The Independent View: Three myths about PR – and one uncomfortable truth

Jason O’Mahony was a former activist and candidate for the now defunct Irish Progressive Democrats. He now blogs on politics at www.jasonomahony.ie .

Let’s be honest. In the darkest chambers of British psephologist hell, beneath the pit of Parliament Channel subscribers, and even deeper than the cavern of sweaty handed ‘I’ve just found a 1970 Enoch Powell election poster. In crisp condition!’ enthusiasts, there is a special place reserved for Proportional Representation aficionados. Even amongst political anoraks and people who feel passionately about Peter Snow they are the underclass.

Of course, as an Irish political activist, who has lived his entire life in a PR system, it’s different for us. In Ireland, the first-past-the-post crowd are pretty much non-existent, normally equating ‘the need for strong government’ with ‘the need to stop these pesky tribunal investigations into corruption’. There is a move for electoral reform, but it is for, ironically, a more proportional system than the Single Transferable Vote system we utilise, and there is a good reason for it. Yet, as a student of British politics, I can’t help thinking that our voting system would actually suit you guys better than it suits us.

What’s fascinating is the complete blanket of pigheaded ignorance that covers understanding this form of PR in the UK. It’s kind of like listening to an American tourist tell his friends that ‘the Queen is, like the president, dude. She’s in charge, and stuff’. In short, most British opinion expressed about STV is nonsense. So let’s dip into the old chestnut bucket and right a few wrongs.

The key to STV, which, by the way, is a British invention,  is that it doesn’t ‘waste’ votes. You want to vote for the Monster Raving I Wish They’d Bring Back The Victorian Cape For Men Party, but are afraid that might split the anti Tory/Labour vote? Not under STV, it won’t. STV says “ Go on: vote for whomever you want, and if your favourite can’t get elected, we’ll take your vote, and give it to your next preference, and so on until all the seats are filled.” Yes, there is a formula involved but surely the nation of Carol Vorderman can figure it out. If the Victorian Cape guy only gets a hundred votes, those votes are then distributed according to whomever the voter decided to give their second, third and fourth preferences to. It lets people vote UKIP without letting Lib Dems squeak through, or vote Lib Dem without letting Labour squeak through. Yet it’s still dogged by myth.

Myth one: It gives power to the party bosses.
This will come as news to most Irish party leaders. In Ireland, as in the UK, it is true that party bosses have started centralising power and moving selection powers away from the members and towards the leadership. Yet here’s the thing: The rejected candidates run anyway, and get elected too. In the 2007 Irish general election, for example, three deputies who had been either expelled or denied nominations by their respective parties ran and were elected. A further eight deputies were re-elected despite having held their seats in the past for other parties. There was none of the usual Tory/Labour “I’m defecting, get me and my butler out of here and into a safe seat pronto!” nonsense either. All were re-elected in the same constituencies they had previously represented, by voters who decided to stand by the candidate againstthe party bosses. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are only 166 seats in Dail Eireann, so 11 seats is significant. It’s a much rarer occurrence under first past the post.

Myth two: It breaks the constituency link.
If you ever have a hankering for getting your head kicked in, just tell an Irish TD that he doesn’t do any constituency work. It’s only in recent years that legislation has been passed, much to the chagrin of sitting deputies, to prevent TDs from holding seats on county councils. Indeed, in 1987, the then deputy for Dublin Central, Bertie Ahern, was a member of Dublin City Council, Lord Mayor of Dublin City, and cabinet Minister for Labour, all at the same time. In fact, Ahern’s constituency machine was so efficient that it was alleged to be able to keep a track on births, marriages and deaths in his constituency more effectively than the local authority.

Ahern was notorious as Taoiseach for leaving European Council meetings early in order to attend sporting events in the constituency, and it was not unusual to have the prime minister, as local deputy, call to one’s front door a number of times a year. The sitting Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, is not much different. Tip O’Neill once described all politics as local. Where do you think the great Democratic machines of Boston, New York and Chicago got it from?

Myth three: It gives small parties too much power
There are six parties in the Irish Parliament and there hasn’t been a majority single-party government since 1981. The current government is a three party coalition made up of Fianna Fail’s (Centrist) 78 seats, the Green Party with 6 seats, and the Progressive Democrats (Centre right liberal) with 2 seats. Already, I can hear the first past the post gang gnashing their teeth at the idea of two tiny parties “holding” the balance of power. But that’s just it. They don’t, because under STV, it is just as hard for a Green TD to get elected as a Fianna Fail TD. If they issue an unreasonable demand, to say, make a quarter pounder with cheese a class A drug, they too have to knock on the same doors and explain to voters why they caused an unnecessary election and they know it too. From 1987, Britain has had five general elections, and two governments. Ireland has had six general elections, after which Fianna Fail has led every single government after them. Britain has had four prime ministers. Ireland has had five. It’s hardly Italy. And anyway, what if a tiny party makes noise? They have voters too. The idea that a voter should only have her vote counted if she votes for one of the ‘approved’ parties is obscene and not just a little bit Kim Il Sung.

Who got an opportunity to vote for the Maastricht rebels directly? Surely their voters thought they were voting for John Major? Unlike in Ireland, where we can choose to give power to small parties, nobody got a chance to vote for Theresa Gorman or Iain Duncan Smith under an Official Bastard Party label. In fact, if they’d quit the Tories and run in the 1992 general election as anti-Maastricht rebels, how many of the rebels would have been returned against official Tory candidates? 

However it would be remiss of me not to address the key point that opponents of PR always make, which also happens to be true. It isharder to sweep a government from power. In Ireland, in the 1992 general election, The Irish Labour Party, the traditional third party, doubled their seats by railing against the then government, Fianna Fail. They then went into government with Fianna Fail. ‘Aha!’ cry the anti-PR brigade. At least under first past the post, an unpopular government can be cast out in what has been called a ‘Thursday night orgasm’.  Again, this is true. But consider the other side of things. Under STV, Tony Blair would not have won a majority with 35% of the vote in 2005. Yes, maybe a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would now be in power, but I wonder would Lib Dem MPs have been as quick to upset their soft Tory voters by dismissing the Lisbon treaty referendum pledge so quickly, or instead used it as a way of proving their relevance in government? Would ID cards or the general assault of civil liberties have got so far? Would the UK have had the poll tax?

The curious thing about those who demand the ‘smack of firm government’ is that they tacitly accept that they can’t get at least half the British people to agree with them. The leaders of governments with huge majorities, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair, both left office as remarkably divisive figures, because of those huge majorities allowing them to absolutely infuriate a majority of the people of the country, who had not voted for them. Perhaps it is time for a dose of ‘weak’ government, or at least a government that is afraid of what the people will do to it, not the other way around. By the way, in the following general election, the Irish Labour party lost half their seats. That’s another benefit of STV: It lets you tactically vote against someone by transferring your vote to all their opponents. 

There are other benefits too. It’s quite amusing to watch the ongoing nonsense of all-woman shortlists going on in British politics, trying to make a single seat system represent the electorate proportionately. I’m looking forward, in particular, to the Ulster Unionist Party running an all-Catholic shortlist, or maybe Sinn Fein running an all former British Army list. Under STV, with multi-seat constituencies, it becomes much easier just to run a mixed slate. Male/female. Pro-Europe/Eurosceptic. With or without moat. Political hack/person who has worked in a real job for part of their life. The choices are endless.

In short, STV isn’t perfect, but it increases the choices and freedom of the individual voter, and surely that is grounds enough for giving it a serious look.

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14 Comments

  • Ahhh, Jason. Wish I’d met you when I was in Dublin Lisbon campaigning with a few ex PDers.

    The British public’s opposition to STV is staggering, though Ireland’s system is definitely not perfect – the way it’s almost impossible to get rid of Fianna Fail and the way some seats can always reliably be returned just on a party vote. At least we have it in Scotland now, slightly.

  • Another Mark 26th Jan '10 - 4:54pm

    The main argument for STV in the UK is that the current system is not proportional, and therefore unfair and undemocratic. However, if people in Ireland think STV isn’t proportional enough, what’s the point of trying to get it adopted here rather than a properly proportional system?

  • Very good article. Thanks for the interesting read.

  • A good article if unfortunatly largely preaching to the converted here on LDV

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Jan '10 - 5:42pm

    Just to underscore the major advantage of proportional representation:

    Almost every voter has somebody in Parliament that they voted for, who they can expect to represent their views

    Compare this to the current UK system, which is “roughly one half of the voters did not vote for their MP, and can expect to get brushed off when raising issues that split down party lines”.

  • Evidence of recent decades suggests that changing FPTP would require a seismic political change. A hung parliament might be this, but this is most likely if LDs vote Tory in Lab/Con micromarginals but Labour where they lead by >10%. Incidentally, this complements a Lib Dem strategy of trying to pick-off the weaker locally of the two larger parties with the eventual aim of capturing second-place, thus ultimately allowing a shot at winning the seat.

  • Paul Griffiths 26th Jan '10 - 9:52pm

    Another Mark: Actually, the main argument in favour of STV is that it increases voter choice. Greater proportionality is a bonus. The debate is framed in terms of PR for tactical reasons.

  • Main reason why Fianna Fail stays in government so much is not because of the electoral system (at least compared with first past the post) because a large plurality of people keep voting for them if irland used FTPP then there would be a continuous Fianna Fail majority including in those rare instances in which a coalition is formed to exlude them.

    Furthermore if we’d had STV in this country we’d have been able to get rid of the conservatives ten years earlier and I doubt that scotland could elect anything but a labour governmant under FPTP.

    There may be instanses where a more propotianate system would allow more more anti Fianna Fial coalitions but it would be very narrow and potentialy unstable if it meant Fine Gael and Labour relying on several far left parties. A more proportianate system could also mean that the first two problems meantioned in the article may become an issue.Ther may be a case for tincreasing the maximum seat size to sixand trying to reduce the number of three seat constituensies (or whatever it is you call them) in ireland but otherwise I should think it was proportionate enough.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '10 - 10:22am


    The British public’s opposition to STV is staggering

    It is? What proportion of the British public know what STV is, let alone know what it is to the point of having a view on it? Given that most Labour and Conservative politicians are clueless on it, even those invited by national media to express their view on proportional representation, are ignorant of it to the point where if it was anything else it’d be a matter of humiliating embarrassment to expose such ignorance, I hardly suppose the average British citizen to have carefully weighed up the pros and cons and decided against. Or even to have carefully read the rubbish written about it by ignorant Labour and Conservative politicians and ignorant members of the commentariat, and come to an unfounded conclusion against.

    Of course, there is a highish proportion of people in these isles who HAVE experienced STV and thus do know something of what it is. But it would be too much to expect those who run our media commentary to think of calling on such people to express a view, when you could could instead pay an ignorant English MP or a star media commentator who thinks innumeracy is something to boast of to comment instead.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '10 - 10:25am

    It is perhaps a little strange that English journalists and media commentators know and can report in great deal on the elaborate system whereby the USA arrives at its government, but are entirely ignorant and report almost nothing on how the only country we have a land border with arrives at its government.

  • Or indeed how part of our own country arrives at its government.

  • @Benjamin – or, indeed, how Scotland elects its local authorities.

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