How can we stop our politicians kissing chickens?

David Farrell (February 20, 2011)

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.

29 thoughts on “How can we stop our politicians kissing chickens?

  1. David, you miss of the most interesting aspects of an open list system. It improves voter choice. There are candidates I have identified with but have never been able to vote for because I just happened to live in the wrong geographical area. Surely one way of creating national politicians is to allow candidates to win votes nationally. Not every voter is obsessed with a local man for the local area.

    • @Jason
      Fair enough. But my worry with the variant you propose (national open list: somethin thats not been tried before anywhere in the world) would be that you end up with presidential-style campaigning on a massive scale. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that there were say a third of the Dail seats to be elected this way – about 50 seats or so. First, these would all be awarded to small parties (because MMP requires that the top up seats correct the disproportionallities arise from the single-seat races). Second, the potential for large scale financial corruption (due to candidates needing to campaign on a national level for personal votes) would be immense.

  2. Well said, David. Especially the concluding paragraphs – politician’s incentives to act locally need to be changed by those that demand local action equally, if we agree that excessive localism is the problem.

  3. Good article David. It’s a pity though that just a few more countries don’t use PR-STV for parliamentary elections. We might then be able to conclusively rule out any particular peculiarities of our PR-STV setup. Am not sure one can really infer a lot either way from the constituency workload of part-time Maltese MPs (representing circa 6000 people per MP in comparison to our own 25000 and also in a very small parliament).

    You graph electoral systems using local/national and open/closed axes. Our PR-STV system and also open regional list systems would fall into the local/open part of the graph. National closed lists would lie on the opposite side of such a graph. And obviously there’s no great demand for electoral systems that are both local and closed. But one corner of the graph hasn’t been considered: national open electoral systems. I’ve wondered about this combination. There’d probably be practical difficulties implementing such a system. Maybe that’s why I can’t think of any actual examples. The very open Finnish list system with constituency magnitudes of up to 30 is about the closest I can think of. I guess there would be no great problem in using the Finnish open list system to elect 30 TDs here on a purely national basis. This would greatly dampen the localism you mention for the TDs involved. Of course this can’t be eliminated completely. But it allows TDs to garner support in other ways too. It doesn’t always have to be along purely geographical lines. Party control remains relatively weak. Parties still control who actually goes on their lists. But in the Finnish system the order of election within the list is purely determined by the voters.

    I wouldn’t like to see all TDs elected on such a national basis. Might not be a bad idea though if some were. But just 30 seems too low a number to be worth doing. Scaling this up to larger numbers could be problematic. How big could the Finnish system be practically pushed? 40 seats? 50 seats? The ideas regarding randomly assigned non-geographical constituencies, which were discussed on this site just last week and also several months ago, could be useful in this regard. One could easily envisage having two or three national 30 seat constituencies of this type.

    • Thanks Finbar. Interesting points. But see my response to Jason above. I’m not aware of any examples for national open list, and this is probably for the reason that such a system would run the risk of producing the worst kind of populist politics, and a political class that has to pander to moneyed interests to a frightening degree.

      • OK, the funding issue could be a serious flaw! Hadn’t occurred to me. Not sure if I’ve any answer to that. Perhaps intermediate sized regional constituencies as a compromise. But then constituency work is probably creeping back into these. But would be interesting to know what levels of constituency work a Finnish MP in a large magnitude electoral district would be doing. Of course political culture between here and there is also probably very different, which would also muddy the waters.

      • Or, alternatively, perhaps in 30 years time, when information technology has maybe advanced so far as to make virtual canvassing as easy and effective as going door to door nowadays, then perhaps something along the lines of Dermot Desmond’s recent radical 33 five seat non-geographical constituency idea will become practical and not too expensive. Technology has certainly come a long way in the last 30 years. But I think we’ll be waiting quite a while yet before that becomes feasible 🙂 But information technology and democracy will combine in some very interesting ways in the future no doubt.

  4. Single transferable vote in single member constituencies is not a misnomer – it’s just the AV system currently being considered in the UK. It’s less proportional than having multi-member seats (or a list system), but more than first past the post.

    I doubt very much that parties would run more than one candidate per constituency. With just one seat available, the benefits of pulling in personal votes would almost certainly be outweighed by the risk of losing transfers between the candidates.

    The reduction in party competition would certainly make a difference, but ultimately it’s down to people’s expectations – as you point out, even with a list system there’s a possibility of personal canvassing. It doesn’t matter if you keep the TDs away from your chickens – it’s what your neighbours do with theirs. Things are not going to change until the majority of Irish people notice that for TDs to turn up at funerals of people they’re not related to is … well, a bit creepy.

    • You may well be right Rodney about whether bigger parties might or might not run more than one candidate, but you can’t rule out preference funneling tactics (e.g. fielding ghost soulmate candidates to sweep in preferences) and in any event there would still be the usual inter-party rivavlry.

      I should have said that *PR* STV in single seat constituencies is a misnomer. Thanks for the correction.

  5. First point is that I agree entirely that the electoral system is not the problem here, despite some of the great and the good giving that opinion for years.

    I think we should describe our voting system as a regionally-based open list system, which it is, is it not? (I am sure to draw the corrections of political scientists for this use of language).

    But think about it. We, the electorate, are presented with a list of candidates which is open to ordering by us in any way we chose.

    Of course, we use a way of counting, which is more cost effective than say the two-round voting system used in France, for presidential and general elections.

    The next point is to consider the way the state – at both local and national level, including agencies of the state – goes about dealing with us as citizens.

    I am sure that there must be many studies/articles on the way the political/governing class has set up access to state services so that there is a wedge of elected representatives between us, citizens – from whom the authority and power of the state derives and our access to state services.

    For example, TDs have special numbers that they can ring if they have a social welfare question. Presumably this is used to effectively jump people up queue – in front of others who chose not to use the TDs to seek some service or other.

    Within the last year, I needed clarity on some issues. I decided to test the system without using TDs. On making phone calls, I was dealt with promptly and courteously. However, I felt I needed confirmation in writing, as I was advised to do by Citizens’ Information offices. However,it took three registered letters to get the personal information that I requested and to which I was entitled, without using Freedom of Information.

    I could give other examples – some based on my experience in residents’ associations and others of a personal nature.

    Am I alone in forming the view that the public service sees it roles as doing the most for the political class and the minimum for use citizens.
    Is this the result of
    1) the corporation sole nature of central government departments;
    2) the centralisation of power – through the control of money/budgets – in central government departments;
    3) the attempts by civil servants and state officials to silence informed critical comment of government policy, implementation and practice?

    On this last, just consider the newspaper report of a civil servant ringing some private sector economist’s superior to ask that the economist’s comments be either toned down or withdrawn.

    To what extent has our state become a corporate state, arising from the closed door nature of the social partnership process?

    Consider that it has been reported that the documentation backing up the awards made under benchmarking were destroyed. Why?

    I am afraid that we have to rebuilt our state, based on a civic republican ethos.

    This is not something that those advocating electoral ‘reform’ (usually in favour of voting systems that give more power to the centre) and ending localism have faced up to yet. Or if they have, they say nothing about it in public.

    Some of the many movements emerging from the current crisis do recognise some of this. But it is not clear to me that the political parties do.

  6. The STV system would work perfectly well if the people made their decision on how to vote in a national election on national issues – wouldn’t be far better to educate people to put their brains in gear before they vote?

    Because if people still vote for TDs based on who gets the grass cut or who gets them a passport, they were too stupid or too lazy to get themselves, then it won’t matter what the system in place is – it will still result in poor quality representatives.

  7. @Desmond FitzGerald

    Let those of us who see the need for political and institutional reform note Brecht’s comment on the 1953 uprising in what was then East Germany(aka DDR?)

    “Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?!”

  8. @David Farrell,

    An excellent antidote to some of the nonsense that’s being spouted, but, I fear it is too late in the day. With this focus on the electoral system what we’re seeing is displacement activity. The political factions wish to distract attention from what TDs actually do when they’re in the Dail by focusing on how they’re elected. And because any consideration of electoral reform opens up consideration of a multitude of options – and an eventual referendum – a glorious opportunity exists to kick political reform agenda into the long grass. And the media seem to have swallowed this hook, line and sinker. And the best recipe for stasis is to enforce “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – unintended consequences, you know, of partial reforms.”

    We’ll have some cosmetic reforms but the Machiavelli era Prince and his Council will continue to exercise excessive executive dominance – and will continue to exercise this in the interests of the Lords Mercantile (IBEC), the Lords of Travail (the unions), the Lords Mandarin and the Lords of Quangoland.

  9. Re the idea of combining open list with national constituencies, this is by no means impossible. Many list systems are neither completely closed nor completely open; rather, voters have greater or lesser degree of ability to alter the order of candidates drawn up by the party candidate selectors. In Slovakia, the whole country comprises one large constituency, and the lists are closer to the open end of the spectrum than the closed. Lithuania has an electoral system not so different from what FF is proposing for Ireland: half the MPs there are elected in single-member constituencies (the seat being filled by the two-round system, as in France), and the other half are elected from national lists, with voters being able to cast effective preference votes for individual candidates on the list.

    In any case, as David F points out, changing the institutions cannot be guaranteed to change behaviour. Israel employs national closed lists – no system could, we might think, be more strongly guaranteed to ensure that MPs are, for better or for worse, focused entirely on national-level politics and not on local matters. Yet, in practice, that doesn’t happen at all. With the lists being completely closed, what’s important for candidates is being placed in as high a position on the list as possible, and to that end MKs are very assiduous cultivators of the party membership, who decide the list order. Israeli MKs are second to none when it comes to tending to the grass roots and attending every barmitzvah they hear about, and indeed introducing ‘private bills’ directing more government spending on specific projects.

    • “changing the institutions cannot be guaranteed to change behaviour.”

      By institutions, do you mean the electoral system?

      If institutions consist of a set of values together with an organisation intended to serve them, I do believe that new institutions can change behaviour if different types of behaviours are rewarded/punished arising from changes in values and organisations.

      It will be interesting to see to what extent post-election studies show the extent, if any, a new set of values may have influenced the outcome.
      It may only be at a level of saying that we cannot achieve and maintain a sustainable standard of living by developing and selling property to one another.

  10. Has anybody considered the possibility of actually placing a legal ban on TDs making representations on behalf of individual constituents. This might seem a fairly drastic position to take, but if a constituent is entitled to something as a right, then why not apply a “canvassing will disqualify” clause to that entitlement. If, as is suggested in some other comments, that TDs have special access phone numbers, does this not imply a form of discrimination against those who seek their entitlements through normal channels ?. Obviously such a legal ban would have to accompanied by strenghtening of Citizens Information services, and a much improved delivery of public services in general.

    • It is quite possible for a record of what TDs contacted who/where and why can be published, with the cost to the taxpayer of all the useless paper and tasks generated. The names of constituents doesn’t need to be published so there’s no argument about confidentialty.

      The little stunt by Fine Gael on the teacher pension gives a little insight into how little the mindset of those in Leinster House now has changed – the pension issue should have been dealt with years ago and it begs the question of how many others are lining their pockets in the same way – not to mention the fact FG doesn’t seem to have any problem with the current government all keeping the outrageous pensions they have given themselves. If pensioners and people on the dole and on carer allowances can have their income cut there is nothing stopping a new FG government capping all pensions of politcians at €60k.

      Will it happen? Will Leo the lion direct his fire at Oireachtas waste before he takes aim at widows and those with special needs – unlikely.

      Separating the council level from national level politics is the major task.

      The policies on local government reform from all the parties are pretty weak though.

  11. Surely we assume that the voter is a rational agent. He/she has the freedom to choose whom to vote for and STV is one of the better ways of giving effect to any vote. Our problem lies with the political culture and not the voting system.

  12. Hi David,

    A small bone to pick with this (not from a kissed chicken…). Fianna Fáil’s document doesn’t actually say “PR-STV in ‘single-seat constituencies,” it just says “STV in ‘single-seat constituencies’” (ie, “single-seat constituencies elected through the system of single transferable vote”). STV where DM = 1 is still STV (it’s also AV), but it’s not PR, pace Article 12.2.3 which requires the President of the Republic of Ireland to be elected using “the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote.”

    Also, while Scotland and Wales are not quite nations in the same sense as Bolivia, Germany, Venezuela and NZ, they do have their own World Cup teams, unlike Bavaria, so perhaps they should be included.

    • Hi Tom. Yes, my error was already spotted in an earlier comment. You’re right, providing the letters ‘PR’ don’t appear then it’s perfectly ok to refer to STV in single seat constituencies’. So, FF are correct whereas a.12.2.3 isn’t.

      • [… Now that shows the folly of saving a blog webpage to disk, composing a reply in Word, and pasting it in hours later. Not only does it make one miss the ebb and flow of debate, but what use the spell-checker if it mistakes “campion” for “champion”! From now on I’m back to posting stream-of-consciousness replies typed in the white heat of the moment…]

      • I just wish people would stop canllig our present parliamentary election system first past the post. In the vast majority (no pun intended as the word isn’t really applicable) of cases it actually means NEAREST the post certainly in terms of 50% of the votes cast in most constituencies. In other words most people get an MP they didn’t vote for and the country gets a government it didn’t vote for (voted AGAINST in fact) and which acts as if it had a proper mandate.

  13. Enid Lakeman famously derided “PR in single-seat constituencies” as a contradiction in terms (“like saying ‘a single-person marriage'”), but there it is, in black letters in the Bunreacht na hEireann, and even if the “proportional representation” bit has to be construed imaginatively, the “single transferable vote” part can be applied literally.

    (One might rather unkindly compare the inclusion of the words “proportional representation” in Article 12.2.3 to the apocryphal US State legislature that tried to legislate that pi = 3.000. I prefer to liken it more to section 26 of the New South Wales Constitution Act 1902,[*] inserted in 1926 by that world-renowned campion of intra- and inter-party democracy, Premier Jack Lang. Lang and his beefy blue-singleted mates at Sussex Street thought they were entrenching (as the non-binding heading to Section 26 puts it) “Single-member electorates”, but what they in fact did succeed in entrenching was single-electorate Members.
    [*] “Each Member of a Legislative Assembly shall be elected to represent one electoral district only.”

  14. Hello all.

    Before I go any further, I’m a Politics graduate who stood in the election on (amongst various other issues) an electoral reform mandate.

    I do like the debate here, and it is foolish to think that changing the electoral system is a “one stop shop” for political reform, no doubt about that, but there are a few notions being thrown around here that are somewhat in error, and a few things being overlooked.


    Comparative electoral systems;
    This is one area of political science that is fairly well developed, and the only mathematical formulae you ever learn in a politics Ba. You can look it up. It says a few things about the number of parties you get, the level of proportionality and so forth. It also has distinct reactions to total population. I’ll say that again, TOTAL POPULATION is a factor in the analysis of electoral systems, along with representation levels per 1,000 of the population and so forth. Thusly, it’s an easy mistake to make to think that adopting a German system here will give us German style politics, but it won’t. You are as well to start with similar sized countries rather than similar style election systems to get good comparisons.

    Secondly, STV and proportionality. Let’s get this clear, Not all STV systems are equal. Particularly not in terms of Proportionality. David Farrell’s document (linked from another post on this blog) uses a Proportionality vs voter choice style graphic and applies STV a single position in this chart. But the truth is, Tasmania’s STV system with minimum 5 seat constituencies produces much more proportional results than ours. Not one of the last three FF led governments of this country attracted more than 36 or 37% of the eligible voters of this country, and that is bad for democracy. 3 seat constituencies are not proportional, when you have more of them than you do 5 seaters, you are in trouble.

    Turnout; Our system one of the lowest turn outs of any democracy in western Europe. Depending on how many countries you compare against, (and obviously these comparisons are fraught with difficulty for many reasons) we are last or in the bottom three all the time. Low proportionality breeds low turnout. So does Friday voting.

    I could go on and on, so I’ll cut to the chase. Pointing out that electoral reform alone will not do the job is an intelligent and astute observation, and critically analysing the “chattering classes” way of thinking is a laudable activity.
    Denouncing electoral reform because it’s not a “one stop shop” and running off to find some other “one stop shop” or ideologically superior moral high horse is not laudable. Or electoral system has got problems, low turnout being in my opinion the worst, both as symptom and cause.

    STV may be workable, may even be the best electoral system for Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need looked at.

    3 seat constituencies need to go for a start, 5 seats minimum I say, and Weekend voting. Just because they are not huge ground breaking changes does not mean they don’t matter.

    And as for list systems, well, I am in favour, but lets not let that sway astute judgement. And lets keep comparisons to countries with no more than say 13 or 14 million persons, and economic per capita output on something of a similar range to ourselves, + or – 30% or 40% or so lets say. It rules out a lot of places with the electoral system you might want to argue for, but leaves you looking at similar (ish) countries.

    Thank you all for your time.

    Niall Smith

Leave a Reply to David Farrell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s