Electoral reform in the Republic is no panacea against crony capitalism

When a government is in deep trouble, everything is up for grabs, from lynching the leader to electoral reform. In the Republic, Irish Times Political editor Stephen Collins recently used his bully pulpit to call for a wholesale reform of the political system which has bred cronyism and one party rule for most of the State’s existence.

The air of unreality that still pervades Leinster House in the face of the biggest crisis to face the country since the second World War is a commentary on our much vaunted multi-seat PR system… It is a system that has given us one-party domination for the past quarter of a century with the inevitable development of crony capitalism and its disastrous consequences in the housing bubble and banking crisis.

Fine Gael veteran Gemma Hussey enters the fray with a call to abandon multi-member seats for TDs elected by STV ( single transferable vote) and replace them with party lists. Her criticism of the present system is scathing.

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members… .Ministers have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week attending local functions, holding clinics, going to funerals – they’ll lose their seats if they don’t.

And her way out?

“Our electoral system is almost unique. Most modern democracies of western Europe have some variant of a list system, combined with proportionality. This means that the voter may choose to vote for a party list, which will be written up in the polling booth. Distinguished and/or well-known citizens from a variety of walks of life will have been chosen by their parties to head up their lists. Side by side there are opportunities to vote for individuals too.”

I assume Mrs Hussey is going for open rather than closed lists, where voters are at least made aware in advance of who the candidates are. For the Scottish Parliament, a first-past-the-post vote in the AMS ( additional member) system along with a second vote from a regional list is designed to achieve stable government, with the top-up list to increase regional representation. While a list system on its own, without tying a TD to a particular constituency, might weaken a sense of local obligation, it might also weaken democratic accountability too. And who selects the list? It isn’t clear to me that party lists would reduce cronyism; the danger is that they could do the opposite or at best, produce anonymous, biddable ciphers. Certainly, there’s absolutely no guarantee that party bosses would chose only sea-green incorruptibles.

You would expect this critique from a member of the perennial also-ran party of the State – which is not to conclude that Mrs Hussey is necessarily wrong, only that she is scarred by experience. My own starting point for electoral reform is at the other end, with Enoch Powell’s dictum that any electoral system works if the parties agree to work it. Whatever his well-known faults, this is not a bad starting point for considering it. If consensus over the system has broken down, then we may be in the reform business. Otherwise, the issue is academic. And in any case. it’s no magic bullet.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London