If people want change in Ireland, they can get it at the ballot box

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 11th February 2020

As part of a series on the experiences of voters in the Irish 2020 election, we wanted to speak with voters who have voted with Ireland’s STV system and under Westminster’s First Past the Post system. David is a lawyer who has lived and worked in London and Dublin. He is now living in Dublin and works remotely to London.

I voted in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections in the UK, and in Ireland in the 2020 general election. Here’s my experience of voting under both First Past the Post in the UK, and with the proportional Single Transferable Vote in Ireland.

In 2010 I was living in Hampstead, and voted Lib Dem. As it happened the result was extremely close 3-way. Given that the resulting government was a coalition, which was something I was used to from Ireland, I thought it was a positive result. But the experience was still extremely limited, as my only action was to place a tick in a box.

In 2015 I was living in Pinner, voting Labour. The constituency was an incredibly safe Conservative seat. To be honest, I voted only out of principle, as in reality my vote carried almost no weight.

The dispiriting feeling I had, under the UK system, was that due to the inertia built into the single-seat constituency majorities, and the binary choice across the political spectrum, even if I wished for change, it was too hard to see how it could be obtained.

Incremental change isn’t possible, as the majorities were so large, and large-scale change simply meant a flip to the other large party. The single seat constituencies meant that minor parties cannot get a foothold, so the Greens, UKIP etc. could not progress. From my decade or so living in the UK, the general feeling I got was apathy and disenfranchisement. I never met a candidate – I lived above an MP, but it wasn’t his constituency – and the campaigning was sporadic.

In Ireland, the election process, and the campaigning, feels much more dynamic.

In the lead-up to the Irish General Election, I was canvassed by one current TD at my doorstep, and two other candidates out and about. I live in a constituency with five seats, and the elected TDs match the constituency profile much more closely than the simple UK system. I voted last Saturday in the Irish general election and got to exercise my preference all the way down to #16 on the voting sheet.

The five TDs elected were from parties across the spectrum; a centrist/centre-right ‘broad church’ TD (Fianna Fáil), two centre-left TDs (Sinn Féin, Green Party), a centre-right TD (Fine Gael) and a centre-left/left TD (Labour Party). The candidate in sixth place, narrowly missing out on a seat, was a member of “Independents 4 Change”, a left-wing socialist grouping. When one stands back, this return for a constituency reflects the voters much more accurately than five smaller constituencies each electing a single politician.

How did the system affect campaigning and the election debates? For one, it means that small parties, and independents, have a chance to get elected, so there is a space for single-issue and minority candidates. It also tends to act to counterbalance any tendencies towards extremism, much as we see in the US and sadly the UK, as those parties that seek to occupy extreme positions tend to leave fertile central ground which can be filled by other candidates. Ireland feels more engaged with its democratic process than the UK, particularly when one steps outside the Westminster bubble.

If there is a crisis in Ireland, and people want a change, they can realise that change in a much nimbler manner; for instance, in the current election, housing/homelessness and the health system were the two key topics. People appear to have voted both as a protest to the current parties on their dealing with the crises in these two policy areas, and from a feeling of stagnation of the existing political order.

And what’s the outcome? A massive upheaval in the Irish political landscape, Sinn Fein breaking through in a big way (all the more impressive given they performed quite poorly in the 2019 local and European elections). I don’t like Sinn Féin, to put it mildly, but I’m strangely proud of a system that, at least to date, seems to be resistant to online interference. The system has delivered what the voters wanted, which appears to be a three-way tie for the largest parties, some decent showing for the other parties, and a large group of independents.

Whether the parties can now deliver a government is another point, and we may well end up back at the polls, but there is no concern that the system hasn’t delivered the wishes of the citizens. Despite some of the more hyperbolic and inaccurate takes on the success of Sinn Féin, and what that represents, it’s obvious that many moderate voters must have given their vote to Sinn Féin for the first time, and Sinn Féin must now engage with those more voters to seek to deliver on their mandate in a sober fashion.

No system is without its drawbacks, but the Irish system of the Single Transferable Vote feels several orders of magnitude better than First Past the Post at Westminster. One statistic that stayed with me, after my 2015 vote in the UK general election, was that parties like the Greens and UKIP received a combined 16%+ of the total votes yet obtained just two MPs together. The Lib Dems obtained 8% of the vote and got 8 seats – and they were still under-represented. Such things are a feature, not a bug, of the FPTP system – and I imagine the disenfranchisement was a component of the 2016 referendum.

Ireland’s system means your vote matters, no matter where you live in the country. In contrast, First Past the Post makes you feel your vote has a mutable impact, depending on your postcode. It is an issue of vibrancy compared to stagnation.

Have you voted in elections in both the Republic of Ireland and the UK? Get in touch: ers@electoral-reform.org.uk

Photo: Creative Commons Attribution Licence, William Murphy, Flickr

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