As part of a series on the experiences of voters in the Irish 2020 election, we wanted to speak with people who have voted with Ireland’s STV system and under Westminster’s First Past the Post system.
Nessa Johnston is a lecturer in Media at Edge Hill University. We spoke to her about how it felt to vote and be represented under the different systems – the Single Transferable Vote in Ireland and First Past the Post in the UK.
In all the constituencies I’ve lived in the UK, I’ve never felt my vote has truly mattered.
When I first voted in the UK I lived in Bournemouth in what was, and still is, a safe Conservative seat, and I knew that my vote wouldn’t change that. Right now, I live in Liverpool, in one of the safest Labour seats in the country.
So my experience of voting in the UK has always been feeling that my individual vote wouldn’t make much difference. I often used my vote as a sort of protest, or voted on principle rather than thinking that my candidate had any real chance of getting into Parliament. I definitely feel the system affects how I engage with the whole electoral process.
In Ireland, it’s different.
When I voted back in Dublin, my first preference was for the Green Party. They’re a minor party, getting just 2.7% of the vote in the 2016 election. That rose to 7% at this election and they now have twelve TDs [members of Ireland’s legislative assembly]. Had this been here in England it would have been seen as a wasted vote.
But now there’s a Green TD in my old constituency in Dublin, and when I voted for the Greens in Dublin I knew even if they didn’t win that my vote wouldn’t be wasted and that my other preferences would count. However I cast my vote, if my first preference doesn’t get in, the transfers have consequences.
The whole electoral system in Ireland makes me feel my vote is a positive one rather than a negative one. In the UK I feel like I’m thinking about how to keep the party I don’t like out. But in Ireland I feel it’s about who’s best for the job. And I think more carefully about who is second or third best – an option I’d never get voting for MPs in Westminster.
Because it’s proportional, STV tends towards coalition governments. In Ireland, we’re used to that. I see that as a positive thing – that different parties and individuals should have to work together. It’s not just the majority dominating as happens in Westminster. You do get your frustrations – when there’s a coalition it’s often the junior partner who gets punished. But overall, I’m a fan of coalition government because I think the compromise it creates can be a good thing.
Compare that to First Past the Post, a system that has fostered so much more division in politics. The voting system is not the only reason people are so divided, but that winner-takes-all mentality has become so ingrained in Britain.
Labour and the Conservatives have always been the main parties in opposition or in government. I think when you see yourself as one of those two things it creates little space to even consider working together with others whichever side of the chamber they’re on. It creates a situation where everyone is very tribal. You can see this with the Brexit process. It’s always felt like it was about choosing sides rather than working together towards the best outcome.
Another interesting difference in Ireland is how the media covers the elections. Here it’s treated as a spectator sport. The story is the campaign and how the parties are competing. In Ireland it feels much more about the issues and what’s affecting people. Visiting Ireland recently, I was really refreshed by RTE’s [the Irish public broadcaster] coverage of the elections compared to British media coverage of the UK election – there was much more focus on issues and much less on personalities.
Because the whole process of government formation takes longer in Ireland there feels much less of a rush to make judgement. In the UK there’s a huge sense of triumphalism and failure right from the moment the exit poll is announced. The whole evening becomes about who lost and who won. There’s mass hysteria in the press, and on the other side indifference from the majority of voters who feel like they’re unrepresented in the result.
I realise that to some extent the media reflects the views of the public as well as shapes them – but in Ireland I feel there’s a more nuanced discussion in the press and I see that as a positive thing. It’s more than just a person from Labour versus a person from the Conservatives arguing things out.
In Ireland, having more than one TD for each constituency helps with this too. There’s not just one person speaking for you in the Dáil. My old constituency in Dublin has a range of parties representing it – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the Greens – there’s a range of voices speaking on behalf of the people who live there.
In Liverpool I only have one MP. She’s lovely, but it makes politics seem like single parties have a monopoly on an area – that one party is the identity of that area. This influences how people and governments see different bits of the country. Liverpool is seen as such a staunchly Labour area and it feels marginalised by successive Tory governments for that reason.
You don’t get that so much in Ireland; places aren’t seen as the territory of just one party. Parties know they can’t just ignore an area or take others for granted – because the whole constituency’s preferences matter.
Having had experience with both political systems, proportional representation and voting with STV is infinitely preferable to Westminster’s system. ‘Winner takes all’ politics is just so frustrating, and its problems go far beyond the ballot box.
I hope one day we’ll see a proportional system here in the UK so all voters will feel like their voices count and that they’re being represented. If it can happen in Ireland, I don’t see why the UK can’t do it too.
Photo: Creative Commons Attribution Licence, William Murphy, Flickr
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