A political system friendly to independents but not to new parties

jfoley11aEvery day there is some opinion piece or other speculating about the possibility of a new political party emerging in Ireland. Journalistic eyes are peeled, watching every movement, signal or nuance from the likes of Lucinda Creighton, Michael McDowell, or any other obvious contenders seen as most likely to lead the way in establishing a new party. But how our political system is set up makes life very difficult for ambitious individuals aspiring to establish a new party. By contrast, it’s very easy for ambitious individuals wanting to run for office as independents.

In Ireland the stakes are set against new parties. As Joe O’Toole’s piece in today’s Irish Times (here) sets out so well, Ireland’s political funding regime is designed to privilege the insiders (the established political parties) over the outsiders (potential new parties). State funding is given only to those parties that have fought a successful election campaign. Meanwhile state regulations of fundraising are designed to prevent large donations from wealthy benefactors – the sort of individuals likely to want to support a new party – but are blind to well-organised extensive fundraising of small amounts of money (raffles, etc.) that existing parties with well-established branch networks do so well.

This is a wonderful example of the ‘cartel party’ system that Richard S Katz and the late Peter Mair wrote about in a seminal paper published almost twenty years ago (here), a system designed to protect and nest-feather the established cartel of parties while erecting barriers to entry for any likely new parties.

The party cartel is by no means unique to Ireland. But it is skewed more than most to making life difficult for new parties while making life very easy for independents. Certainly we have less new parties than other countries and many more independents. Since 1932 a mere 14 new parties have been elected to the Dáil, most of these surviving for a few parliamentary sessions before disbanding, merging with established parties, or facing electoral annihilation. According to a comparative ranking over time of new parties in West European countries Ireland is consistently placed towards the bottom of the pack (for more, see here).

But we’re top of the pack when it comes to the numbers of independents we elect. Every Dáil since the foundation of the state has had at least one independent TD in its ranks and generally a far greater number (the current Dáil has the largest number since the early 1950s). According to Liam Weeks: ‘there have been 50 percent more independents elected to the Dáil since 1945 than the combined total in the other select democracies using a candidate-centred electoral system’ (see here).

Our political system is an important factor in understanding why Ireland is, yet again, an outlier from international norms.

Electoral system
In the first instance, the electoral system – and especially how its principal features have evolved over time – places independents at an advantage. The use of proportional representation should in principle favour the entry of new parties; however, Ireland’s PR by the single transferable vote (STV) is a candidate centred system that functions just as easily without parties as with them, which gives ambitious individuals a route to a parliamentary career without needing the support of a party apparatus.

It’s not just the fact of STV but also its form that plays some role here. Unlike most other variants of STV in use (see here), in Ireland the candidates are listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order thus focusing maximum attention on the individual candidate first with party-affiliation second. Add to this the inclusion since 2001 of candidate photographs together with the fact that independent candidates are designated as ‘non-party’ and it is hard to think of an electoral system more suited to the rise of independent politicians.

Party funding
Our funding regime also has a role to play in several respects. First the rules relating to candidature have been greatly relaxed. In the past all Dáil candidates had to pay a deposit (under certain conditions some still do – amounting to €500 currently), which would only be returned to them providing they exceeded a minimum vote threshold. Under legislative changes in 1991 that threshold was reduced. It was effectively removed as a barrier altogether by a High Court judgment in 2002. Since then non-party candidates need only provide the signatures of 30 constituents. Thus, one of the core determinants of ‘ballot access’ has been greatly eased in recent years making it extremely easy for independent candidates to put themselves forward for election.

An even more significant issue is the imbalance in allocation of state funding of parties as set out so clearly in Joe O’Toole’s article. But one aspect he doesn’t cover is the ‘party leaders’ allowance’, which in 2001, as a quid quo pro for independent support for the government of the day was extended to all independents, so that today each and every independent TD receives an annual party leaders’ allowance of over €41,000 – this despite the fact that they each leads a party of one. While steps are being taken to regulate the use of this allowance more carefully in the future (see here), it is set to continue.

Between our quirky electoral system and our skewed regulation of party funding we have the perfect conditions for independents to flourish while any chance for a new party just withers on the vine.

4 thoughts on “A political system friendly to independents but not to new parties

  1. This piece suggests that the apparent existence of barriers to the emergence of new political parties is a bad thing; and infers implicitly that the emergence of new political parties would be a good thing. No evidence is produced to support these contentions – perhaps because there is very little supporting evidence and much that would lead to rejecting them.

    In the advanced economies and democracies, the fundamental politiical debate is about the role and functions of the state relative to those of markets and private enterprise and about how conflicts between various interest groups are resolved. It is increasingly the case that it is impossible to insert a cigarette paper between the positions on these issues of the high commands of any pair of the three or four mainstream parties (whether in government or opposition) in most advanced economies. Any differences are confected and designed to shore up tribal support. A mainstream managerial consensus has emerged that has been suborned to a considerable extent by the corporate capitalist elites (both global and national). (We can look at FG/Lab/FF in Ireland, Tory/Lab/Lib Dem in Britain, CDU-CSU/SPD/FDP in Germany and similar combinations in many other EU member-states.)

    Ireland presents its own idiosyncracies due to the lingering tribal echoes of the Civil War, the emergence of gently competing middle class centre-right and centrist elites and the growing success of rent-seeking, influential special interests.

    It is true that voters in other countries who are dissatisfied with this ‘mainstream consensus’ tend to vote for alternative, smaller parties, and this does not seem to be the case in Ireland. They tend to vote for independents who might then form informal parliamentray groups or associate cautioulsy and cunningly with those from the political gene-pool from which they sprung. But the focus tends to be more on local issues and seeking to raise these on the national stage. This is a function of the general irrelevance of local government to most voters, excessive execuitve dominance and the excessive centralisation of government and its apparatus.

    The mainstream consensus is due to experience a major shake-up throughout the EU. The impact will vary from country to country, with much less impact in the well-governed norhern EU states. Unfortunately in the less well-governed states it is the forces of xenophobic, populist, chauvinistic nationalism that are leading the charge. In this context, Ireland, fortunately will continue to be an outlier and maintain its own idiosyncratic dysfunctional systems of misgovernance. Most Irish voters are very, very slow learners.

  2. David Farrell, how different is Ireland’s STV, electing plenty of independants, from Northern Ireland’s STV, which elects one? Sure, the financial barriers may be set up in a less pro-party fashion, but no serious person is under threat of a €500 cheque, which won’t translate in votes anyway. The biggest difference remains that N.I. has regularly squared constituencies, electing 6 members each, while Ireland has between 3 to 5. That shouldn’t mean a big difference, but it does, because a party, per etymology, is a part, a fraction. And a fraction of 3 is not the same as a fraction of 5, that means the ideological discourse that spans 20% of the population will need good transfers in a small constituency ; if a party spans 40% of the population, then it will need a good canvassing in a big constituency, or else lose votes to more specific candidates. All in all, that makes the system very difficult to organize from the top. One measure too general or too specific might contradict a local candidate. Independants sneak in.
    At least that’s what it looks like from my non-American, British, Irish p.o.v. I just look at the data.

    STV produces yin-yang party platforms, because of the transfers ( although they do have a main color, as shown with their pre-defined positions and whips ). It would be interesting to see whether in N.I. those transfers aren’t somehow . . . stereotyped. In N.I. they are reproducing 18 times the same STV election as we could say that England reproduces 500+ times its FPTP, only the electorate structure differs. When the national party discourse spans 1 more % of the people (by putting forward a measure), the harvest is more predictible and I believe some analysts made equations off it (some US/UK media proposed to simulate the district color by sliding the national result. For Ireland the job is unrealistic or painful!).

    Paul Hunt has spotted this ‘corporate capitalist elite’ consensus (I would include the State as part of the plan), and that therefore the access to parliament isn’t the issue, STV is actually preferrable to PR or FPTP, because it better canvasses the population – so long as one doesn’t want to get rid of managerial politics.

    But if the Greek-Latin states are wrecked because they were not prepared to compete in a worldwide free-market, the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries have a different weakness : their nation-state is supposedly more homogenous.

    If you look closely, you’ll see the xenophobic movement is not Southern at all – neither Spain nor Portugal have xenophobic parties ; France is choking them with the two-round system and the media tycoons ; whereas the far-right sprouts in Nordic, German- and Dutch- speaking countries. It doesn’t in Slavic countries, which also happen to have escaped third-world immigration.
    Xenophobia is spreading to Ireland for a reason, namely that people never elected a majority to include as Irish people tens of thousands from the world’s most wretched communities every year, although one might wonder the extent to which it will be out loud. Empathy-laden media stories and snobbish disdain for the ‘prejudiced’ populace do not make up for the actual change in life and in meaning of politics as a whole. The tide will turn when the Irish will admit that Sinn Féin is run through today’s marxism, therefore absolutely committed to fight anything spontaneous just to increase government dependency, deliberately not distinguishing the spontaneous from the unfair. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yJ87y7BR80&list=PLMhlcEdAQFSXeySw7q5yknMRPlYA8Ev-_&index=4 That the Irish were almost all from the same ethnicity, organized in families and then towns united under a common moral guideline, was producing a despicable natural order.

  3. I think the funding issue a red herring. It may have been true in the past but with modern mass media I don’t think it’s ever been easier to set up a party. The problem isn’t setting up the party, it’s who wants to set it up. The people spoken of as being involved in such a party have nothing new to bring to the table and there is a very simple test to prove that and as always it comes back to money.

    Not one of the elected people on this or that group who might jump ship publish receipts for the expenses they claim, or audited accounts of how they funded their election campaigns.

    If Lucinda Creighton and her husband, seeing as they seem to be the driving force, really want to prove they have something different to offer, other than the fact they refused to implement the decision of the people from a referendum and proved they put their interests above the country (some change there)

    But with regard to money, there is no reason why a new party can’t set up a website with a pay pal link and ask 200,000 to take a leap of faith and sign up to donate €5 per month and be free to stop it any time. It would be easy to spread the word via facebook, twitter and other media.

    I’d be more interested to see the media challenge all the new TDs and Senators from the last election pushed harder on why they have been no different to the ones they replaced.

    I don’t think Ireland needs another new party, it needs a completely different mindset in the sort of people who put themselves up for election and a change in attitude from people who are casting votes.

  4. Hi friends!
    “A new idea of government will little by little spread from [Russia], which will completely revolutionize Europe, Asia, the Far East…” – Louis Hamon (1866-1936)
    Unipolar political systems and forms of government on the principle of “the one is the winner, the rest are the losers” are defective* and unjust from the start and will never be able to bring freedom, peace and stable equilibrium to a society.
    A new, multipolar democratic government comprising several independent parties, permanently motivated by competition for interests and votes of voters and with a movable centre of joint decisions, would put an end to discord and would bring society together. The President isn’t present more.
    “A new political system as a real Democratic Revolution.”

    PS: New political parties are the necessary catalyst and a source of updating!

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