With STV in Ireland, politicians cannot afford to ignore people

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

Posted on the 13th February 2020

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.

Feargal settled in the UK in the late 1980s, and is a mariner and a system architect. In his spare time, he’s been a school governor, a charity trustee and a kids football coach. We spoke to him 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.

At school in Ireland, the STV system was explained to us in our Civics class, and I understood very well how it worked and the mathematics behind it. It made absolute sense to me.

I think one of my first votes in the UK was for a local council and I had to put an X in multiple boxes for multiple candidates. I remember thinking “This is really weird. Doesn’t this mean that the party with the largest vote share will get all the seats?” And I was correct.

It didn’t make sense. I couldn’t understand why people were happy to accept this lack of representation.

When I lived in Ireland I was quite active in my trade union and in issue groups. One of the tactics we used was to each lobby ALL of our local TDs (MPs) on the issue concerned.

Our members were able to go to a number of TDs saying “You are my TD. What are ya going to do about this?”

Very few of them, whatever their political leanings, would take the chance that I and my voice could be dismissed, whatever the whips were saying. So the opposition TDs used us to have a pop at the govt, but the govt TDs especially the backbenchers gave their ministers a hard time, and we achieved real concessions.

In Surrey where I live, I have contacted (usually by email) a couple of the local MPs – one for my home, and the other for my business, and both have been dismissive of concerns. And it works, because I don’t bother contacting them anymore.

In Ireland under STV, the TDs know that small shifts in opinion will affect who gets elected. They want everyone’s vote, even if it’s not the first preference: they all want to be your second and third preference. They can not afford to ignore people.

In Surrey, 11 Tory MPs received just 53% of the votes cast. That’s just 39% of the electorate, or 28% of the population. So the rest of us are just ignored. Brexit has really heightened these divisions. My MP is in thrall to his leader and his whips (political), not his constituents. They don’t matter.

I think this last General Election was a single issue one which, under FPTP, made the outcome even more perverse than usual. While the opposition tried to move the debate beyond Brexit, the winner-takes-all system polarises the debate. The Conservatives have 56% of the seats on 43% of the votes cast. And this is not just Tory-bashing. I said very similar things in 1997 when Blair won 63% of the seats on just 43% of the vote or 31% of the electorate.

But the next election needs to be another single-issue election – this time voting reform. Otherwise, voters will be silenced time and again.

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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