform proposals. In the Q&A that followed we were probed about our methodology. RTE’s David Daven-Power asked how we coded the various party proposals to reform our electoral system. The answer – we didn’t. There was a universal gasp from the assembled journalists, and a series of follow on questions laden with incredulity demanding to know why not – to which we responded because it wouldn’t work.
Evidently our explanation was not persuasive (as reflected in much of the news coverage that followed). How could we naïve, dozy academics not understand the importance of replacing PR-STV with some bright new electoral system that will end the excessive localism of Irish politics?
As regulars to this blog will know the political science consensus is that electoral reform will not fix the problem of excessive localism. Rather than rehearse the argument in detail again (see here for a reminder of the main points), let me simply pick on one party’s proposals to illustrate the main point – Fianna Fáil’s proposal for a mixed-member proportional system (the German system):
specifically, we support a mixed system of single-seat constituencies elected through the system of single transferable vote and a top-up national list which will ensure proportional representation. This system is found in many countries including Germany and involves using a national list of candidates from which representatives will be elected to balance underrepresentation which would emerge in the constituencies.
Apart from the inevitable errors in fact – the sweeping statement that this system is found in many countries, when in fact there are just four countries that use it (Bolivia, Germany, New Zealand and Venezuela), or the mistaken reference to Germany using national list top-up where it actually uses regional lists, or the misnomer of PR-STV in ‘single-seat constituencies’ – would this fix the problem?
It would certainly produce some quirky outcomes, such as the point that all the single-seat constituencies would be won by candidates of the large parties leaving the list seats for the smaller parties. (Just such a thing happened in Wales when they adopted this system for their assembly elections: Labour won virtually all the constituency seats and the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru were awarded the top-up seats.)
And what about solving the problem of excessive localism?
• The TDs elected in the single-seat constituencies would still need to chase preference votes: the same old canvassing for number 1s, number 2s, etc. would continue; the same fear of competition, including from running mates (because the larger parties would run more than one candidate to sweep up transfers).
• There would also be competition between the constituency TDs and the list TDs, both of whom would be representing the same sets of voters (i.e. in my Dublin Clonskeagh constituency I could approach my constituency TD to have my drains fixed or if I prefer I could approach those list TDs with offices in or near my area).
• And as for the list TDs there are one of two possible scenarios. Either we have ‘closed lists’ (such as in Spain) in which the parties rank order the candidates or we have ‘open lists’ (such as in Finland) in which the voters can determine the order by which list candidates are elected. If we opt for the latter then we’re back to the scenario of candidates seeking personal votes to move up the list rankings, we’re back to the scenario of candidates chasing funeral hearses and kissing chickens to attract every possible preference vote. But the alternative of closed lists isn’t much better, because now we’re in a game in which candidates need to make themselves as popular as possible among the ranks of the party members so as to increase their prospect of being ranked highly: hearses will still be chased and chickens kissed, only now it will be the hearses and chickens of party members.
I could make much the same set of criticisms of the alternative electoral systems being proposed by the other parties.
So, if electoral reform is not the solution, what is to be done to reduce the culture of excessive localism in Irish politics? There are things that could be done to try and reduce the demand for this sort of behaviour from our politicians, such as strengthening local government or improving the interface between key public sector departments and citizens.
But much more fundamentally the change needs to come from each one of us: we’re the ones who should force the change in politicians’ behaviour.
• The next time one of us has a broken drain, or a pension problem we should think twice about picking up the phone to our local TD or dropping by a TD’s clinic.
• The next time one of us is in the awful situation of a family bereavement we should tell the locals TDs that they’re not welcome at the funeral.
• The next time a TD comes into our farm we should tell him to step away from the chickens.