Fintan O’Toole annoys me as much as the next person, but when he gets it right does he ever get it right. His column in today’s Times (subs required) says exactly what I have been wanting to say since this Aer Lingus story first broke. Actually, it says exactly what I’ve been thinking since the election. Undoubtedly, it says what I’ll be thinking after the next election too, because in all likelihood the Irish voters will grumble and whinge for the next five years about what a shower of bastards we have in office and then on polling day they’ll go right back and put that shower in again. And then complain when they do the things that Irish politicians do. And so on, ad nauseum.
But we all know this; the question is what do we do about it. Usually the problem is identified as the peculiarly clientelist nature of (southern) Irish politics, and electoral reform is put forward as the solution: get rid of the dual mandate, for example, and TDs won’t have to focus so much on issues properly in the purview of councillors.
That hasn’t worked.
Increasingly the multi-seat constituency is coming under fire: TDs are competing with their party colleagues, the argument goes, and so there’s a great incentive for them to try to build up support from the voters through parish pump type stuff. I’m not convinced by this. For one thing, it doesn’t happen in the US, although the primary system there also means that candidates compete with party colleagues. Of course the party whip system doesn’t exist in the US so party colleagues can compete with each other on ideological grounds, something they can’t do here. But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t really be said to be competing on ideological grounds, either, so a system under which their candidates are competing with each other (and other parties) rather than first and foremost amongst themselves is hardly likely to eliminate the incentive for them to boost their support through constituency work.
Some of my own party colleagues are in favour of introducing some sort of list system, in which, for example, half the Dáil is elected in the current manner, while the other half is selected by party officials according to the percentage of vote that each party receives. Presumably, the ‘appointed’ TDs would not be bound to do constituency work, not having any constituency to be bound to. There’s merit in that argument, but I can’t help thinking that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about allowing them to be chosen by appointment rather than directly by the people. We complain about this in the Seanad (not that that stopped us … well I won’t go there for now) so I don’t really see how we can support it in the Dáil. The wild optimists also think that this system would increase the extent to which the electorate votes on ideological grounds, because they know they are not just voting for their candidate but for his or her entire party. Again, unconvincing. At the last election voters knew they were voting not just for their TD but for their government, and what did they do? Voted in the same shower of bastards they keep complaining about … again.
I’m not sure what the answer is, or whether it can be found through electoral reform at all. Clearly a cultural change is needed - Irish voters do need to stop thinking of their TD as their councillor, social worker, all-purpose-fixer-upper – but there’s no guarantee that would stop them electing the same old crooks time after time, anyway. I’m sure I don’t need to point to examples in other countries to demonstrate this. Whether it’s PR-STV, FPTP, party list, whatever, the bottom line is that nothing is going to change until the voters take it upon themselves to decide that they aren’t going to put up with it anymore.
And if you think that’s going to happen any time soon, I have a landing slot in Shannon to sell you.