Is electoral reform off the agenda?

Post by David Farrell (September 17, 2011)

Today’s Irish Times editorial draws attention to the preliminary findings from the Irish National Election Study (reported here) that Irish citizens appear to hold a very different view to most of our party leaders (and most prominent media commentators) about our single transferable vote electoral system. 

In the last election, all the talk was of electoral reform, with many of the parties setting out what they wanted for their shining new electoral system.  The view was that we needed an electoral system that would reduce the excessive constituency emphasis of our TDs and ministers; that we should tone down the over-emphasis on what is often referred to as ‘constituency linkage’.

Based on the INES data, most Irish citizens would appear to disagree. They actually quite like having TDs who live in their constituency and carry out constituency work on their behalf: in short Irish citizens would appear to want current levels of constituency linkage to continue.

Are our political leaders in danger of being out of step with the citizens on this matter? Possibly so, though in fairness, we shouldn’t over-emphasize the findings of this one-off snapshot survey of Irish citizens. The respondents were not given an opportunity to reflect on the implications of their answers, to inform themselves of the complexities of the issues being raised, of the trade-offs that might underlie them.  It’s possible that with more information and an opportunity to debate and deliberate opinions might shift on this matter.

It’s interesting to see how Ireland’s debate compares with international trends. Comparative research shows (for a sample, see here [scroll down to panel 26]) that in recent years the tendency in many countries has been to make reforms that, if anything, increase the constituency linkage, to make electoral systems more ‘personalized’. Were Ireland to make the electoral reforms called for by many of our leading politicians and commentators then we’d be going against this trend.

The editorial in today’s Irish Times reflects a wider sense of concern that political reform seems to have gone off the boil of late.  Six months into office and apart from the low hanging fruit of relatively minor reforms (see here for a summary), the recent announcement of the Abbeylara referendum (discussed here) and the odd nod and wink about bigger things to come (note the vague references to promised announcements after the presidential election) the reform agenda is starting to show worrying signs of dissipating.  We can only hope that it picks up again.

10 thoughts on “Is electoral reform off the agenda?

  1. “… we shouldn’t over-emphasize the findings of this one-off snapshot survey of Irish citizens. The respondents were not given an opportunity to reflect on the implications of their answers, to inform themselves of the complexities of the issues being raised, of the trade-offs that might underlie them. It’s possible that with more information and an opportunity to debate and deliberate opinions might shift on this matter.”

    Seriously? Come on! “The people didn’t answer the questions the way we’d like them to, so maybe if we tell them the answers they’re not educated enough to give, they might answer the correct way the next time around.” What kind of élitism is this? not to mention, where have I heard this condescension before?

    I have come to expect a higher level of content from this blog, not to mention greater respect for the electorate.

  2. Very interesting how wedded the Irish electorate appears to be to localism/clientalism. Personally, I find these results quite depressing.
    Are the 2011 survey results available publicly (ie apart from the IT report?) and if so, where they can be found?

    • I too find one aspect of this report depressing namely that Prof Marsh has not posted the preliminary results of the INES study here.

      Apart from that, I find the following result (as reported by Stephen Collins) encouraging – contrary to your view!
      “On the question of reforming the political system, there is strong support for reducing the number of TDs and abolishing the Seanad. There is also some support for a greater separation of the legislature from the executive.”

      Strong Support for two things
      1) Reducing the number of TDs could be a step in reducing local influences. Less TDs spread over wider areas could mean a dilution of the very local!
      2) Abolishing the Senate could also have the same effect. Less people in Leinster House “working the constituency”. But then the present Government has not that on the list of items for our consideration in the forthcoming referenda. Yet more delay on the programmes the governing parties have presented us with.

      “Some support for a greater separation of the legislature from the executive” This is a “new” idea that the political pundits rarely comment on – as many of them prefer to focus on elections.

      Other encouraging things may emerge from INES if the report is accurate “The study found that a significant number of people have engaged in making representations to their politicians, with community and personal motives being roughly equal as the major reasons prompting representations.

      There is a general satisfaction with the kind of service provided by politicians.

      Party loyalty is regarded as the least important attribute in a politician and speaking up for the area they represent the most important.”

      What is encouraging about this is that the proper response from the governing classes should be more real power and responsibility being set at local levels.
      Most of our daily lives take place in localities. For this, we need good transport facilities/services, the services provided by utilities for light/heat/power/public health (eg. water services, refuse disposal), a variety of distribution/service providers accessible from well run and attractive public spaces.

      Now that our central government system has clearly failed, it is time to both recast it – in various ways. This government shows little appetite for the kinds of changes needed eg.
      1) keeping ESB as a vertically integrated utility in order to sell in part, initially. ESB has long ceased to be part of the family silver – as Brendan Ogle indicated;
      2) NAMA using our money to try to put a floor under property prices, before any other reforms of the property markets (eg. price transparency, implementing the Kenny report). This is a return to the cast-of-mind that got us into the kind of economic and fiscal crisis in which we find ourselves. What is worse is that the same cast of mind resulted in similar very damanging crises in the 1970s.80s;
      3) the slow approach to reforming the costs of professional services compared with the speed of reducing the lower paid parts of the labour markets.

      IMO, those of us who advocate the exploration/fleshing out/development and discussion of options – with a view to fundamental changes in our way of governing ourselves – can take some encouragement from these aspects of the results that have been reported.
      The governing classes are surely offended that people want to hang onto to the existing electroal system – one of those things what we used quite well during the period 1969-2002 – when we did not once re-elect an outgoing government.

  3. @Ciarán Mc Mahon,

    I suspect that any evidence in the post that prompted your perception of elitism is prompted by some disappointment in these parts that the ‘wethecitizens’ initiative which sought to advance aspects of ‘deliberative democracy’ seems to have out of steam.

    These sorts of initiatives may provide an enjoyable distraction from the hard grinding of making the institions we have work better to serve citizens, but they can leave a very empty feeling when they fizzle out.

    My sense is that the poll responses reported present extremely rational behaviour by citizens. The are, quite rightly, very jealous of their right to decide who governs at elections, but once the election is over and a Taoiseach has been elected by the Dail, they seem quite happy to let the government then formed to get on with it. The fact that TDs are expected to tend the grassroots means that any popular unease about specfic polices or executive actions will be communicated up the ranks very quickly. This should help to keep governments in line and the desire to be re-elected provides another discipline. This may be one reason why voters like to have TDs paying close attentionto thier concerns and interests at the local level.

    Most people may not be too aware of concepts like ‘executive dominance’ or an ‘underempowered parliament’, but they know only too well how the system works. The extent of executive dominance and the centralisation of power means that government can generally ensure the enactment of whatever legislation they desire, but they cannot rely completely on the unquestioning loyalty of backbench members of the governing factions. A pretty full measure of loyalty is assumed, but this needs to be rewarded on a reasonably regular basis. So TDs can expect some benefits or redress for individuals or groups within their constituencies in exchange for their loyalty. And since most decisions are made at the centre, these ‘favours’ may be dispensed by government. And this may be another reason why voters like to have attentive local TDs because most decisions of any importance are made ‘ip in Dublin’ – despite the bit of nonsensical acentralisation that has taken place.

    And since they seem to use TDs for these two important tasks – communicating their concerns and interests to government and extracting redress and benefits from government – they quite like these multi-seat constituencies which allow them to choose their TDs from among and within parties or outside them if they so desire. Competition is the life of trade.

    So, despite the mess previous governments have made, it appears that most voters are reluctant to change very much. Very few governments in the rest of the EU emerged smelling of roses from the crisis. Our government ponged a bit more than most. And, so, they bided their time until they had their chance and gave FF and the Greens a severe kicking that was probably commensurate to the mess they had facilitated. There also seems to be a relatively widespread, resigned acceptance that more external governance may be necessary – perhaps not as intense as that currently being provided by the Troika, but some more from the EU that might be mediated by government might not be too unacceptable.

    So even if, at the level of high policy and regulation, the system might be broken, the resulting mess is being cleaned up by the new government under external direction. And some form of external direction is likely to continue so a similar mess is unlikely to occur in the future. So why change the system to fix something that is extremely unlikely to happen. And in terms of what most voters want out of government the existing system seems to work quite well.

    There seems to be little unease about the growth, power and lack of accountability of the government machine behind the government and the proliferation of quangos, but it appears that anything that might get between them and their TDs or between their TDs and government will be rejected forcefully.

    For centuries irish people were forced to cope with external governance. Quite understandably, they seem to place great value on being able to decide who governs them – something that was secured only 90 years ago. They do not seem to be unduly concerned about the overall quality and nature of governance – once there is a mechanism to extract some benefits or to secure redress. By and large, TDs provide this mechanism.

    Those who long for an active citizenry keenly scrutinising governance – and ensuring this governance is scrutinised properly- between elections will have a long wait. We will have to wait until TDs realise that the balance of thier interests might favour a more empowered Oireachtas to provide them with career opportunities under than the very slim chance of finding thier feet under the cabinet table.

    • If we had the full report of the INES study, we might learn what people said they want, within the framework of the design the researchers set.

  4. The results of this survey tell me two things. The people don’t trust politicians so they want fewer of them and they don’t have confidence in them to reform the system. Simple.

    • Simple, yes.
      But it ain’t easy to bring the kinds of checks and balances that could give us the means to trust and verify.
      We, who own the power of the state, delegate that power to successively smaller groups through the elections
      Those elected ie. the incumbent politicians, have the power to reform our way of governing ourselves.
      those of us who want political and institutional reform have a lot of work to do.

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