Ireland’s TV debates show the difference the electoral system makes

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 6th February 2020

On Tuesday the 4th February, ITV’s political editor Robert Peston tweeted:

There are of course many factors that impact on how politicians behave. While Italy has been debating changing their system recently, whatever electoral system they use, the long history of massive regional differences, organised crime and centrism combined with ideological polarisation will have a huge impact.

But as a former part of the United Kingdom, some direct comparisons can be made between the Irish Dáil and House of Commons here in the UK. Whilst votes for Westminster are decided under First Past the Post, Ireland has used the Single Transferable Vote since the foundation of the State. This system means that Ireland has a parliament that reflects the different political opinions in the country, and all the candidates are directly elected as individuals.

How does the electoral system lead to “The three leaders [with] a detailed grasp of complex welfare and tax issues, they are polite and courteous, they admit mistakes, they say sorry”? The electoral system sets the rules of the game in politics. It shapes the behaviour of politicians who know that to be elected they have to play by the rules.

First Past the Post is a one-person-takes-all system where MPs don’t need the support of the majority of their constituents. Entire election campaigns are based around the idea that if you vote for a third party, you risk letting in whichever of the two main parties you like the least – rather than offering positive reasons to vote for a party’s candidate.

The political parties have the whole system locked down as it is incredibly difficult for independents to get elected. Since 1950, only 9 independents have been elected from constituencies in Great Britain. Voters know that a vote for a candidate that isn’t already in first or second choice will almost always make no difference.

Over in Ireland on the other hand, there are more independents in parliament now than there have been in the last 50 years in the UK. The leaders of all the political parties know that voters can simply vote for different candidates if theirs are not up to scratch. Due to the STV system, candidates can’t fall back on threats of ‘vote for me or X will get in’ or ‘a vote for Y is a wasted vote’ if it turns out they don’t understand, and offer solutions to, the issues that matter to their constituents. Instead, they need to actually compete to win their seat on their own merits.

Candidates can’t fall back on threats of ‘vote for me or X will get in’ or ‘a vote for Y is a wasted vote’ when every vote matters Click To Tweet

In a competitive election, candidates and parties need to up their game. But also, under STV, it doesn’t help to whip up divisions between groups to try and win seats. Under First Past the Post ‘Vote for me or X will get in’ requires there to be sufficient animosity between supporters of each candidate for it to be a useful tool. Under STV candidates need to try and win second and third preferences from voters, which leads to candidates engaging with the supporters of their opponents to see what they have in common, rather than inflating their differences.

Unlike in the UK, where all the parties go into elections claiming they will win outright and refuse to talk in advance about potential coalition deals – leading discussions to only start after the election – in Ireland candidates for Prime Minister openly talk in advance about who they would go into coalition with. Rather than the done-deals of Westminster’s ‘broad-tent’ coalition parties, where all the factional fighting happens behind closed doors and only two options get presented to the public, the voters are involved in shaping the strengths of the different parties in government.

The skills needed to work in a proportional parliament are also different. The Brexit process highlighted the difficulties of spending years working in an environment where the government can pass anything it wants, to one where the government actually needs to build support for a policy among MPs. It can be hard for MPs to re-learn lessons learnt over a career of ‘a stealing a narrow win’ being sufficient.

Changing the electoral system cannot solve every issue in the UK. But, from the back-pass rule in football to the three-point field goal in basketball, if you change the rules of the game, common sense shows that the players will play it differently. If your apples keep going bad, maybe it’s time for a new barrel. It’s time we upgraded how politics is played in this country.

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