Ireland beats the UK in satisfaction with democracy

Megan Collins, former Student Placement

Posted on the 6th February 2020

In a new study, researchers at Cambridge University have ranked Ireland among just seven countries worldwide where more than 75% of citizens are content with democracy.

This high level of satisfaction ranks Ireland fifth in the global study and far above the UK who ranks 43rd of the 65 democracies worldwide.

Behind only Switzerland, Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway, Ireland joins New Zealand as the only majority English-speaking countries where satisfaction with democracy has not declined since the 1990s.

But what makes the Irish so content with their democratic system and how has Ireland bucked a global trend of increasing democratic dissatisfaction?

Unlike the majoritarian, ‘winner-takes-all’ systems used in most Westminster-style democracies, Ireland (as with New Zealand) uses a proportional voting system to elect its political leaders – a key factor which researchers suggest might be behind their greater democratic satisfaction.

Under the Single Transferable Vote, the system used in the upcoming Irish election, voters can choose to rank candidates to reflect their preferences. They can choose to vote for candidates across the same party, different parties or even independents safely knowing that each of their votes will count and the results will be proportional across their constituencies.

Whichever party tops the poll in this week’s election, will have to work with other parties to form a governing coalition – meaning that, unlike in the UK, no one party will dominate parliament and a range of voices will have to work together to govern.

It’s not hard to see why voters under these systems are more satisfied with their democratic structures when you compare it to the situation we have here with Westminster’s broken First Past the Post system.

Under First Past the Post, millions of voters are denied a say in who represents them in parliament if they live in one of the hundreds of UK constituencies which are considered so ‘safe’ and extremely unlikely to change hands in elections. In other seats the it often comes down to the two main parties meaning many, who would cast their vote for smaller parties, are forced into tactical voting – supporting the ‘lesser of two evils’ – or even not voting at all.

In the recent 2019 UK general election the Conservatives won 43.6% of the votes while taking 56.2% of the seats. Similarly, the Scottish National Party won 3.9% of the votes yet now occupy almost double the number of seats at 7.4%. This comes at the expense of smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, who despite winning 11.5% of the vote, only took 1.7% of the seats.

As long as we continue to use First Past the Post election results will continue to be warped but the winner-takes-all system and Westminster will fail to properly represent Britain – with seats in parliament failing to reflect the parties voters support. Compare this to the Irish polling data, which show a tight race between three parties who could potentially be part of a governing coalition, offering voters a choice based on their preferences rather than ‘holding their nose’ at the ballot box as they know, under STV, every vote will count.

 The only way for the UK to reverse this disillusionment with democracy is to join Ireland in introducing a proportional representation voting system like the Single Transferable Vote. Seats in parliament should match how we vote to ensure that people are not left voiceless or ignored, and that the system is fairer for all.

It is time politicians from all parties committed to making sure seats match votes in parliament. Only then, with a fairer voting system, can we begin to reverse this growing dissatisfaction with democracy.

Megan Collins is a placement student from the University of Nottingham

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